The fallout from Turkey’s failed coup is changing the political dynamic of the current talks on the reunification of Cyprus. It’s just too early to say if for good or ill. The domestic upheaval in Turkey could propel this latest effort to bring peace to an island divided since 1974, and there are reasons for optimism as negotiations near their end. There is equally a chance it will sink this bid, as every previous one, to bring Greek Cypriots in the south back together with Turkish Cypriots in the north. Start with the good case scenario. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is straining relations with the West over his far-reaching crackdown in the wake of the July 15 military revolt — and a deal on Cyprus could be his olive branch to Brussels and Washington, a diplomatic win amid the domestic unrest.
As intense negotiations on the island continue this summer, Ankara insists it’s committed to its reunification.
“The solution is out there, it’s still doable” — Selim Yenel, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU
“It’s very important for us to have a deal. We’re tired of Cyprus as a problem,” Selim Yenel, Turkey’s ambassador to the EU, told POLITICO last week. “We know that, if we don’t have a deal on Cyprus, we will not be able to move on the accession process [to the EU]. Simple as that — two plus two.”
Turkey has around 40,000 troops stationed in northern Cyprus and will need to sign off on any withdrawal terms as part of any final settlement.
‘Turkey is committed’
The Turkish coup, followed by the arrests of thousands, have not disrupted talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, whose government is recognized everywhere except in Turkey, and Turkish Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı, whose government is only recognized by Turkey. The two started negotiating more than a year ago and have been meeting twice a week since early summer.
Akıncı remains in good standing with Ankara, even though he’s fairly independent of it, observers say. He was quick to voice support for Erdoğan’s government on the night of the coup, and his government has since designated the group blamed for the coup, led by Fethullah Gülen, a terrorist organization. Ten Turkish officers stationed in northern Cyprus have reportedly been arrested.
The two leaders last met on Friday and will resume talks in late August on some of the trickiest issues, including the future of the three protecting powers established in Cyprus’ 1960 constitution — Turkey, Greece and the U.K. — and the Turkish troops.
“The solution is out there, it’s still doable,” Yenel said. “Turkey is committed, the Turkish Cypriots are committed, even the Greek Cypriots are committed — I’ll say that much.”
The aftermath of the Turkish coup could even work in the island’s favor, giving all three sides more impetus to get the deal done while momentum is strong.
The Greek Cypriot side seized on the situation, with government spokesman Nikos Christodoulides saying last week that it makes clear that Turkish Cypriots have to choose between “the unacceptable state of affairs and dependency on Turkey” or a future “in a united Cyprus, EU member state.”
There is still distance to cover and concerns to address on both sides, Anastasiades told reporters after Friday’s meeting. Asked if he was optimistic, he replied: “I have not spoken about optimism. I am talking about a creative meeting with the differences in existence.”
A ‘narrow window’
The bad case scenario ranges from an Erdoğan distracted at home and unable to focus on Cyprus to one looking to export his political revolution to the island. These final sticking points to a reunification can’t be resolved without consent from Ankara, Athens and London. On the question of Turkish troops, Anastasiades and Akıncı will likely agree to call for a gradual exit, possibly leaving a few hundred on the ground in the north. But Erdoğan will have to agree.There’s concern that Erdoğan’s response to the failed coup may put Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU on hold, eliminating a strong incentive to support Cypriot reunification. Recent events in Turkey “increase the risk of missing this narrow window as the unification of Cyprus is likely not going to be a priority item on Ankara’s political agenda,” said Berkay Mandıracı, an Istanbul-based researcher at the International Crisis Group. The window closes around March 2017, when Anastasiades starts campaigning for the next presidential elections in February 2018. His government’s plan to award new licenses for companies to explore for offshore natural gas early next year could also reignite tensions with Turkey and Turkish Cypriots, who say it should wait until there’s a settlement. Turkey protested exploration work in 2014 by sending a seismic ship to the area, prompting Anastasiades to walk away from reunification talks.
“Right now, the current Turkish government is supportive of the peace process, so it’s not doing anything to jeopardize it,” said Ahmet Sözen, a professor of political science and international relations at the Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus. But that could change if the negotiations fail and, in the meantime, Turkey grows more authoritarian, he added.
There’s also concern that Erdoğan’s response to the failed coup, purging civil servants and raising the possibility of re-introducing the death penalty, may put Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU on hold. That, in turn, could eliminate a strong incentive to support Cypriot reunification.
“The idea that the settlement in Cyprus would be the magic wand that would unblock the accession negotiations has become an illusion,” said Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “The only thing which is for certain is a long protracted period of uncertainty.”
‘The year of a settlement’
Anastasiades and Akıncı started their talks soon after Akıncı was elected in April 2015, with the aim of putting the deal to a referendum in 2016. Until now, negotiators have made brisk progress on simpler issues. But the timeline has started to slip as the talks move on to the thorniest issues, and observers now say the vote could be held in early 2017 Akıncı has stressed that it needs to happen before Anastasiades starts campaigning and the Greek Cypriots award new gas licenses.