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Erdogan strengthens his grip on northern Cyprus

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Erdogan strengthens his grip on northern Cyprus

07/22/2021, by Marie Jégo

This article is a translation of an article from Le Monde, available here

The Turkish President, during a two-day visit to the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), reiterated his support for a "two-state solution".

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the northern part of Cyprus on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 July, where he reiterated his support for a "two-state" solution, rather than the creation of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation, to remedy the island's partition.

In Lefkosa, the Turkish part of Nicosia, he attended on Tuesday the military parade celebrating the 47th anniversary of the Turkish military intervention that divided the island in two, with the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union (EU) in the south, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in the north, only recognised by Ankara, which holds 30,000 troops there. During the ceremonies, Erdogan said that peace talks on the future of Cyprus could only take place between "the two states" of the Mediterranean island. "We are right and we will defend our right to the end," he said.

After decades of fruitless UN-sponsored negotiations for reunification, Turkey has changed its tune. "It is out of the question to waste another 50 years" negotiating on the basis of a federation, the Turkish leader told the TRNC parliament. But the idea of a two-state solution is unacceptable to the Republic of Cyprus, the only legitimate entity, and to the European Union. In June, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, assured that Brussels would "never accept" this possibility.

In a provocative move, the Turkish leader visited Varosha, a former seaside resort on the outskirts of Famagusta, promising, as he did in October 2020, to reopen parts of the city to the public. Once known as the Saint-Tropez of the Mediterranean, Varosha was abandoned at the time of the 1974 Turkish military intervention. Emptied of its 15,000 Greek Cypriot inhabitants who fled the arrival of the Turkish army, the town has remained untouched since.

Reopening of a ghost town

The decision to open the beaches and streets of the ghost town without prior consultation with the Greek Cypriot side undermines the prospect of a solution. The Greek Cypriots, who have never received compensation for the loss of their properties, fear that they will be permanently robbed. The creation by the Turks of a "property commission" does not help to reassure them.

The President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, has strongly condemned the Turkish decision, calling for UN protection for the town. However, the fact that only a small part and not the whole of the former seaside resort has been promised to reopen proves that Ankara is trying to test the reactions of the international community.

While Cyprus has been relatively neglected by Turkey since the Islamo-conservatives came to power in 2002, President Erdogan's visit illustrates the return of the island as a central geopolitical element in Turkey's power projection strategy. "The visit makes sense in the context of a strategic reinvestment in the Cyprus issue," stresses Dorothée Schmid, head of the Contemporary Turkey and Middle East programme at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). Clearly, Turkey wants to strengthen its presence there. "The dynamics of Turkish influence are currently evolving in several places, which illustrate the Turkish strategy of the fait accompli," explains the researcher.

In a study finalised in July, IFRI, in association with Preligens, a start-up using artificial intelligence to analyse satellite images, outlines this dynamic. The unilateral decision to reopen the town of Varosha to the public attests to Ankara's intentions. According to satellite images provided by Preligens, roads are being renovated and a human presence is visible in the city.

The Turks have opened a drone base at the Gecitkale military airfield on the Mesaoria plain. "Bayraktar TB2 drones, touted as the "best robot planes in the world" have been deployed there," according to IFRI's study. Although rather basic for the moment, the installations testify Ankara's desire to monitor what is going on in the Mediterranean, particularly in terms of gas and oil exploration.

Finally, the study points out, "the hypothesis of the installation of a Turkish naval base in Northern Cyprus has resurfaced regularly since 2018. Retired Turkish admirals have spoken of the vital importance of establishing a Turkish naval base in the TRNC, and Turkey began work in June 2019 on a 'logistics port' project in the TRNC, designed to meet the logistical needs of warships operating in the eastern Mediterranean."

The discovery of gas deposits off the island, described as equivalent in volume to those in the North Sea, has only increased tensions. While Nicosia has invited energy giants to exploit the deposits, Ankara is crying spoliation, accusing the Republic of Cyprus of hijacking the wealth. Turkey sees the exploration as a violation of its sovereign rights. The fact that the Republic of Cyprus has entered into energy partnerships, notably with Egypt and Israel, contributes to the feeling of isolation on the Turkish side.

"The Greeks have provided France with bases, Israeli drones have been deployed on the island, the UK already has its bases. In this context, we cannot be content to be spectators," explained Ersin Tatar, the president of the TRNC, a few months before his election in October 2020.

Tensions rose in the summer of 2020, when Turkey sent seismic research vessels escorted by military ships off Cyprus, prompting condemnation from Nicosia and the EU. The threat of sanctions, raised at the December 2020 European Council, had a small effect. Ankara then halted its exploration, fearing the impact of sanctions on its ailing economy.

But with negotiations for the island's reunification at a standstill and the prospects of Turkey's EU membership now seemingly a pipe dream, Europe's oldest frozen conflict risks remaining unresolved, contributing to make Cyprus a time bomb.

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