Erdogan Joins Push to Reunify Cyprus as Access to Energy Beckons

  • Officials say chance of ending frozen conflict best for years
  • Geneva talks offer prospect of stability in turbulent region

As talks resume on ending the frozen conflict in Cyprus, the prospect of reunifying the Mediterranean island divided in 1974 comes with the promise of delivering a rare piece of stability in a turbulent world.

With energy supply contracts, the regional security threat from Islamic State and the looming presence of Russia in the background, the leaders of Greek-speaking Cyprus and the Turkish-occupied north will meet in Geneva starting on Jan. 9 after negotiations broke down in November over territory. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will then jet in and he is expected to be joined by the Greek and British prime ministers.

Nicos Anastasiades, left, and Mustafa Akinci

Photographer: Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP via Getty Images

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, 70, said in his televised New Year address that any approach that aims to impose the views of one side won’t work and “time will continue to work against” a settlement. Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, 69, told the BBC on Dec. 28 that the talks “may be the last opportunity to reach peace in Cyprus.”

What happens next will reverberate around Europe and help set the tone for 2017 after a year when the continent’s divisions were laid bare. Success or failure may essentially come down to property rights in a few villages and towns on an island that’s less than half the size of New Jersey, though has been one of the world’s toughest diplomatic challenges.

There’s been no shortage of political investment in looking into a solution. While it could potentially be lauded as a rare foreign policy success for Erdogan, it at least will be welcome international respite for British Prime Minister Theresa May and her domestic battles over Brexit. It would also be a coup for U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration before Donald Trump takes over the White House.

Leaders say an accord has never been closer, though obstacles remain. What’s helping is the prospect of turning Cyprus, a European Union member, into an energy hub that would give Turkey and Europe access to gas deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.

On the security side, Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO and Cypriot reunification would help to strengthen the organization in the region as Russia continues to expand its influence through its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Turkey announced on Dec. 29 they had brokered a truce in the country’s almost six-year long civil war.

Turkey is also coming under an increasing number of attacks from Kurdish militants and Islamic extremists, the most recent at an Istanbul nightclub.

“Cyprus reunification would improve stability in the otherwise unstable Eastern Mediterranean and facilitate oil and gas development and exports to Europe over the long term,” said Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst in London at Eurasia Group, whose annual outlook makes 2017 the “most volatile” year for political risk since World War II. “If no deal is reached, the fallout may complicate Turkey-EU relations and strengthen Russia’s foothold in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Security Status

A major barrier to reunification of Cyprus is the issue of who has responsibility for protecting the different entities in the new federal state. The island has three so-called security guarantor powers: Greece, Turkey and the U.K., from which Cyprus gained independence in 1960 and which still has military bases on the island.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says his country is willing to give up the status, and Greek Cypriots say that guarantor powers wouldn’t be needed in a unified Cyprus that’s a member of the EU. Turkey, which maintains about 35,000 troops on the island, aims to keep its guarantor status to safeguard Turkish Cypriots.

“If there will be a solution in Cyprus, it must be a solution based on a just administration, a rotating presidency under which the rights of both people and property are respected and which assures Turkey’s active guarantorship,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Dec. 16.

Cyprus came close to a settlement in 2004 just prior to joining the EU, but the United Nations-brokered blueprint for a bi-communal federation was accepted by Turkish Cypriots and rejected by Greek Cypriots in a vote. If a unity deal is reached in Geneva, it will also need to be approved by the citizens of both sides of the island.

The two Cypriot leaders will present their respective proposals Jan. 11 for what territory would form the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot regions in a planned bi-zonal federation and how many people would be allowed to reclaim property lost after division of the island. The following day, the two sides will be joined by the representatives of Greece, Turkey and Britain.

The talks are “perhaps the best opportunity for a settlement that we’ve seen for many, many years,” Prime Minister May told British lawmakers on Dec. 19.

— With assistance by Thomas Penny, and Selcan Hacaoglu

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