Turkey, Cyprus, and the geopolitics of the sea

As presidential elections in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus move into a runoff phase, a central question that has emerged is what the future of the island will look like. The question could not be more existential. On the one side, there is Mustafa Akıncı, the incumbent president who believes the future prosperity of Turkish Cypriots is intimately tied to pursuing some sort of settlement with their Greek Cypriot neighbors in a unified, federal state. His opponent, former prime minister Ersin Tatar, believes the prospects of a unified Cyprus are dead and Turkish Cypriots must forge ahead with the reality of a divided island. Turkey appears to be backing that latter candidate and, its critics claim, are pushing Cyprus deeper into division and conflict with Greece. Is that a fair criticism?,

Adnan R. Khan: Sometimes people forget that there are multiple reasons why Cyprus is important for Turkey. It’s not just a nationalist issue. There are also questions of and resources. Can you outline the various reasons why Cyprus is so important for Turkey?

Ilter Turan: Of course, as is the case with many other international conflicts, we’re faced with a multidimensional conflict. As you implied, ethnicity is a part of it. The Turks have an interest in the fate of the Turkish-origin people living on the island. But if we then move to the cold realities of geopolitics, when you look at the map, what you see is that in the Aegean Sea, Turkey is limited to a very narrow part of the coastline. Then on the Mediterranean, again, Cyprus sits right there. If it becomes an exclusively Greek dominated island, this would lead Turkey to, in a sense, being landlocked, exposing Turkey both to security risks and even deprivations emanating from natural resources beneath the Mediterranean though it has one of the longest shorelines. So, for multiple reasons, Turkey has felt it necessary to have a presence on the island. It needs to make sure there remains at least a part of the island that has a friendly disposition to Turkey. Greek Cypriots on the other hand, want an island in which Turks will constitute a dwindling minority. That’s where the problem lies. It has been impossible for the Turks and the Greeks to agree on a formula that would lead to the emergence of a unified state. Instead, you have a Greek state and a Turkish state which rather than constituting the backdrop to negotiations to build a federal Cyprus, has constituted the background to a frozen conflict.

Adnan R. Khan: The elections have really brought these issues into sharp relief. Turkish Cypriots themselves are divided over how to proceed. How does Turkey fit into this picture?

Ilter Turan: Turkish Cypriots are indeed divided. But what’s interesting is that there was a time when this was not the case. When the Greek Cypriot republic was being admitted to the EU, there was a referendum on the so-called Annan plan, which was to set up a unified Cypriot state. It was accepted by a majority of Turkish Cypriots but rejected by over 70 percent on the Greek side. So now, the prime minister and his supporters are persuaded that the Greeks are not interested in a federal state in which the two populations have equal political and legal status. They are interested in an arrangement whereby they can gradually assume control of the entire island, pushing Turks into minority status rather than treating them as equal partners. This is what the prime minister’s side feels is unacceptable.

Turkey has a deep interest in the outcome of the election. Some of the actions of the Turkish government, unfortunately, have been perceived – not necessarily inaccurately – as a way to influence the outcome of the elections, such as the opening of the beaches of abandoned tourist town of Varosha to the northern Turkish population. There is also, it turns out, the completion of the repair of a water pipeline that brings in water from Turkey to northern Cyprus. The timing of these were perceived as actions designed to influence the outcome of the elections.

Adnan R. Khan: But if the status quo prevails, the frozen conflict remains unresolved. Is it in Turkey’s interests to avoid a resolution?

Ilter Turan: The bigger question, of course, is Turkey’s relations with the EU, of which the Cyprus question is one part. As the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the EU has disappeared for all practical purposes, the motivation for Turkey to work toward a concrete settlement in Cyprus has dwindled. Turkey perceives the unification of Cyprus as a formula whereby the Greek side will be licensed to dominate the system and eventually eradicate the Turkish minority, at least at the political level. That threatens both the existence of the Cypriot Turks and Turkey’s security and material interests in the Mediterranean. I do not think Turkey is ready to accept such an outcome.

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