Two-State Solution for Cyprus Difficult, But Not Impossible

May 1, 2021

After decades of failed talks, it is time to talk about two-state solution in Cyprus.
Turkish Cypriot President Ersin Tatar (rear L), Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu (R-C), British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (R), Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (rear R ) and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades (L) attend a meeting on the last day of the UN-led informal 5+1 Cyprus talks in Geneva, Switzerland on April 29, 2021. Photo by Cem Ozdel, Anadolu Images

On April 27-29, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Greece and Britain joined Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders in Geneva to discuss the future of the so-called Cyprus Problem. As promised, the Turkish Cypriot side, led by President Ersin Tatar, submitted a plan that envisions a two-state solution for Cyprus – a message very much different from the one presented by his predecessor Mustafa Akinci the last time the two sides convened for talks in Crans Montana some four years ago. To no surprise, the informal meetings concluded with no common ground to proceed with formal talks, with the prospect of any solution to the Cyprus Problem appearing further away than ever.

Back in 2017, both sides were in agreement with regards to the framework for negotiations. Both were touting a bizonal, bicommunal federal (BBF) solution that would have seen an autonomous Turkish Cypriot entity officially established in the island’s north, and an equally autonomous Greek Cypriot entity in the south. The two sides would have been ruled under a joint, rotational presidency while each side would maintain control over their respective internal affairs. Land swaps and compensation payments would have likely occurred to settle territorial disputes that arose when Cyprus was divided during a Turkish military intervention which came as a response to a Greek-inspired coup in 1974. Furthermore, a joint committee would have been established to ensure the equal sharing of the island’s natural resources.

There was strong momentum on both sides in the lead-up to those talks, which many considered to be the closest the two sides had ever come to a compromise, especially as all three guarantor powers – Britain, Turkey and Greece – had approved of these UN-endorsed proposals. But alas, it wasn’t to be, as the issue of guarantors itself became a point of contention.

There are conflicting reports as to why exactly the talks broke down in 2017. Some suggest that the Greek Cypriot side had insisted on tearing up the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, which grants the three guarantors conditional rights to militarily intervene in Cyprus. This was a demand the Turkish Cypriots were unwilling to accept. Other reports, however, suggest that Turkey was happy to negotiate a gradual withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island.

But instead of this concession being welcomed by Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, it was surprisingly rejected, much to the abhorrence of diplomats and observers who attended the talks. More detailed narrations about what happened in Crans Montana even suggest that Anastasiades himself indicated that he’d be open to discuss a two-state solution after Greek Cypriot elections in 2018.

Ersin Tatar has argued that a two-state solution is now the only way forward for Cyprus after 47 years of division.

Needless to say, the outcome of the Crans Montana talks rendered then-Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci redundant. For many Turkish Cypriots, the collapse of these negotiations was the last straw, and in October 2020, they elected Ersin Tatar into office. Unlike his pro-reunification predecessor, Tatar vowed to put forward a case for a permanent division of the island, with the currently unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) officially giving up on the UN-backed federal plan.

Tatar has argued that a two-state solution is now the only way forward for Cyprus after 47 years of division, not to mention the additional 11 years since Turkish Cypriots were forced to boycott the once shared Republic of Cyprus parliament due to Greek Cypriot violations of the 1960 constitution. He also claims that a two-state solution would solve many of the ongoing problems between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots, and would allow them to establish warm diplomatic ties that would not only prove mutually beneficial to both communities on the island, but would likewise bring about greater prosperity to the entire Eastern Mediterranean.

Challenges to peace in Cyprus

President Tatar however has thus far failed to explain exactly how he plans to gain international recognition for the TRNC. He has repeatedly recited a timeline of unfortunate events to argue that Turkish Cypriots deserve sovereign equality, but even Turkish Cypriots themselves are not entirely convinced by his moral standpoint.

Keep in mind that he only defeated Akinci by a narrow margin of 4,412 votes in the presidential election run-off thanks to a boost from previously undecided voters. His mandate to push for the recognition of the TRNC is therefore built on shaky ground. The lack of consensus within the Turkish Cypriot camp for a two-state solution would no doubt make the already difficult job of convincing the world to recognize the TRNC even harder.

There also seems to be a lack of consideration for the sacrifices nations would need to make to recognize the TRNC. The absence of Greek Cypriot approval for a two-state solution means that any country that recognizes the TRNC will risk severing their ties with the Republic of Cyprus, which could result in a loss of trade and political leverage in the international arena.

In the past, Greek Cypriot leaders have even struggled to convince their people to back the BBF plan, as Greek Cypriot critics argue that it grants Turkish Cypriots too much autonomy. Convincing them to back a two-state solution would by consequence be mission impossible. Even if Anastasiades was to go along with it, he would almost certainly be politically crucified by his people for the betrayal.

VIDEO: Informal talks to solve Cyprus issue fail

However, a lack of cooperation from the Greek Cypriot side would not necessarily spell ‘Game Over’ for the Turkish Cypriot campaign for recognition. As was recently seen in the Balkans, Serbia’s non-recognition of its breakaway neighbor Kosovo did not stop half of the world’s nations recognizing it as a separate state. Even EU member states were left divided over the recognition of Kosovo, and to this day five of the bloc’s 27 members do not recognize it.

When one looks at the Caucasus, the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia enjoy limited international recognition despite Georgia still claiming ownership of the enclaves. So, what have these states done right that the TRNC has thus far failed to do? Well, one thing that these nations have in common is that they all have at least one ally in the UN Security Council.

In the 37 years that the TRNC has been a self-declared independent state, it has only ever had one ally – Turkey. Pakistan and Bangladesh briefly recognized the TRNC in 1983, but they were quickly forced to back down after coming under international pressure. Despite its growing global influence, Turkey to this day has not been able to exercise enough soft power to get others onboard. So naturally, the Turkish Cypriots are looking for an ally in the UNSC to back their position – and what better an ally than Britain?

Lobby Efforts

Besides being a guarantor power in Cyprus, Britain, unlike the other four UNSC members, is home to a significantly large Turkish Cypriot diaspora. Census results are yet to be confirmed, but some estimates put the number of Turkish Cypriots in the UK as high as 400,000 – possibly three times more than the Turkish Cypriots living in the TRNC. A large proportion of Turkish Cypriots in Britain are British-born.

They hold British citizenship, speak English fluently, and some even hold influential positions. Many also maintain strong links to their homeland, and the majority can be considered to be relatively more conservative than their relatives back in Cyprus. They are perfectly placed to lobby local MPs to support the TRNC in the UK Parliament and even fight for wider Turkish causes such as Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria against the PKK, as well as Turkey’s maritime disputes with Greece in the Aegean. But again, it isn’t that simple.

There are believed to be just as many Greek Cypriots living in the UK as there are Turkish Cypriots, and both communities largely reside in the same constituencies as each other. The Turkish Cypriots in the UK therefore struggle to lobby their local MPs without being challenged by what is an arguably better organized, better funded and less polarized Greek Cypriot lobby.

It is also very difficult for British Turkish Cypriots to cooperate and coordinate their efforts with the migrant community from Turkey, firstly because of a lack of communication and understanding between them, and secondly because the mainland Turkish community is dominated by supporters of the HDP, which is claimed to have organic links to the PKK. Many of the migrants from Turkey to Britain prefer not to identify themselves as Turks, but rather as Alevis and/or Kurds, and they feel no affiliation with the Turkish Cypriot cause. As a result, Turkish Cypriots have only been able to elicit the support of a few politicians from a handful of constituencies that host a relatively uncontested community of Turkish Cypriots.

It seems, therefore, that the TRNC is not going to get Britain onside through lobby efforts alone. The TRNC is going to have to appeal to Britain’s sense of self by focusing on its geopolitical interests. A bottom-up approach through grassroots campaigning might be futile, but if the Turkish Cypriots can convince Britain that its own interests lie in recognizing the TRNC, a top-down strategy might stir enough MPs to switch allegiances.

There are already some big names who have signed up for the two-state solution, including former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw from the Labour Party, and former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. The number of Turkish Cypriot allies in the British government could increase if the Turkish Cypriots are able to channel their voice through international bodies such as NATO so that they can be heard by strategic decision-makers in Britain’s security and intelligence circles. They would of course need Turkey’s help to do this.

Brexit Fever

There’s no guarantee that the aforementioned strategy would work, but it is certainly the right time to try. Britain has just exited the EU, and with Brexit fever still in the air, the UK and the EU are finding themselves increasingly at loggerheads with each other. Britain has two sovereign military bases in Cyprus – Dhekelia and Akrotiri. These bases are vital for securing British interests in the Middle East. But as the EU’s stranglehold on the Republic of Cyprus tightens and Britain’s influence in Cyprus becomes evermore irrelevant, the security of those bases comes under even greater threat.

Gone are the post-Cold War days where Western hegemony in the region was kept together by the United States. As the U.S. shows less and less interest in Mediterranean and its surroundings, a power vacuum is opening up into which various players are attempting to step in. France has particularly taken advantage of tensions between Turkey and Greece over hydrocarbon drilling to boost their presence in the area.

With its strategy in North Africa in tatters and its bases in Lebanon exposed to the dangers of what some may say is already a failed state, France is desperate to consolidate its standing in the region, and is doing so by riding the wave of European solidarity with Greece and the Greek Cypriots. France may even want to eclipse or replace Britain in Cyprus, a move that would leave Britain entirely dependent on Europe when it comes to securing its interests in the Middle East. This would leave Britain with no choice but to side with Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots to counter French attempts to wrestle its way to regional dominance.

But the question is, is Britain ready to take such an assertive stance? Sure, Britain will take any opportunity available to improve its relations and cooperation with Turkey, as recent trade deals between the two have indicated, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is prepared to go against the EU and its members so directly, at least not unless France’s hidden agenda becomes more overt. For the time being, there are just way too many geopolitical risks involved for Britain to challenge EU foreign policy in an aggressive manner.

The Biden Era and Cyprus Peace Talks

At the moment, Britain is grappling with its own domestic issues, primarily the economic downturn brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a lack of strong political leadership. Britain is also unclear about where it stands with its closest ally, the U.S. Former U.S. president Donald Trump was in no way a friend of the EU, and Brexit took place in a political climate of Trumpism, or neo-transatlanticism, as well as euroscepticism.

Moreover, even though relations between Turkey and the U.S. dropped to all-time lows while Trump was in charge, Trump as an individual was considered to be relatively more sympathetic to Turkey than others in his administration. But now that Joe Biden has taken over as U.S. president, the mood has changed.

In the U.S., the Democrats are seen as being more friendly to the EU than the Republicans are. Biden is therefore more likely to have a better relationship with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in comparison to the rocky relationship shared between Macron and Trump. Biden has also made no secret of his enmity towards Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his administration, having started off his presidency by giving Ankara a dose of silent treatment before then recognizing the so-called Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Britain may have freed itself from the strings of the EU, but in the era of Joe Biden, how far the UK can take its relationship with Turkey will be limited by U.S.-EU relations. Without firm assurances from the U.S., Britain cannot even begin dreaming of taking moves as bold as recognizing the TRNC to spite the EU.

TRNC and Limited Recognition

For now, it seems that Britain will continue to uphold a neutral stance when it comes to the Cyprus peace talks. As was demonstrated during the latest meetings in Geneva, Britain will remain committed to the UN-backed peace plan and, in the vague words of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, will continue to urge both sides to use “creativity and flexibility” in talks – whatever that’s supposed to mean. Britain remains aloof and uninterested in Turkish Cypriot demands for equal sovereignty, no matter how much they kick and scream about how much they deserve it.

To the contrary, instead of punishing the Greek Cypriots for their part in keeping the Turkish Cypriots internationally isolated for half a century, Britain continues to boost its diplomatic, trade and military cooperation with the Republic of Cyprus. Rather than risk having their bases in Cyprus shut down by the Greek Cypriot government, Britain prefers to earn its keep by constantly reaffirming its ties with Nicosia and reminding them of Britain’s strategic and economic relevance to the island.

VIDEO: Why is Cyprus divided?

If the TRNC is to get any kind of international recognition, it seems like it’ll have to do so without the backing of any UNSC members. The TRNC is completely dependent on Turkey exercising whatever influence it has in the international arena if it is to gain even limited recognition. This leaves only a handful of countries who may opt to take the leap of faith and establish ties with the TRNC – Azerbaijan being the main, and perhaps only one. But Turkey must be careful not to invite too many guests to the party, especially countries that can easily be swayed by the EU to become gateways of foreign interference in Turkish Cypriot politics, lest these nations work to undermine Turkey’s own interests in the TRNC. That includes non-EU states that currently have good relations with Turkey but are susceptible to being coerced by Brussels into becoming EU vassals.

In this writer’s humble opinion, asides from Azerbaijan, other potential candidates to recognize the TRNC include Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Nigeria, Venezuela, Cuba, Libya and – perhaps as a real game-changer – Qatar. But that being said, the Turkish Cypriots will have their work cut out for them when it comes to convincing these nations to step out of their comfort zone for the sake of an estimated 150,000 people living on one-third of a semi-arid rock in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Based in London, Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed and a founding member of Cezire Association. He was previously a journalist for TRT World in Istanbul.