The former Swedish ambassador to the Republic of Cyprus, Ingemar Lindhahl, once called the Cyprus problem “the graveyard of diplomats”.
As things stand, the five negotiating parties – Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the Turkish Cypriot leadership – are in for another funeral.
The five parties are meeting between the 27th and the 29th of April in Geneva to hold an informal conference on the Cyprus problem under the auspices of the United Nations.
The talks aim to grasp whether there is fertile ground to restart the negotiations with the hope of solving the protracted conflict that has left the island in limbo and under a de facto partition since 1974.
Arguably the environment and the recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean should not fill anyone with confidence regarding a successful restart to the negotiations. Over the last 15 years, significant hydrocarbon discoveries off the coast of Cyprus, Egypt and Israel were seen as a gateway to the solution of the Cyprus problem, given that the cheapest way to transfer natural gas from the region to Europe was via Turkey. In the minds of many policymakers, that was a win-win situation.
Alas, what seemed like a prospect for peace has turned into another sore point in the already troubled relationships of the involved parties.
Greece and Turkey have seen their bilateral relations plummet to the lowest point in more than 20 years after a prolonged naval standoff in the Eastern Mediterranean between August and November 2020.
Recently, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias clashed with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on national television during the former’s visit to Ankara on April 15, highlighting that the hopes for a solution to their outstanding issues in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.
Simultaneously, the Turkish navy has conducted research for oil and gas in maritime areas that the Republic of Cyprus considers part of its own Exclusive Economic Zone since 2018, exacerbating tensions even further.
One can understand that achieving a solution to an intractable and protracted conflict would be tricky, if not impossible, in such a climate.
First and foremost, the two sides will begin negotiations from very different viewpoints.
On the Turkish Cypriot side, the new leader of the Turkish Cypriot community Ersin Tatar is a staunch proponent of a two-state solution to the Cyprus problem, a position backed by Turkey.
The Turkish and Turkish Cypriot position goes against the internationally accepted position of solving the Cyprus problem based on a bizonal and bicommunal federation which was also supported by Tatar’s predecessor Mustafa Akıncı.
On the Greek Cypriot side, the government comes to the negotiating table advocating that the only acceptable solution is a bizonal bicommunal federation hoping to restart the negotiations from where they left off in 2017 when a solution according to the UN was within reach, but the negotiations faltered at the eleventh hour.
Lately, allegations have surfaced among Greek Cypriots against President Anastasiades and his inner circle that they should be blamed for the failure of 2017. According to the allegations, Anastasiades did not move forward with a solution because he feared that a solution would mean the end of the Cypriot Investment Programme – a citizenship by investment programme – that benefited him and his close associates. Additionally, prominent journalists and the Archbishop of Cyprus, a highly influential figure in Cypriot politics, have disclosed that the President discussed the prospect of a two state-solution with them. For most Greek Cypriots, such a prospect is an anathema.
The only party that can turn the climate on its head and lead to a restart of negotiations in Geneva is Turkey and President Erdogan. The internationally unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is militarily and financially dependent on Turkey. Hence, if Turkey moves away from a two-state solution to a federal state, there is very little Tatar can do.
The question is, why would Turkey choose such a path? Before attempting to answer this question, two facts need to be acknowledged. First, the Turkish economy at the moment is trying to cope with a severe financial crisis that has seen the lira’s value plummet over the past couple of months with unemployment remaining high and the overall macroeconomic picture of the country being “vulnerable and uncertain”, according to the World Bank. Second, Turkey has toned down the assertiveness that defined its foreign policy in late 2020. During that time, the Turkish navy faced off the Greek navy, Turkish troops were deployed in Libya to support the Government of National Accord and military support was provided to Azerbaijan in its brief war with Armenia.
In many respects, the prolonged economic crisis faced by the Turkish government has led Erdogan to attempt and secure new sources of funding and lifelines to the country’s economy. The EU is his first stop, given Turkey’s already extensive economic relations with the bloc. EU officials noted this during their visit to Turkey earlier this month. However, the deepening of Turkey’s ties with the EU and a reset to Turkey’s membership bid rests on Turkey’ goodwill towards the EU.
Additionally, the change of government in the USA and the defeat of Donald Trump meant that Erdogan would not enjoy a personal relationship with the resident of the White House. Additionally, the Biden administration has already signalled that while it wishes to reconcile its differences with Turkey.
Turkey will not be a free hand in the region, especially where Turkish actions run counter to US interests. The removal of Turkey from the F-35 programme and the new round of sanctions against Turkish officials indicate this.
A solution to the Cyprus problem would be a significant step towards strengthening of EU-Turkey and US-Turkey ties. The Cyprus problem has remained a thorn in the relationship of Turkey with both the EU and the US for many years. A solution would make waves prompting both the EU and the US to consider providing financial aid and support to Turkey seriously. It would also significantly ease tensions between Greece and Turkey, possibly fostering another period of détente.
Nonetheless, despite the benefits of this scenario, a federal solution would also mean that Erdogan will come under fire at home by Kemalists and nationalists who are considered hardliners on the Cyprus problem. As mentioned earlier, the prospects of a solution are slim. However, the keys are in Ankara whether President Erdogan will provide them remains to be seen.
Alexandros Zachariades is a PhD candidate in international relations at the London School of Economics. He is also a contributor to the LSE IDEAS’ Strategic Updates platform and an affiliate of LSE IDEAS (The London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank).