Suddenly, there’s hope for Cyprus

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Cyprus' Turkish-Greek border [Shutterstock]

Great Britain is not the only peripheral island with an uncertain relationship with the European Union that faces an important election. In polite company this second island is called North Cyprus, writes Andrew Duff.

Andrew Duff was a Liberal Democrat MEP from 1999 to 2014.

The frontier of this quasi-state, which is recognised in international law only by Turkey, is the 1974 ceasefire etched by Turkish officers on the dining room table of the British High Commission in Nicosia. About 30,000 Turkish troops are still encamped in the TRNC. Trade and contact with the outside world is highly restricted. The economy is bust, and wholly reliant on bail-outs from the ‘motherland’. Despite its outstanding natural and cultural beauty, tourism is minimal. Brothels and casinos cater for the less classy punter. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots have emigrated, many to London. The unique Turkish Cypriot culture is at risk of dying. The ancient multi-cultural diversity of the Eastern Mediterranean, already threatened by Islamic fundamentalism on the mainland, faces termination in Cyprus.

So there is a moral as well as a political dimension to Cyprus’s national problem. The dimensions of the latter are well known and unremittingly sad. In 1960 Cyprus endured one of Britain’s less elegant imperial departures. The post-colonial constitution proved unworkable. Inter-communal violence, mostly perpetrated by Greek Cypriots, triggered the Turkish invasion. Since then, despite years of talks, there has been little or no rapprochement. The UN peace-keeping mission is showing signs of fatigue. Hopes that accession to the European Union in 2004 would spark reunification were dashed. While the whole island is technically a part of the EU, the writ of Union law does not run in the north. The magic of European integration has yet to work its charm on the island. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots have broken promises and practised deception. Although the border is now open for people to cross, several generations of Cypriots have grown up unknown to one another. Cyprus is an island of little trust and much fear.

Once the UN’s Annan Plan was rebuffed by Greek Cypriots in 2004, the EU rather washed its hands of the affair. The European Commission continues to offer technical assistance to the weary UN mission, but it remains distrusted by both sides, especially the Turks. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders have come and gone, some more nationalist than others, but few have evinced a passion to break the deadlock, and those who may have wished to do so have been frustrated at every turn by overwhelmingly negative interference from Athens and Ankara.

In all this mess, one Turkish Cypriot has stood out from the crowd. Mustafa Akinci, now aged 67, was the centre-left Mayor of Nicosia from 1976-90 and a bold critic of the Turkish nationalist leader Rauf Denktash and his successor as president of the TRNC, Dervis Eroglu. In the first round of the presidential election (19 April) Akinci, with 27% of the vote, beat off two rival opposition candidates to become the sole challenger to Eroglu, with 29%. The runner-up was Sibel Siber (23%), the candidate of the official opposition party CTP – that of Mehmet Ali Talat, president from 2005-10. Kudret Ozersay (21%), who resigned in despair as Eroglu’s chief negotiator with the Greek Cypriots, neatly carved up the conservative vote.

Mustafa Akinci has a good chance of winning the second round on Sunday if the Turkish government does not manoeuvre against him, either openly or clandestinely. In the past Ankara has whipped the many settlers from Anatolia to support the anti-European cause in the TRNC. Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has form on Cyprus. Stung by the failure of the Annan Plan, he has denied Turkish Cypriots new chances to make the concessions to the Greeks on security issues, without which reunification is impossible. Erdogan’s latest move was to threaten Greek Cypriot exploration for oil and gas. He could in the next hours use the North Cypriot elections to widen his campaign against the European Union. Or he could choose to use Cyprus as a bridge to re-build his relations with his European and NATO partners.

Akinci desires, as Eroglu does not, a reunited federal Cyprus within the EU. Akinci accepts that the Annan Plan is over. He will fight for the interests of Turkish Cypriots against an eventual annexation by Ankara. He knows that a formal partition of the island would leave the Turkish mini-state unviable. Born in southern Limassol, Mustafa Akinci is a liberal patriot for all Cyprus. He deserves success at home and widespread recognition abroad. As the new leader of the Turkish Cypriots he will need the determined backing of the EU, the US and UN (including Russia) to forge a quick and durable settlement with Republic of Cyprus President Anastasiades, who also supported the Annan Plan. Cyprus might well be about to deliver some rare good news for Europe and the world.

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