BACKGROUND: It was with heedful optimism that the new round of UN brokered peace talks in Cyprus resumed on August 23. The Turkish and Greek sides have agreed to accomplish a viable agreement by September 14, which will further be discussed at the UN General Assembly.
Since April last year, when Mustafa Akıncı was elected leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, both he and Nicos Anastasiades, the President of Cyprus, elected by the Greek community, have been displaying responsible leadership by committing sincerely to the negotiation process. The two leaders have set 2016 as the target year to achieve an agreement, and now appear to have taken the necessary actions in this regard. Diplomatic circles also acknowledge their greater sense of emergency to sign a deal compared to their predecessors and their courage to dive into frozen “taboo” issues.
It is reported that such leadership has paved the way for compromise on crucial chapters such as the political system, judiciary, economy, European affairs, population ratio (803,000 Greek Cypriots to 220,000 Turkish Cypriots) and the “four freedoms”, meaning the right for all citizens to own property, reside, work and travel freely all over the island. Nevertheless, the issue of “security and guarantees” is yet to be discussed in more detail. That is the Achilles heel of the reunification process.
The Turkish Cypriot side expects to go into these details with Turkey’s assistance, along with the two other guarantor countries, Greece and the United Kingdom. The 1960 “Treaty of Guarantee” has given these three states the right to intervene against threats to Cyprus’ security and territorial integrity. The Greek Cypriots have for long demurred against the guarantee system and are overtly infuriated by the idea of seeing Turkey taking part in the unification talks. Obviously, their resentment against Ankara is rooted in the traumatic past of the conflict. The 1960 Guarantee Treaty served as a justification for Turkey’s military intervention in 1974, which took place after the military regime in Greece had staged a coup against Cypriot president Makarios. The result was the present division of the island between a Greek South and a Turkish North, where Turkey retains a 35,000 strong military presence.
The past is a burden also for the Turkish Cypriots. They continue to owe a certain allegiance to Turkey for both tangible and sentimental reasons. Turkey has been the sole country that has recognized their self-declared “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus”, providing crucial financial input, amounting to a total of 1 billion US dollars a year (including aid, credits and various public investments) representing 25 percent of the annual Gross Domestic Product of their embargoed territory. Turkey has always held a strong place in Turkish Cypriots’ collective mind as a saviour and protector, the “motherland” according to a popular metaphor particularly referred to by nationalistic political circles represented by the UBP (The National Union Party) that has been the strongest political party in the north until recently.
Against this background, the Turkish Cypriot leader Akıncı alleviates both the anti and pro-Turkey sentiments. When he came to power, he promptly stated that Turkish Cypriots would prefer to see Turkey as a brother and not a motherland, suggesting that he wanted to put in place a more symmetrical relation. Yet, Akinci still believes that guarantees are important for Turkish Cypriots, who have another asymmetrical relationship, with the Cypriot government that represents the whole of the island before the international community. The Cypriot leader has refrained from creating tension with Ankara in order not to jeopardize the momentum of the ongoing bilateral talks. His strategy seems to be delaying the ultimate settling and eliminating disagreements to the largest extent possible before the deadline.
IMPLICATIONS: The legacy of the past unavoidably creates concerns over “if” and “how” Turkey’s status would distort the peace process. Nevertheless, the reactions of both the Turkish government and those of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have so far been low-key. Ankara has not reacted in a way that would suggest that it will be an obstacle to a final agreement. On the contrary, there has been support for the peace talks.
In fact, Turkey has been losing its stranglehold over North Cyprus since the 2011 economic crisis there, despite increased investments in public projects. Akıncı’s rise to power was itself a strong expression that Turkey’s influence has declined, considering that he has been a prominent advocate of unification, a Cypriot, and not a Turkish nationalist. Moreover, Turkey may stand to lose additional ground in the wake of the attempted military coup on July 15. The Greek side occasionally uses this incidence to urge the Turkish Cypriots to emancipate from an “unstable” Turkey. Indeed, the fact that Turkey faces instability at home while Cyprus has embarked on the path to a peace deal makes the notion that Ankara’s guarantor status remains essential for the Turkish Cypriots harder to defend. Concurrently, it would be a wise and preferable choice for Turkey – which faces multiple internal and external challenges to its order and stability – to refrain from involving itself in a conflict over a Cypriot peace deal.
Indeed, this also seems to be recognized by Ankara. The government of Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is working with the motto “earning more friends than enemies”. With such a mindset, the Turkish government might be open for dialogue with Cyprus.
Upon its formation, Yıldırım’s government signed a reconciliation agreement with Israel, ending the five year long crisis between Turkey and Israel. Now, the Turkish government expects to re-establish the relationship with Israel on a pragmatic basis and engage in deeper economic partnership, particularly in the area of energy. Turkey and Israel are likely to expand it to the commercialization of Israeli natural gas reserves. Nevertheless, Israel partakes also in tripartite energy cooperation with Cyprus and Egypt. These countries aim to commercialize the 2,000 billion cubic metres of natural gas discovered in their joint “Exclusive Economic Zones” (EEZ). The three partners have agreed to construct a transport route towards Europe through Egypt, but Israel questions the feasibility of this route as the fall in natural gas prices has increased its financial burden.
The possibility to use a route via Turkey would require a pipeline going through the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone. However, before granting access to its EEZ, Nicosia expects Ankara to adopt a friendlier posture, particularly in economic relations. According to the Cypriot minister of Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism, such a project could only be realized if Turkey extends the customs union that it has with the rest of the EU to the EU member Cyprus.
So far, Turkey’s attempts to restore its bilateral relations in the Middle East have not seen its relation to Cyprus improve. On the contrary, the Cypriot government remains unfavorable to Turkey as it pursues its energy ambitions.
The Turkish government, as a guarantor power, asserts the Turkish Cypriots’ rights to the island’s natural gas reserves, while the Cypriot government insists on a strict separation between the peace talks and the energy issues. In this vein, Nicosia on August 31 signed a pipeline agreement with Egypt, ignoring Turkish Cypriots’ protests.
Nonetheless, Turkey’s regional interests would not be served by mounting a conflict with Cyprus over this issue. This would go against the interests of the Turkish Cypriots who are anticipating a positive outcome from the peace talks.
CONCLUSIONS: The Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaderships have certainly overcome a significant psychological threshold by engaging in a permanent dialogue. However, they need to build more trust in matters concerning Turkey. The legacy of the past may make this difficult, but it should also be noted that Turkey has adopted a low-key profile since the beginning of the present unification talks between the Cypriot leaders, which augurs well for the future.
Moreover, Turkey’s internal problems decrease its capacity to obstruct the negotiations. In all likelihood, Turkey’s position on the future of Cyprus is going to be determined by how the dividends of the new energy reserves will ultimately be shared in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Ozan Serdaroğlu, Ph.D., is an Associated Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, Sweden
Image attribution: www.civaka-azad.org, accessed on September 6, 2016