Elections across the Wall

Reunification is unthinkable, a light federation might appease investors interested in the abundant oil fields of these quarrelsome Cypriots.

The ‘Nicosia Wall’ (the demilitarised zone known as the Green Line) will stand for quite a while yet. For not even the most optimistic supporters of reunification have any illusions about Greek and Turkish Cypriots embracing each other any time soon.

In spite of efforts by Espen Barth Eide, the former Norwegian minister of foreign affairs and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on Cyprus, international diplomacy is at an impasse. Dreams of wealth derived from the natural gas reserves discovered off the island’s southern shore a few years ago, rather than encouraging a solution that would finally establish the legal status of the two communities and allow them to start exploiting the gas, seem to have only aggravated mutual animosities.

Last October, the Greek Cypriots suspended peace talks after Ankara sent the Barbaros, a seismic research vessel, to survey in the exclusive economic zone. Nicosia has already conceded some exploration and production rights in this area to the Italian-South Korean energy consortium ENI-KOGAS. The French firm Total has also been awarded permits to drill for gas. 

The Cyprus government called Turkey’s behaviour “threatening and arrogant”, stating that Cyprus had no choice but to defend its rights. Ankara retorted that the reserves belong to the entire island and that their future must be discussed at the peace talks. Eide agreed, but when the UN official pushed the concept, he only succeeded in further angering the Greek Cypriots.

Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades reiterated that “the natural wealth belongs to the state and the responsibility for managing it lies with the government of the time for the benefit of all the legal residents of the country”. The use of the qualifier “legal” has incensed Turkish Cypriots because they see it as an invitation to join the Cypriot state and abandon the northern entity of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Ankara.

Disagreement is such that even potentially interested oil companies hesitate to enter the fray. Russia is the latest to make it emphatically clear that major investments are impossible in this current climate. During Vladimir Putin’s visit to Ankara last December, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the Turkish government that neither the Russian state nor the Energy Ministry are interested in any natural gas projects in Cyprus at least while the situation remains so complicated.

In short, no peace deal is in sight at the moment. And it is hard to imagine that the upcoming presidential elections in Northern Cyprus, on 19 April, will help ease the situation, whatever the result.

The current president, the conservative Derviş Eroğlu, claims he can negotiate a better deal for Turkish Cypriots. The incumbent head of state is seen as the favourite to win the election: an opinion poll in late 2014 had him at nearly 27%. But even if his opponents cannot break 20%, it is too soon to consider the result in the bag.

The liberal Kudret Özersay, an academic and the Turkish Cypriots’ official chief negotiator, is considered an outsider. But he has pinned his campaign on his negotiating experience in past peace talks to emphasize that he is the only candidate capable of reaching an agreement.

The speaker of the Parliament and first female prime minister of Northern Cyprus, Sibel Siber, could stand a good chance. She is supported by the Republican Turkish Party (CTP) and is standing in the name of a federal Cyprus, thus targeting those still hoping for reunification. She appears to be Eroğlu’s most dangerous rival. But there is also the social democrat Mustafa Akinci, the hugely popular former mayor of Nicosia, who is returning to politics after a 10-year absence, which he dedicated to spending time with his family.

All presidential candidates seem to be dangling the dream of reunification before their electorate’s eyes, though none appear to be truly convinced. And troubled peace talks have left room for ideas that in the past would have been labelled as daydreaming, in particular that of a ‘light federation’.

Analysts for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention NGO, openly support this idea. It would involve recognition of the status quo, which has not changed in 40 years, and allow North Cyprus to join the European Union in the future as an independent state, free from both Nicosia and Ankara.

In exchange for a green light from Cyprus, which as an EU member has the right to veto the accession of new countries, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus could offer some interesting bargaining chips. For instance, the restitution of contested lands, like the eerie, abandoned beach resort of Varosha, near Famagusta; the withdrawal of Turkish troops; compensation for Greek-Cypriot properties; and perhaps even relinquishing all claims to the gas reserves in the southern waters.

This kind of solution could yield positive results for everyone. It would grant the Turkish Cypriots their desired freedom and the chance to finally end their international isolation and join the EU. For the Greek Cypriots, it would remove the main obstacles preventing a full recovery of the economy, which was brought to its knees by the financial crisis.

A deal like this could also be considered a step forward for Turkey in light of its possible future entry into the European fold. 

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