On August 9th, the leaders of split Cyprus agreed to meet in a UN compound in the buffer zone in the divided capital of Nicosia, with the aim to renew long-stalled peace talks – since they last broke down in 2017. While good news, provocations by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could threaten to derail the talks before they are able progress.
The island-nation has been ethnically partitioned in two since 1974, following a Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern third of Cyprus. The invasion was sparked by a Greek-backed coup that took place five days earlier. From then on, the island has remained effectively divided with the breakaway north governed by a Turkish-Cypriot government – that is only recognised by Ankara – and the rest of Cyprus remaining under the rule of the internationally recognised government led by Greek-Cypriots.
Countless attempts over the years to broker peace between the two sides, and reunite the country, have failed. 35,000 Turkish troops remain stationed on the island, while Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom are security guarantors of Cyprus, based on the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee.
The meeting held earlier this month between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, is their first informal meeting since February. The last round of UN-sponsored negotiations collapsed in 2017 after a two-year long process, over the role of Turkey post-settlement. Turkey refused to withdraw its troops from the island, or to put an end to its right to military intervention post-reunification – both fundamental conditions for a possible reunification for the Greek-Cypriot side.
Both Cypriot leaders said that their talk was constructive and that they would continue to work with the United Nations envoy, Jane Holl Lute, in a bid “to finalise the terms of reference that would enable structured and results-oriented negotiations leading to a settlement with a sense of urgency”, according to a UN statement issued on their joint behalf. An informal conference involving officials from Cyprus’ guarantors would then occur, preceding formal peace talks to ensure that all sides would be working together and towards the same goal.
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It was confirmed last week by both Cypriot leaders that the United Nations envoy would undertake a new mission to Cyprus, in early September, in an effort to relaunch the stalled negotiations for the reunification of Cyprus. Should talks progress, a tripartite meeting with UN Chief Antonio Guterres would likely follow in late September in New York, after the UN annual General Assembly.
When Timing is Everything
That urgency is in no small part due to the recent discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in Cypriot waters within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – energy resources Turkey is keen to exploit, to the great consternation of the Greek-Cypriot government, the EU and the USA.
Turkey claims that the EEZ encroaches on its own continental shelf, adding that Turkish Cypriots – on whose behalf Turkey is claiming to act – are entitled to their share of the offshore resources.
Turkey has already sent two drill vessels, Fatih and Yavuz, to conduct hydrocarbon exploration, with a third on the way. Noting that these actions are “totally unacceptable”, the European Union imposed sanctions on Turkey on 15th July including slashing 145.8 million euros in EU pre-accession funding allocated for 2020, ceasing the European Investment Bank’s activities in the country, as well as suspending all talks with Turkey regarding air transportation agreements, along with any other high-level dialogue.
During this month’s preliminary talks, Anastasiades said he was willing to keep his counterpart Akinici informed of energy developments, but the Turkish-Cypriot proposal for a committee to jointly administer the development and revenues of hydrocarbons was out of the question, citing that activity in the EEZ was part of the duties of a sovereign state and not a commission. The Cypriot Energy Minister agreed, saying it was “dangerous” to link long-term solutions for a reunited Cyprus with hydrocarbon exploration.
However, and in a move that the Cypriot government spokesperson, Prodromos Prodromou, qualified as poisoning the climate of substantive talks, Turkish President Erdogan reasserted his determination to continue the exploration for hydrocarbon resources in Cypriot waters, cautioning that consequences would befall ‘those who refuse to learn their lesson’.
“No project can be realised if Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are not involved”, said Erdogan to reporters in Ankara. “We will continue to defend the rights of Turkish Cypriots with the same dedication”, he said, adding that problems in the region are caused by the “irreconcilable attitudes of the Greek Cypriots”.
Referring to the EU imposed sanctions, Erdogan noted that “The EU which has announced so-called measures … is not harming us but itself.”
Prodomou noted that “We hope Turkey, through certain actions, will allow the resumption of substantive talks from where they had been left off at Crans-Montana (Switzerland in 2017), refraining from statements and moves that do not contribute towards this direction.”
Regardless of provocations from Ankara, the two Cypriot leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to “improving the daily lives of all Cypriots and to implementing further confidence-building measures, with UN support”.
What remains clear is that the next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether this new round of negotiations bears fruit for a reunited Cyprus.