The more the merrier? Not always…
Turkey is surrounded by conflict on every side: the Greece-Turkey conflict was simmering all summer, while northern Syria continues to be a hotbed of conflict, with one side hosting the protracted Kurdish conflict, and the jihadist or “Syrian rebel” enclave of Idlib hosting the other. The “sleeping” conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh in the Caucasus woke up and erupted fast into a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the other “deep frozen” conflict of Cyprus is getting tenser by day.
There are two reasons why the Cyprus question has started to simmer again: for one, peace talks hosted by the United Nations are expected soon after Northern Cyprus’ presidential elections are finalized. The new president of Northern Cyprus will be heading to a meeting hosted by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres that will convene three guarantors, Greece, Turkey and Britain, and the leaders of Cyprus, defrosting the peace talks.
The second situation that is heating up the Cyprus question is the European Union’s demand from Turkey that Ankara take reconciliatory steps towards Nicosia — at the same time that it also take reconciliation steps towards Athens.
As might be recalled, and as I have written previously, the Conclusion on External Relations issued after the EU Council Special Meeting on October 1-2 was as follows:
“Provided constructive efforts to stop illegal activities vis-à-vis Greece and Cyprus are sustained, the European Council has agreed to launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda with a specific emphasis on the modernization of the Customs Union and trade facilitation, people to people contacts, high level dialogues, continued cooperation on migration issues, in line with the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement. The European Council invites its President, in cooperation with the President of the Commission and with the support of the High Representative, to develop a proposal for re-energizing the EU-Turkey agenda to this effect.”
In other words, the EU tied its own relations with Turkey to the conditionality of Ankara-Nicosia relations. And it is never a good idea to entangle relations with Turkey to anything related to Cyprus: such plans fail miserably. Just recall the Annan Plan referendums.
Sunday’s ballot in Northern Cyprus has left two frontrunners in the second round, which is to take place on October 18: current President Mustafa Akıncı and current Prime Minister Ersin Tatar. The former is intensely disliked by Ankara, and the latter intensely liked and supported. Sunday’s voting may have been the “most interfered-with Turkish Cypriot elections ever” by Ankara — so much so that I mistook Ersin Tatar’s election posters for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s at first glance. The colors, design, and layout of Tatar’s posters were the same as Erdoğan’s.
But intervention was not just by “design” through the visuals: the opening of Varosha/Maraş to the public (i.e. Turkish Cypriots) was by far almost a “coup” against Akıncı. Dubbed the “French Riviera of the East,” Varosha has been off limits to all except military personnel since 1974, when Cyprus was partitioned after Turkey’s invasion.
Once the holiday resort of Hollywood celebrities like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Raquel Welch, Varosha succumbed to becoming a ghost town after the war in Cyprus. The houses and hotels in Varosha were left abruptly by their owners and customers right as the military intervention by Turkey began — meals were left half-eaten, glasses were half full, personal items were intact.
When there was the actual possibility of peace, bicommunal projects were devised to render Varosha “truly Cypriot” once more, or in other words, inhabited by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The “Annan Plan” by the United Nations (meaning the fifth and final version that was forwarded to referendums) foresaw Varosha’s administration being handed over to Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots voted for the Annan Plan and Greek Cypriots voted against it, and that was the nail in the coffin of the idea of a “United Cyprus Republic.”
Akıncı alleged he witnessed things in these elections that he had never seen in his 45 years in politics: in the last debate prior to elections, Akıncı even argued that he had been “advised” to withdraw from the elections by “someone working for the Turkish intelligence, for his own good and that of the people close to him, the country, and the motherland.” Moreover, according to Akıncı, parliamentarians from the government in Ankara and its electoral coalition partner Nationalist Action Party (MHP) were working in Northern Cyprus, actively campaigning against him.
In short, the elections in Northern Cyprus have turned into a referendum whether to unite with Turkey or reject unification. The “Unification of Northern Cyprus with Turkey” is an impossible idea: it is just as utopic as the unilateral opening of Varosha or turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Such possibilities seem “impossible” one day, but they are reality the next.
On Sunday, turnout was at a record low, with just under 55% of voters going to the polls: around 7% lower than previous presidential elections. Will Northern Cypriots overcome their apathy for politics in general?
Next weekend’s second round of presidential elections in Northern Cyprus is really a wildcard for the future of Turkey’s belligerent foreign policy and its, at best, “lukewarm” relations with the EU.