By Darren Wong
Despite the long-drawn and frustrating process of intercommunal talks, the Cyprus dispute has been frozen since 1974. Effectively divided in two, Greek Cypriots have been living in the south under the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus (ROC) while Turkish Cypriots live in the north under the de facto administration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Serving as TRNC’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Professor Kudret Özersay – who has an academic background in political science and international relations – has been present at the same negotiating table with three TRNC Presidents, four ROC leaders and two United Nations Secretaries-General. Speaking to Professor Özersay at a recent MENAF event, where he shared his incisive opinions on the Cyprus dispute and vision for changing the status quo, what struck me was the very palpable exasperation he felt about the persistent deadlock.
At the start of the year, Professor Özersay announced that he will be running as an independent candidate in TRNC’s upcoming presidential elections. I began the interview by asking him what vision he holds for TRNC and what changes he is seeking to make. “I’d like to connect my people to the world and our voice to be heard by the international community. For more than 50 years, we’ve been waiting for a comprehensive settlement to be found… but we’ve been unable to achieve it with our counterparts, the Greek Cypriots.” Having spent much of his life working on resolving the dispute, it clearly weighs on his mind.
“My main purpose is to find a mutually acceptable deal between the two sides — not necessarily a federal partnership because we’ve been trying for it for more than 50 years. But even in the absence of an agreement, we should still be able to connect with the international community.”
It is definitely disheartening that the passage of time has failed to assuage the conflicts of interest between TRNC and ROC, for it has overshadowed many aspects of life and development in TRNC. TRNC’s economic growth has been stunted by an international trade embargo placed on it, and Professor Özersay shared that he intends to further boost TRNC’s two main economic sectors of tourism and higher education. “We have a problem because of the absence of direct flights to Northern Cyprus. The flights go to Turkey first, touch down, then [a separate flight is taken to] get to Northern Cyprus.” The added cost and time might dissuade tourism. Interestingly, he pointed out an increasing number of foreign students going to TRNC to study at its universities, “not just Turkey, but from Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan and the West as well.”
As we talked, Professor Özersay reverted to his vision of re-connecting with the international community. “There is potential for Northern Cyprus to establish trade relations with other countries, as we did for twenty years with the [United Kingdom], but unfortunately with the decision of the European Court of Justice, it stopped in 1994.” He then paused and smiled. “With Brexit now, there is the possibility of re-establishing a similar kind of relationship.” The shifting tides of global politics brings new opportunities and Professor Özersay seemed keen to capitalise on them.
However, re-entering the global economy necessarily entails a reconfiguration of TRNC’s close relationship with Turkey, which is arguably one of economic and political dependence. As TRNC moves forward with its goal of international recognition, how will this relationship evolve? Professor Özersay agreed that there is dependence, but “it is unfair to accuse Turkish Cypriots for the existing situation. If you are not allowed to have direct trade or travel, the international community is forcing Turkish Cypriots to be more dependent on Turkey.” He maintained that this is not something he desires but reminded that such a situation does not just exist in TNRC. “Look at other independent countries and states in Latin America. Some of them are mainly politically and economically dependent on the United States too.”
Professor Özersay’s discontent with the status quo is apparent. Referring to the lack of international recognition of TRNC and the resulting continuation of UN Peacekeeping forces along the buffer zone in Cyprus, he argued that “it is an unfair situation for us. In every negotiation, the international community accepts the principle that Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots are equal. If we are politically equal, we also deserve the same kind of political status.” In his speech later, he lamented that he has “exhausted everything — technical negotiations, negotiations led by the [United Nations] Secretary-General, direct and indirect [negotiations], mediation, arbitration, high-level meetings, meetings in the buffer zone and joint statements.”
Beneath the layer of resignation lies an undying commitment, and perhaps a renewed optimism as well, in reaching a settlement. Professor Özersay referred multiple times to a “different partnership”. Over the years, he certainly had much time to reflect on the negotiating processes and look for constructive alternatives. “Although it is not recognised, we have two existing states on the island. One way or another, we have to establish a peaceful relationship with each other. There will be a partnership because we are a small island — it can be two states or two administrations, something shaped over time.”
“A gradual approach is better. We can start off on the reality of the existing entities cooperating with each other and try to establish trust between the two and build on that.”
Calling this a “bottom-up” approach, Professor Özersay draws a parallel between this and the European Union, which he pointed out had its origins as a coal and steel community before increasing the number of competencies in Brussels. “It is a waste of time and energy to try to agree on the ultimate point of the deal from the very beginning. You can start with something and step-by-step, build on it — it may end up a federation, I’m not against that.”
“But it is clear that with today’s circumstances, the main conditions of a federation, which is based on shared prosperity is not present.” Indeed, the development trajectories of both ROC and TRNC have diverged significantly. A key issue is the fact that the ROC is economically stronger than TRNC, enjoying benefits as a member of the European Union. “In conflict resolution, there needs to be a stalemate. The status quo must hurt and disturb all to encourage all to resolve the conflict.” In Professor Özersay’s perspective, the repeated phrase of “bi-communal bi-zonal federation” as the end goal for Cyprus by the international community has become meaningless, because ultimately the ROC is comfortable with the status quo and the “mutual hurt” he suggested as necessary to incite progress is so far non-existent.
Most recently, the ROC has begun exploring offshore hydrocarbon resources, which was met with a fierce backlash from TRNC arguing for the shared right to resources. “Even in the absence of a comprehensive settlement, Greek Cypriots are accepted as a full member of the European Union and the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources is not conditional on a resolution.” The Cyprus dispute is thus, “not as problematic to Greek Cypriots because life goes on.”
(Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum, Issue 2020/1)