As a change of leadership in Cyprus take place, could a solution to the decades old conflict be on the cards? George Kyris examines developments….
When Mustafa Akinci took to the podium for his first speech as the new leader of the Turkish Cypriots waving an olive branch it became obvious that his victory was a clear message of reconciliation from the northern part of Cyprus. With negotiations with Greek Cypriots restarting soon, the change in Turkish Cypriot leadership raises the question one more time: can the Cyprus problem be resolved?
The Republic of Cyprus became independent as a state of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in 1960. But after failure of the two sides to cooperate and conflict which cultivated in the war of 1974, the island has been divided into two zones: in the south the Republic of Cyprus, now exclusively led by the Greek Cypriots, and in the north the self-declared Turkish Republic of northern Cyprus, which remains unrecognised and relies on the military, economic and political support of Turkey. Over the years, the two communities have unsuccessfully tried to reunify based on a federation.
The new leftist leader Akinci supports the efforts for a new federal Cyprus and this is why he is regarded as a ‘moderate’ towards the Cyprus problem. On the other end of the political spectrum stand more ‘hardline’ politicians, like the defeated conservative Derviş Eroğlu, who are less flexible in negotiations and often gravitate more towards a loose federal arrangement, a clearly separate Turkish Cypriot state and increased links with Turkey.
But Akinci is not new to compromise politics in Cyprus. During the 80’s and as mayor of the Turkish municipality of Nicosia he worked with his Greek Cypriot counterpart towards addressing together a series of issues in the capital, such as the sewage system. In early 00’s he founded the Peace and Democracy Movement, to promote reunification based on the ‘Annan Plan’, the UN proposal for a federation and consequent accession of a united Cyprus into the EU. The proposal was approved by Turkish Cypriots but rejected by Greek Cypriots, who entered the EU essentially alone. When I met him few years later, he continued to see solution and EU integration as remedy to Turkish Cypriot international isolation. Today, Akinci still support a new federation-member of the EU.
Akinci’s strong pro-solution profile is also reflected on his views on the relationship between Turkish Cypriots and Turkey. During past few years Turkey’s involvement in north Cyprus has accelerated, also in the form of promoting Islam through education or the construction of mosques. But unlike many Turkish Cypriot politicians, such as his predecessor Eroğlu, Akinci’s loyalties lie more with Cyprus rather than Turkey. During his campaign, Akinci challenged Ankara’s role by saying that the relationship between north Cyprus and Turkey should be one of ’brothers/sisters’ rather than one of ‘a motherland and her child’, which has been the mantra of consequent Turkish governments and the current President Erdoğan, who rebuffed Akinci’s remarks in the aftermath of his victory. Ankara is planned to be Akinci’s first visit abroad and before meeting with the Greek Cypriots, raising concerns of his ability to act independently.
But the outcome of this election can be seen as a Turkish Cypriot message of reconciliation but also unease with the involvement of Turkey in north Cyprus. The Cyprus problem and the role of Ankara took centre stage in the campaign, especially during last week when the moderate Akinci and the hardliner Eroğlu fought for the second round. When finally it became obvious that Akinci won the race, people took to the streets carrying flags of the EU rather than the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state or even Turkey which are more popular amongst hardliners. Other affiliates of Akinci called Greek Cypriots to cross the border of the divided capital and join the celebrations. For a moment, the atmosphere reminded that of 2004, when Turkish Cypriots rallied behind reunification and EU accession, which though never happened due to the Greek Cypriot rejection of the Annan Plan.
So, what are the chances that the Cyprus Problem is resolved this time round? The experience of 2004 shows that whatever happens in northern Cyprus, Greek Cypriots also need convincing. Many Greek Cypriots themselves have dismissed Akinci’s victory arguing that it is Ankara who is calling the shots. But while Turkey continues to be a player in the dispute, this is not to undermine the difference that leadership in the island can make- after all, Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan and Turkish Cypriots approved it under hardline and moderate leaders respectively. What is more, Akinci is a rather different leader, who is expected to also focus on the role of society in reconciliation rather than just the official negotiations. That’s why he advocates the opening of the ghost town of Famagusta- something which is seen positively by many Greek Cypriots-, which he thinks could bring economic benefits to both sides and therefore create a momentum towards a public support of resolution.
To what extent these confidence-building measures will bring a solution to the decades-long dispute closer is left to be seen. But, for now, one thing is certain: Akinci is the most reconciliation-prone leader his Greek Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades could negotiate with. Who knows? Maybe the fact they both come from Limassol could play a positive role too.