Negotiations to end the decades-long partition of the critically-located Mediterranean island of Cyprus are set to enter a new and theoretically critical stage this week in Geneva. There have been many ‘final stages’ since the island was divided between Turks and Greeks following the intervention of the Turkish military in 1974. But there are great hopes, at least by international negotiators, that this ‘final stage’ just might work.
Much has happened since 1974, including the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus – the Greek part of the island – joining the European Union. The northern, Turkish part of the island, remains internationally isolated, recognized only by Turkey. The Turkish part of the island survives on hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies from Turkey. The Greek part of the island has recovered from its financial meltdown and is buoyed by the promise of natural gas in its territorial waters.
|Will the island re-unite or be split completely?|
The rough outline of the Plan A solution to the island has been well known for decades. It would involve the Turks giving up some land, compensation for people on both sides who lost property, keeping some sort of local autonomy for the Turks, and ending years of economic and political isolation by joining the southern part of the island in the EU. Sounds logical – to the outsider. But the deep, underlying distrust and dislike between the two communities have always been major barriers to this settlement.
Furthermore, there is the very sticky issue of ‘guarantors’ – those three countries of Greece, the UK, and Turkey who were supposed to ‘guarantee’ the stability of the island. This guarantor system failed spectacularly in 1974 when the Turkish army landed to protect the Turkish minority – and in the process left several thousand troops on the island who remain to this day. If there is a settlement what happens to this guarantor system? Will the Turkish troops leave the island? Will the Turks accept the security of the European Union instead of the security of their own troops?
|Will they actually leave the island?|
However, beyond all these island-based issues there is a real elephant in the room that could scuttle all hopes of a deal. That elephant is the political maneuvering in Turkey to change the governing system of the country to give President Tayyip Erdoğan unfettered, unchallenged, unchecked power. Turkey's prime minister and parliament would be reduced to feeble rubber stamps with this change.
In order to get the votes he needs in parliament to pass the constitutional changes Erdoğan needs the support of the Nationalist Party – a party who not only hates the Kurds but loathes the very idea of a settlement on Cyprus that includes the reduction or complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island. Even with the support of the Nationalist Party the issue is a near run thing. Several members of the Nationalist Party have balked at supporting changes reducing parliament to an afterthought. And there are even reports, nothing more, of ruling party AKP members who don’t like the idea of an all-powerful president.
Assuming the bill passes parliament, there will be a national referendum to approve or reject the change to a presidential system. While Turkish polls are unreliable at best, a leading poll shows support for the referendum falling short of the required 50% + 1. Failure at the referendum stage would be a disaster for Erdoğan by puncturing his aura of invincibility and denying him the power he so blatantly wants. This he cannot allow.
Thus, the elephant in the room of the Cyprus negotiations. Erdoğan could easily whip up nationalist sentiment in Turkey (not hard to do) by stonewalling any change in Cyprus. The brilliant Turkish journalist Metin Munir – now reporting from the safety of Cyprus because no paper in Turkey has the nerve to publish his work – says there is a Plan B being actively discussed in Ankara. That plan is simply to annex the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus making it Turkey’s 82nd province if negotiations fail. Such a move may bring international condemnation, but would be immensely popular among the nationalist Turks.
He would sell himself as the great savior of our valiant Cypriot brothers and win the referendum in a landslide. Any opposition would be drowned in cries of national traitors, tools of foreign powers seeking to destroy Turkey. Such a campaign would be ugly but effective.
International condemnation of such a move would have no impact whatsoever. It would only strengthen the deeply ingrained feeling that a Turk has no friends but a Turk. Erdoğan would loudly point out that the world did nothing to stop Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Therefore, why should he even listen to any criticism? The European Union would howl and scream. But so what? Turkish/EU relations were already at a dead-end. How much worse could they get? Greece would complain bitterly. But Greece is in no position to do very much. What would the United States do? That’s a very good question. No one has a clue at this point about Trump’s foreign policy which so far has been limited to 140-character tweets. Besides, right now most Turks think that America is behind every problem that Turkey is facing. Russia? Who knows? Putin is currently manipulating Erdoğan brilliantly. But will that manipulation extend to allowing dismemberment of Cyprus?
Threatening Turkey with harsh economic sanctions won’t work. The Turkish people will gladly suffer mere economic hardship to preserve what they see as national honor. And furthermore, Putin will simply move into any vacuum created by Western isolation of Turkey.
Any possible settlement on Cyprus is going to have to pay as much attention to political fine tuning in Ankara as it does to developments on the island itself.