For more than fifty years, the world has witnessed a long-running political deadlock over Cyprus. To date, a large part of the international community – specifically Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots, Turkey, Greece, the UK, the UN, the EU and the U.S. – has been engaged in the process of settlement talks over the de facto divided island, each with its own roles and interests. The Crans-Montana talks on reunifying the island failed four years ago and the 5+1 informal talks at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, last April also ended with a declaration of “no common ground”, in large part due to the fragile balancing act between Turkey and Greece, rooted in long-lasting entanglements and seemingly insurmountable disagreements.
Aggravated by the current state of play regarding energy competition in the eastern Mediterranean, the unique geostrategic significance of the island has further complicated the old dilemmas. In the absence of a tectonic shift in the regional balance of power, it appears tensions are unlikely to be resolved without a resolution to the question of Cyprus. The never-ending ping-pong diplomacy notwithstanding, many of the prevailing considerations that have guided the relationship in the past are being brought into question even as pressure builds for a just and viable conflict resolution. Bearing this in mind, although aspirations of a transformational settlement have faded for now, continuing efforts might generate new potentials for the future based on shifts in the international geopolitical landscape. Turkish Cypriots’ call for a two-state solution in Geneva has one of the potential new metrics for the conflict in the long run.
The prolonged conflict in brief
After three centuries of Ottoman reign and subsequent eight decades of British colonial rule on the island, a unified Greek-Turkish Cyprus Republic was established in 1960 where power would be shared by Greek and Turkish communities living side by side. When civil war erupted on the island in 1963, the existing equilibrium was completely upset, evolving into a radicalization of the Greek and Turkish identities. In 1974, Turkey’s military intervention against the Greek coup – aimed at uniting the island with Greece, known as “enosis” – reversed the situation completely, leading to de facto division on the island.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was established in 1983 unilaterally and has remained unrecognized by the international community ever since. The UN-mediated Annan Plan referendum, which was a historic opportunity for resolution, failed in 2004. The same year, Greek Cypriots, who refused the plan, were still able to join the E.U. as the sole representatives of the entire island. All of this has irreversibly changed Turkey’s relations with the EU and even brought about a pause in accession negotiations.
In fact, settlement negotiations that started during Cold-War came to a dead end from the 2000s onward, in particular with the EU’s asymmetrical involvement in the conflict that gave rise to the present circumstances. Driven by the aim of securing the free flow of energy with a huge share of hydrocarbon resources from the eastern Mediterranean basin, Europe is now striving to shape the path of developments on the future rules of the game. The EU’s agenda became clear after Greece adopted the euro is 2001 and Greek Cyprus was accepted into the Union three years later.
As the EU attempts to make the region a key hub for energy supplies, with the aim of diversifying its routes and resources away from Russia, intense geostrategic rivalries between the various parties have developed. In the meantime, Turkey initially hoped for cooperation on joint exploration projects and a fair share of hydrocarbon resources and energy transportation via pipelines through its soil. However, hopes have been dashed as a result of conflicting claims and maneuvers along with differing interpretations of international law.
The current security environment and its shifting patterns has triggered a new agenda for the immediate solution of the deadlock on the island today than in the past amid mounting pressure over disputed waters off the Cyprus coast. Tensions that have arisen out of competition over maritime boundaries in the quest for rich off-shore resources in the Mediterranean Sea have been compounded by the region’s vulnerability to ongoing conflicts, such as the long-standing dispute over the Aegean, as well as disagreements over the Libyan and Syrian conflicts.
In a fast-changing world shaken by the pandemic, geopolitical instability has left regional dynamics in a state of flux, as is the case with the recent Israel-Palestinian conflict. While major dynamics are at play in the broader region, recent years have proved treacherous for Turkish foreign policy as it attempts to restore the balance between hard and soft power. Driven by the intense course of events unfolding in its backyard, Ankara has been left with no choice but to move ahead with a more proactive set of energy, foreign and security policies in the Mediterranean Sea with the aim of protecting the interests of Turkey and the TRNC. As a result, the federation formula to end the political impasse on the island seems to be unachievable for the time being.
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