Can a new government unify Cyprus after four decades of division?

Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Christodoulides is promising to reboot peace talks with the Turkish north

Nicos Christodoulides
Nicos Christodoulides votes in elections in Cyprus on February 12. Photo by Kostas Pikoulas/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A little before dawn on 1 March, the call to prayer blasted from the loudspeakers of mosques in the self-styled Turkish republic of Northern Cyprus. For inhabitants within earshot in downtown Nicosia, the recording of the muezzin’s dulcet tones marked the start of another day. Except that this Wednesday was not like any other on the east Mediterranean island for Greek or Turkish Cypriots living either side of the UN-patrolled ceasefire line bisecting Europe’s last divided capital.

Not long after first light, a few miles further south in the very different world of the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, the newly elected Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Christodoulides moved into the presidential palace, the bullet-pocked facade of which still bears the scars of the ethnic strife that has kept the country fragmented for almost half a century. After 10 years of conservative stewardship by Nicos Anastasiades, 77, a changing of the guard has brought hope of an elusive peace.

Christodoulides, the victor of a two-round race on 12 February, is the eighth president to win a five-year term since the erstwhile British colony, barely 40 miles from the Turkish coast, gained independence in 1960. In the weeks since his election, the 49-year-old former foreign minister has emphasised his desire to fix the division firmly entrenched between the country’s two ethnic communities: one Muslim, the other Greek Orthodox Christian. 

Cyprus has been split since Turkish troops invaded in 1974 with the stated aim of protecting the Turkish Cypriot minority, after the backers of an Athens-inspired coup attempted union with Greece. The hugely successful military operation resulted in Ankara’s military forces seizing 37% of the island. 

For decades, negotiations aimed at unifying what is now the European Union’s most easterly state have defied mediators. UN talks seeking to create a bizonal, bicommunal federation — for the EU and other western capitals the only viable solution to what has become the West’s most enduring frozen conflict — collapsed in 2017 and the peace process has been stalled ever since, an unprecedented hiatus in dialogue that has contributed to a worsening climate on the ground. 

Making clear his intention to break the stalemate, one of Christodoulides’ first acts was to meet Ersin Tartar, the 63-year-old Cambridge-educated hardliner who heads the breakaway Turkish north. The two men held face-to-face talks, hosted by the UN’s special envoy Colin Stewart in Nicosia’s buffer zone, a strip of land otherwise known as the “dead zone”, which both sides deem neutral. Emerging from the two-hour meeting, Christodoulos insisted that the status quo was in the interest of neither community. 

“The present state of affairs cannot be the solution to the Cyprus problem, not for Greek Cypriots or Turkish Cypriots,” he said in his first public statement on the issue.   

There is widespread consensus on both sides of the ethnic divide that the new leader will have to perform a delicate balancing act if a pathway to peace is to be cleared

Tartar, an avowed nationalist, reiterated that there could be no return to the negotiating table before Turkish Cypriots were granted sovereignty.  

It is almost 20 years since it unilaterally proclaimed independence, and in that time the Turkish Cypriot mini-state has become increasingly dependent on Ankara, its main source of aid and still the only capital to recognise it. More than half a century after the seeds of the island’s conflict were sown with the outbreak of inter-communal violence in 1963, Tartar insists that a two-state solution is the only viable option.  

“Our red line is sovereignty,” he said after his meeting with Christodoulos, pointing to the inter-ethnic strife and the breakdown of power-sharing that took place three years after the end of British rule as indelible proof that the two sides can never coexist harmoniously. 

The decades-long impasse has fuelled increasing fears that the island is sleepwalking into permanent partition. Moderates on both sides, jaded by the lack of progress, feel that hardliners have seized the agenda. 

Christodoulides broke away from DISY, the centre-right party in power for the past decade, to run as an independent in the presidential race, supported by political groups that take an openly hard line on the peace process. As nationalists, they insist that negotiations start anew and not from where they were left before they broke down in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana six years ago. 

His opponent, Andreas Mavroyiannis, a career diplomat supported by AKEL — the leftwing party that has long espoused a federal state solution — lost by fewer than 8,000 votes.  

There is widespread consensus on both sides of the ethnic divide that the new leader will have to perform a delicate balancing act — one that will require him to break free of those whose support catapulted him into office — if a pathway to peace is to be cleared.

“If the new president doesn’t distance himself from these [hard line] parties, it will be difficult to convince the international community that he is serious about a federal solution,” Turkish Cypriot MEP Niyazi Kizilyurek told Hyphen in a telephone interview. 

Kizilyurek, a former academic, believes headway can only be made if the 230,000-strong Turkish Cypriot community is “integrated into the EU”.

In April 2004, the vast majority of Turkish Cypriot voters in the breakaway north cast ballots in favour of a UN peace plan that would have allowed for a united Cyprus to join the European Union. Greek Cypriots, by contrast, voted it down. As a result, when the Republic of Cyprus became a full EU member state on 1 May 2004, Turkish Cypriots were left out in the cold — EU laws do not apply in the breakaway north. 

As Christodoulides is the only internationally recognised leader representing the entire country in the EU, it is critical, Kizilyurek explained, that he moves speedily to implement confidence-building measures between the island’s ethnic communities to encourage interaction at a civil society level.

“It is important that the [Cypriot] Republic uses its power as a member state to integrate [Turkish Cypriots] into EU structures. It’ll make Turkish Cypriots less dependent on Turkey and create the conditions for a solution. And the fact is that so much can be done with EU funding,” Kizilyurek said.  

If a federal solution isn’t achieved, he warned, it could spell disaster for the Turkish Cypriot community. In recent years settlers, many from impoverished areas of mainland Turkey, have colonised the north, alarming locals who do not share their religious devotion or conservative outlook on life. 

“Without a federal solution, Turkish Cypriots will not be able to survive as a distinct community,” said Kizilyurek.

Signs of rapprochement between Athens and Ankara following February’s devastating earthquakes in Turkey’s south-east have also raised hopes of peace between the historic rival nations, both Nato members. 

But, against a backdrop of changing regional geopolitics and squabbling over offshore energy reserves that brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war in 2020, after Ankara dispatched drill ships backed by naval vessels to disputed gas-rich maritime areas, the island’s conflict has been absorbed into a broader dispute. Any solution in Cyprus will now almost certainly involve trade-offs over mineral rights. And with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan facing elections in the spring, few are expecting a breakthrough any time soon. 

“Cyprus is a small appetiser on the bigger geopolitical table,” said Ahmet Sozen, professor of international relations at the East Mediterranean University in Famagusta.

Like other moderates, Sozen has been a long-time champion of the argument that the only way forward is a solution uniting Cyprus as a federation of two states, represented abroad under one flag. Much will depend on the outcome of the Turkish election, he said. If the famously unpredictable Erdogan, who took a more conciliatory stance on Cyprus when he assumed power in 2002, emerges victorious it is not impossible that he could change his stance again in talks with the EU. 

“Whether we like it or not, domestic actors on Cyprus have less agency than before,” Sozen pointed out. “It’s the bigger players, like Turkey, that will be decisive in deciding whether this dispute is finally resolved.”    

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