By Sean Mathews
Even as Ankara and Athens reengage in exploratory talks over long-running maritime disputes, Turkey is pressing ahead in its campaign for a two-state solution on the island.
Ankara is working with its allies in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to make a case for a two-state solution in the leadup to a UN-sponsored summit scheduled for early March on the divided Eastern Mediterranean island.
“We will enter into a deal as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and not as the Turkish Cypriot community,” Foreign Minister Tahsin Ertugruloglu told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. “The road to a settlement passes through the recognition that there are two separate states on the island of Cyprus.”
The two-state solution has been heavily promoted since the election of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ally Ersin Tatar as president of Northern Cyprus last year. The island is at the center of ongoing maritime disputes in the eastern Mediterranean Sea over exclusive economic zones and potential gas reserves.
Greece and Turkey are two guarantor powers of the island along with the United Kingdom under a constitution that granted Cyprus independence in 1960 from colonial rule by Britain. Athens has been on the front lines of Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the West and the two NATO allies have engaged in heated sparring over maritime disputes.
Past settlement talks centered on two constituent states joined in a federation. This framework was the closest the island of 1.2 million people came to reunification in the form of the UN-backed Annan plan before the ascension of Cyprus into the EU. Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly for the plan but 76% of Greek Cypriots rejected it.
Seventeen years later, the Annan plan is still hotly debated with both sides invoking it to challenge the other’s lack of good faith and designs to exploit their respective communities.
“The Annan plan was really a chance to end the issue and that was rejected by the Greek Cypriots. Now there is no trust towards the UN-led initiative,” said Murat Aslan, a former Turkish military intelligence professional who has held various roles in the Defense Ministry and General Staff.
Marios Evriviades, a professor of international relations and history at Neapolis University in Pafos, Cyprus, says a major reason the plan was rejected was that it didn’t properly address the removal of Turkish troops from the island.
Athens also rejects the idea of a new Turkish state.
Yet after years of failed talks and decades of living in de facto separation, the idea has more supporters than Erdogan and Tatar. Some even believe that Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiadis himself favors two separate states.
The fading memory of a united Cyprus and the urge to go separate ways after years of frustration with the UN process give the two-state solution more traction. It is also what many people are familiar with from daily life.
“The two-state solution was realized after 1974. There are two different administrations. The parameter to assess its sufficiency is if there has been any conflict on the island since then, which there has not been,” Aslan stated.
Those in the north bristle at this suggestion and believe that two state is the only way forward after years of international isolation. “If you want a settlement you must accept the realities of the island. There is no legitimate Republic of Cyprus,” Ertugruloglu told Al-Monitor.
Against this backdrop, analysts say it’s difficult to imagine progress being made during next month’s talks.
Western powers appear less willing to confront Turkey in Cyprus. Erdogan didn’t invent the Cyprus issue and Turkish troops have been stationed on the island since 1974. As opposed to an imperial foray in the deserts of Libya, Ankara’s concern for Cyprus is tied to the roughly 300,000 Turkish people living in the north.
“We have never shied away from expressing that the Cyprus question is a national matter for the Turkish nation. The future for Turkish Cypriots is a road we will embark upon with our motherland Turkey,” Ertugruloglu told Al-Monitor.
If leaders in Brussels and Washington are looking for an area to compromise with Ankara it may be in Cyprus. Many still regret that the Annan plan was voted down and consider it a lost opportunity to resolve the issue.
Whether there is a two-state solution or not, Turkey may have the wind at its back in Cyprus.