Turkish and Greek Cypriots remain in limbo as both sides brainstorm ways to proceed with suspended peace talks, with the fate of their island resting on the shoulders of one undecided man.
An inconclusive parliamentary election held on January 7 has left Turkish Cypriots in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) deeply split between parties who support the reunification of the island and those against it.
The outcome of coalition talks may have a direct bearing on the negotiations in the ongoing peace process with Greek Cypriots in southern Cyprus, who are set to hold presidential elections on January 28.
The Greek Cypriot vote could also determine how, or if, the peace process would proceed.
The separate elections held on the island's north and south are the first in Cyprus since talks to reunite the two communities, which have been divided since 1974, broke off last July when negotiators failed to agree on the future of Turkish military rights over the strategically important eastern Mediterranean island.
A conflict frozen since 1974
Cyprus is a member of the European Union, which like the rest of the international community, recognises only one legitimate authority on the island – the Greek Cypriot administration in the south. The Turkish Cypriot state in the north, however, has no international representation.
The Greek Cypriots think of the north as a "Turkish occupation," but Turkish Cypriots argue that the southern administration lost its legitimacy to represent them after a Greek military junta overthrew the island's government in July 1974 in an attempt to annex Cyprus to Greece.
The Greek-led coup prompted a military intervention by Turkey. Having secured the northern third of the island, a ceasefire agreement saw Turkish troops halt their advance at a buffer zone manned by UN peacekeepers.
A subsequent population exchange saw Greek Cypriots in the Turkish-controlled north migrate south, and Turkish Cypriots in southern enclaves, move north.
Turkish Cypriots losing hope in peace process
At the beginning of 2017, hopes were high for a deal to reunite the island under a UN-endorsed bizonal solution, which would have resulted in a Turkish Cypriot federal state established in the north and a Greek Cypriot federal state in the south. A joint presidency would oversee the two entities.
But the results of the Turkish Cypriot election suggest many in the north are losing hope, following the collapse in negotiations. Incumbent Prime Minister Huseyin Ozgurgun’s National Unity Party (UBP), a Turkish nationalist party which backs the continued division of the island, took 35.6 percent of the vote. This made the nationalists the most popular party, getting 21 out of 50 seats in the Turkish Cypriot parliament.
Despite their share of the vote, the nationalists did not secure enough seats to win an outright majority. The party is thus at risk of being left out of the government as fragmented pro-reunification parties rush to form a four-way coalition.
The leftist Republican Turkish Party (CTP) might have only taken 20.9 percent of the vote, but its 12 seats have attracted the support of the centrist People’s Party (HP), led by former chief negotiator Kudret Ozersay.
Ozersay's party won nine seats, having gained 17.1 percent of the popular vote. The far-left Communal Democracy Party (TDP) has also offered its three seats to bolster his party.
The future depends on the decision of one man
To form a majority, however, the pro-reunification parties need three seats from the centre-right Democrat Party (DP), headed by Serdar Denktas, the son of the nation's late founding president Rauf Denktas.
Serdar Denktas, whose party was the junior partner in a former coalition led by Ozgurgun's nationalists, has indicated he might switch sides to join the pro-reunification parties, keeping the nationalists out of power.
But an incident involving an outspoken leftist lawmaker on January 22 has left many in the pro-reunification camp worried that Denktas may lead his party back into a coalition with the nationalists.
Just before taking a parliamentary oath, CTP lawmaker Dogus Derya criticised Turkey’s border security mission in Syria’s Afrin, calling it an “another invasion” after Cyprus. Her comments led to nationalist lawmakers walking out on her speech as she chanted slogans against fascism.
Outside the parliament, protesters gathered to demonstrate their support for Turkish troops.
Denktas, who has long played the role of kingmaker in Turkish Cypriot politics and again holds the key to the future of his people, was then pressured by his right-leaning supporters to avoid entering into a coalition with the leftists.
Should he agree to a deal with the nationalists and the far-right New Dawn Party (YDP), the Turkish Cypriots would have a government unwilling to engage in talks with their Greek Cypriot counterparts.
Greek Cypriot president under pressure
Meanwhile, on the Greek Cypriot side, centre-right leader Nicos Anastasiades is expected to succeed in the first round of voting on January 28 and win a landslide victory in the second round on February 4. Anastasiades supports reunification and backed a 2004 peace plan proposed by the-then UN chief Kofi Annan which was rejected by the Greek Cypriots prior to the island's accession to the EU.
However, the Greek Cypriot leader has somewhat changed his tone since offering a joint declaration in support of a bizonal solution in February 2014 with his then-Turkish Cypriot counterpart Dervis Eroglu.
Back in 2014, the bizonal plan gave both Turkish and Greek Cypriots hope that the Cyprus problem would finally be solved after decades of on-and-off talks to re-establish a legitimate authority that represents both communities.
The joint declaration came after the discovery of offshore natural gas reserves in the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Turkish Cypriots in their self-declared breakaway state, eager to end their international isolation, found themselves aligned with Greek Cypriots struggling to recover from near-bankruptcy in 2012.
With the energy-hungry European market looking for an alternative to Russian imports, especially after pro-Russian rebels launched an insurgency in eastern Ukraine in 2014, people in Cyprus started to calculate how gas exports to Europe would rejuvenate the island’s economy.
Turkey also welcomed the prospect of hosting pipelines connecting eastern Mediterranean gas to its destination markets, as this would give Ankara leverage over both Cyprus and Europe. According to experts, this was also the most feasible option.
The process was far from easy, as talks hit a snag in October 2014 when Turkey sent a seismic ship to the island’s EEZ in response to the Greek Cypriot side starting drilling before a deal with the Turkish Cypriots had been agreed on.
Anastasiades pulled out of the talks, arguing that his administration had the right to commence drilling whenever it pleased.
But the suspension of drilling in April 2015 opened a window for talks to resume. A month later, Turkish Cypriots again demonstrated their appetite for peace by electing pro-reunification candidate Mustafa Akinci as president.
For a while things looked like they were going well, with two pro-reunification leaders taking a historic stroll together across the buffer zone, reigniting hopes for peace. But beneath the surface, rebellion was brewing in the Greek Cypriot camp.
Many Greek Cypriots saw Anastasiades’ acceptance of the bizonal plan as a concession they were not willing to give. Increasingly popular far-right elements on the Greek Cypriot side sought to undermine the peace process, with the neo-Nazi National Popular Front (ELAM) – an offshoot of Greece’s Golden Dawn – pushing a bill in the Greek Cypriot parliament in 2017 to commemorate a 1950 referendum in which Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted to annex the island to Greece.
The bill forced the Turkish Cypriot side to temporarily abandon the talks until another bill put forward by Anastasiades’ centre-right Democratic Rally (DISY) party overturned it two months later. Yet the fact that DISY abstained from voting when the original bill was passed shook the confidence of the Turkish Cypriots in their counterparts.
No agreement on guarantors
Still recovering from the traumas suffered at the hands of Greek Cypriot militant group EOKA before 1974, Turkish Cypriots across the political spectrum, including their pro-reunification president, want Turkey to remain a guarantor under any new peace deal.
An international treaty signed in 1960 gives Turkey, Greece and the island’s former colonial ruler, Britain, the right to intervene militarily to preserve the state of affairs in Cyprus. Under the auspices of this treaty, Turkey sent its troops to the island in 1974.
Both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots argue that Turkish troops should not withdraw from Cyprus until a mutually acceptable deal has been reached.
Anastasiades, however, under public pressure from his people not to submit to Turkish Cypriot demands to maintain Turkey’s guarantor status, refused to proceed with talks until Turkey guaranteed to pull its troops out and gave up its right to intervene. When Turkey said it would not accept a deal in which it was not a guarantor, talks broke down once again in July 2017.
Cyprus misses last chance for peace
For many, the failure of the talks at the Crans Montana resort in Switzerland marked not only the end of the bizonal plan – which was widely accepted among Turkish Cypriots – but a last chance to reunite the island.
Strained ties between Turkey and the EU over a number of issues run the risk of torpedoing co-operation in the Cyprus peace talks. Ankara has particularly been frustrated by Athens’ refusal to extradite Turkish fugitives linked to a military coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016.
The drop in oil prices has also left energy giants questioning whether drilling in the eastern Mediterranean is commercially viable. Even then, an undersea pipeline that bypasses Turkey would not be feasible, according to a study by the German Marshall Fund, so having Turkey and the EU on the same side is vital if pipelines are to go through Turkey.
Should these pipelines materialise, Russia’s own pipeline project to Turkey, TurkStream, could allow Russia to monopolise Europe’s gas supply from the southern corridor, making attempts to diversify supplies away from Russia obsolete.
All these factors, as well as the failure to agree on internal matters such as territory and power-sharing, make the prospect of reunification unlikely.
Last-gasp attempt to revive hope
In short, the incentives for peace which led to the joint declaration in early 2014 are no longer as appealing or attainable. And many on both sides fear the stars for a peace deal may never align again. After the talks collapsed, the UN said “a unique opportunity had been missed and the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots had been denied the opportunity to vote to reunite Cyprus.”
Hence Turkish Cypriots have grown disillusioned with the peace process and voted for the nationalists. Building a pro-reunification coalition that excludes the nationalists may be a last-gasp attempt by Turkish Cypriots to reunification hopes alive. A nationalist-led coalition, on the other hand, threatens to jeopardise future peace initiatives.
On the Greek Cypriot side, Anastasiades still clings to his position regarding Turkish troops on the island, and his failure to sell the bizonal idea suggests that even if Turkish Cypriots resume talks, the bizonal plan may no longer be on the table. Either way, neither side seems willing to budge on the issue of Turkey’s guarantor status.
In the past, good ties between Turkey and the EU have brought both sides to the negotiating table. Just as strained Turkey-EU relations have pushed the two sides apart even when pro-reunification parties were in power. But in the current climate, even if Turkey and the EU overcame their differences, they may not be able to convince the people of Cyprus to give peace another chance.
Much hangs on Serdar Denktas' impending decision.