The UN’s enthusiastic support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute is well attested, but there is a certain two-state solution that the UN resolutely refuses to endorse. Cyprus has been split apart politically ever since 1974, when Turkey invaded from the north, seized nearly 40 percent of the land, and set up a self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Its legitimacy has never been accepted by the UN, nor any international organization or country other than Turkey itself, nor has its demand that Cyprus be split into two states.
Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and its illegal annexation of territory has a direct parallel with the unhappy history of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – indeed, Turkey’s action might have been based on it. In 1948 Jordanian forces attacked the newly-born Jewish state and seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In 1950 Jordan annexed them – a move not recognized by the UN or the Arab League, nor by any countries except the UK and Pakistan. When in 1967 Israel succeeded in regaining control of them, it would have been logical for the UN to applaud Israel for liberating illegally acquired territories. They did not seem to see it that way.
As for Cyprus, when the EU decided in 1996 to admit the whole of the country, with or without a resolution of its enforced partition, Turkey tried for a while to demand a two-state solution. When that failed, it finally agreed to participate in UN-sponsored talks focused on reuniting the people of Cyprus into a single, if bicommunal, nation. This idea was the basis of a plan proposed in 2004 by then UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. Put to the people of Cyprus in a referendum, though, it signally failed to gain the support of Greek Cypriots since it would have involved a tacit recognition of Turkish aggression. Some two-thirds of Greek voters rejected the plan. The same percentage of Turkish voters supported it.
Cyprus is an issue that the UN cannot leave alone. Another international attempt to resolve the partition dilemma was made toward the end of April 2021. At the initiative of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, the two principals and the three guarantor powers – Britain, Turkey and Greece – met in Geneva with reunification very much in mind. Ersin Tatar, recently elected president of Turkish Cyprus, pretty much doomed this round of talks from the start.
“We are negotiating for a two-state solution,” he announced, as the talks began. But a two-state deal would have to involve recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – something the UN and the Greek Cypriots had resolutely refused to do for nearly 50 years.
So the talks ended in failure. In his closing statement Guterres said: “”Unfortunately today we are not able to reach the agreements that we would wish to reach. But we are not going to give up.” The United Nations, he said, would make a fresh attempt in “probably two or three months”.
“Cypriotism” is a vibrant aspect of Cypriot political life. It envisions a freestanding Cypriot nation independent of the motherlands Greece and Turkey. The idea of reunifying the divided country is expressed in the slogan: “Cyprus is neither Greek nor Turkish; it belongs to the Cypriots.” That concept is increasingly popular among the young, and especially so in the Turkish north. Many resent the overwhelming influence that Turkey exercises over their lives. They see it as a threat to their unique secular culture.
Over the years Turkish Cypriots have blown hot and cold over reunification. On two occasions attempts to achieve it were actually promoted by Turkish leaders: by Mehmet Ali Talat, elected northern president in 2005, and by Mustafa Akinci elected in 2015. Although both efforts came to nothing, in 2016 success seemed only a hand’s breadth away.
Akincı’s counterpart, Nicolis Anastasiades, president of the Cyprus Republic, was the only Greek Cypriot leader who supported the Annan Plan. He, like Akinci, was born in the southern city of Limassol. “Mr Anastasiades and I are of the same generation,” said Akinci after his election. “If we can’t solve this now, then the next generations, who lack memories of living together with the other community, could be tempted to explore other options and permanent divorce could be on the table.”
Akıncı and Anastasiades immediately started intercommunal talks under UN patronage, building upon their close personal relationship. The talks progressed rapidly, and Cypriots saw the two leaders having coffee either side of the buffer zone that separates the two communities. They appeared on TV together to send a holiday message in Turkish and Greek.
In June 2016, Akıncı said negotiations leading to reunification were almost completed and might be finalized at the next meeting. He was too optimistic. Time had run out. New elections were looming, and Anastasiades had to pull back from his identification with his Turkish counterpart. This became clear during a summit on Cypriot reunification held in Switzerland that July under the patronage of the UN and the EU. The talks collapsed, and were never resumed. The pendulum had swung.
In October 2020 Turkish Cypriots elected as president Ersin Tatar, whose campaign message had been that the concept of a unified Cyprus in the shape of a bicommunal federation had had its day. Instead, said Tatar, two states was the solution; Cyprus should be permanently partitioned.
His position accords with the geopolitical aspirations of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The discovery in 2010 of the Leviathan gas field off Israel, and of Cyprus’s gas field in 2015, has fostered an agreement between Israel, Greece and Cyprus to build a 1,900-km pipeline distributing natural gas to Europe, bypassing Turkey. Erdogan wants to develop a Trans-Anatolian pipeline to deliver natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. However, Azerbaijani gas reserves are not sufficient – which explains Erdogan’s claims on those of Cyprus, a position only sustainable if Turkey retains control of its self-declared republic.
In the face of Erdogan’s ambitions, Guterres’s continued efforts to achieve the reunification of Cyprus seem unlikely to succeed.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”. He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com