No movement in the mediation deadlock

On his recent visit to Cyprus, Turkish President Erdogan continued to bang his two-state drum, insisting that this is now the only viable option for the divided island. By announcing the next phase of a plan to partially reopen the coastal resort of Varosha for Turkish Cypriot settlement, he is once again pushing his own agenda. By Ronald Meinardus in Istanbul

By Ronald Meinardus

It's all part of the job – and as Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres would be well-advised to be patient: "I won't give up," said the Spaniard after the collapse of informal talks in Geneva, again brought to a close without any tangible results: "To square the circle is an impossibility in geometry but in politics it is very common," said the thwarted negotiator with cautious calculated optimism on the renewed failure of his mission.

The division of Cyprus goes back to the year 1974 when Greek putschists initially attempted to overthrow the government of Archbishop Makarios in a bid to annex the island to Greece. Turkey then launched a military intervention, resulting in a de facto division of the island into a majority Greek Cypriot south and a majority Turkish Cypriot north. The Cyprus question has featured regularly on the global organisation's agenda ever since.

Whenever António Guterres negotiates between the Cypriot ethnic groups, he does so on behalf of the UN Security Council. Over the years – in the meantime these have run into decades – the highest UN body has repeatedly urged that the division be overcome and that an amicable solution be found for the conflict-torn Mediterranean island. But one can hardly fail to notice that so far, all international attempts at mediation – including the most recent round of talks – have ended in failure.

Diligent UN officials have over the years made detailed written records of the progress of negotiations. Deliberately leaked protocols show that on more than one occasion – most recently in 2017 – the conflict parties have come very close to a comprehensive solution. But each time, a lack of will on the part of political leaders hampered a breakthrough.

Map showing the division of the island of Cyprus (source:
The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 following a coup that deposed Archbishop President Makarios in a bid to force the union of the island with Greece. Turkey responded by launching a military intervention that resulted in the de facto division of the island into the majority Greek Cypriot south and the majority Turkish Cypriot north, which is only recognised by Turkey

Erdogan's mantra

Meanwhile, with every year that passes, the "normative power of the actual" works against an overcoming of the division. "We don't intend to make compromises," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his visit to Northern Cyprus on 20 July. According to Erdogan's oft-repeated mantra, Ankara will only consider a two-state solution. "All other offers and suggestions are no longer valid," he said.

Along with the rejection of the thus far mandatory target for negotiations, to achieve a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation within the framework of UN talks – Erdogan says that Turkey will do all it can to internationally upgrade the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC), which is recognised by Ankara alone: "We will do everything possible to ensure that the Turkish Cypriot state is recognised as soon as possible," he said.

Following Erdogan's announcements ahead of his visit to Cyprus, it was generally expected that Ankara's closest diplomatic allies – the Turkish media spoke primarily of Azerbaijan and Pakistan – would recognise the internationally isolated republic just in time for the 47th anniversary of the Turkish invasion. So far, however, no such step has been taken.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to talks, the European Union made it known that it regarded the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus as sacrosanct: "I want to repeat that we will never, ever accept a two-state solution. We are firm on that and very united," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on a visit to Nicosia in early July.

The "good news" that Erdogan promised to bring to Cyprus and which he announced ahead of his visit included the announcement that he intended to push ahead with plans to partially reopen the resort of Varosha, abandoned in the 1974 invasion. This means Erdogan is pushing his own narrative against UN resolutions that stipulate that Varosha should be placed under UN administration and real estate returned to its Greek Cypriot owners.

This "ghost town" has repeatedly played an important role in past negotiations. Most recently, the Greeks suggested that the resettlement of the resort under UN supervision would be a trust-building measure. For years now, the UN has been demanding that the area, which is under Turkish military control, should be placed under its administration and released for a return to its lawful owners.

The abandoned resort of Varosha, seen through a wire fence (photo: Christina Assi/AFP/Getty Images)
The abandoned resort of Varosha in northern Turkey: ahead of his recent visit to the divided island, Turkish President Erdogan promised to partially reopen the resort of Varosha. On 29 July, The UN Security Council again demanded that Turkey and Turkish Cypriots immediately reverse all actions to reopen the abandoned resort of Varosha and backed further talks "in the near future" on reunifying the divided Mediterranean island. In a resolution adopted unanimously extending the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus for six months, the council stressed "the need to avoid any unilateral action that could trigger tensions on the island and undermine the prospects for a peaceful settlement."

Turkey's unilateral announcement

No sooner had Erdogan made his plan public in Cyprus, the Varosha question was up for debate at the UN Security Council in New York. The council condemned the Turkish plans for Varosha and expressed its "deep regret" over Ankara's actions. Previously, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell criticised Turkey's "unilateral decision", which he said would lead to renewed tensions on the island and endanger the resumption of talks on a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus question.

Erdogan's most important ally in the furtherance of the two-state policy approach is the President of the TRNC, Ersin Tatar, who was elected in October last year. Tatar prevailed in a tight race that went to a run-off vote against the moderate incumbent Mustafa Akinci. Erdogan and the AKP have never made any secret of their support for Tatar, who represents an unwaveringly nationalistic position: "We'll never allow our ties with Turkey to be broken," says Tatar, who is slammed by his opponents as Erdogan's compliant vassal.

"Erdogan treats him like his private secretary," comments Fehim Tastekin on the online portal Al Monitor. "This attitude inevitably evokes Turkey's annexation of Northern Cyprus as the ultimate scenario in his mind, " writes Tastekin.

But within Turkish Cypriot politics, the relationship to the Turkish motherland is by no means uncontroversial. When two opposition parties boycotted the Turkish President's speech to the Turkish Cypriot parliament, it was a clear demonstration that by no means all of the island's Turks are supporters of Erdogan's two-state policy. Notwithstanding the overwhelming reliance of Turkish Cypriots on its powerful neighbour, which is further exacerbated by the international isolation, and the well-advanced integration with the economy of the mainland, the desire for Cypriot autonomy remains – also in the north of the island.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of the TRNC, Ersin Tatar (left), during Erdogan's visit to Northern Cyprus, July 2021 (photo: Mustafa Oztartan/Presidential Press Office/Reuters)
Erdogan's most important ally in the furtherance of the two-state policy approach is the President of the TRNC, Ersin Tatar, who was elected in October 2020. "Erdogan and the AKP have never made any secret of their support for Tatar, who represents an unwaveringly nationalistic position: 'We'll never allow our ties with Turkey to be broken,' says Tatar, who is slammed by his opponents as Erdogan's compliant vassal," writes Ronald Meinardus

Majority support for a federation

This is borne out not least by recent opinion polls. According to these, a clear majority of Cypriots would like to see for the north of the island an agreement on the basis of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation – a solution also favoured by the United Nations. Among Turkish Cypriots, 64 per cent of those polled supported this solution, in the south it was 67 per cent.

One of the contributing factors to the deadlock has been the decades-long failure of the Greek Cypriot side to make political capital out of the evidently conciliatory mood in the north and thereby create the basis for a uniform Cypriot community.

Greek discourse on the Cyprus question often touches on "missed opportunities" (chamenes evkairies). Indeed, in the history of talks on Cyprus, there has on more than one occasion been a moment when the Turkish side – in Ankara and on the island – was far more forthcoming than it is today. An oft-cited example is the Annan Plan from 2004 based on the Swiss model of federalism. In a referendum, the majority of Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of the plan; in the south of the island, a majority voted against it following a number of heated debates.

But the year 2004 does not just stand for the failure of the most important and time-consuming international mediation since the division of the island. That was also the year that the Republic of Cyprus gained full membership of the European Union. Since then, the unresolved Cyprus question is also entirely a European problem.

Hopes that Cyprus' full membership would facilitate agreement on the island have not been realised. The opposite is true: the Cyprus question has served to further heighten already tense relations between Turkey and the EU. In line with the bloc's rationale, Brussels consistently espouses the positions of Greece and the Greek Cypriot dominated Republic of Cyprus. Consequently, Ankara does not accept the EU as mediator, instead viewing the Europeans as a conflict party.

From a European perspective, bringing Turkey closer to the EU fold might be the only way out of the dilemma. In the light of the current political deadlock however, this is a hypothetical prospect – and wishful thinking indeed.

As the Secretary-General of the UN said: in politics, the squaring of the circle is a possibility. It's just that when it comes to Cyprus, we've been waiting half a century for confirmation of that theory.

Ronald Meinardus

© 2021           

Translated from the German by Nina Coon