Cyprus needs two-state solution, claims head of Turkish-occupied north

<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus will become ever more dependent on Turkey, and the hydrocarbon reserves surrounding Cyprus could be left unexploited, unless a solution to the 50-year dispute over the partitioned island is reached soon, Ersin Tatar, the president of the unrecognised “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, has said.

Speaking from his presidential palace in the divided city of Nicosia, right by the UN-policed green line with Greek Cyprus, Tatar is trying to find ways to persuade others to “think out[side] the box” and join him in advocating for a two-state solution for the island.

Often seen as a frozen conflict in which neither set of politicians can shed their grievances or memories, the fate of the island, divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion to protect Turks on the island from the Greek military junta, has fallen down diplomats’ priority lists.

Tatar, a rightwing nationalist elected in 2020 with the direct support of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claims to be trying to change that. He has broken from previous Turkish Cypriot policy by proposing a two-state solution in which the two sides of the island would remain permanently divided with equal sovereign status.

Related: Turkish Cypriot leader: ‘The only way forward is a two-state solution’

He described the 50-year effort to reunify the island through a bizonal federation as “a waste of time” since Greek Cypriots in the recognised Republic of Cyprus had no incentive from inside the EU to share the island fairly.

The last UN-mediated talks in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, for which there had been high hopes, collapsed in 2017, and subsequent informal UN talks in Geneva have also foundered.

Tatar said: “Things have got worse. The Greeks refuse to share power. They think they are masters of this island and that it is a Greek Hellenic Island. If we are to resume formal negotiations, we have to have our sovereign equality and status as an independent state recognised. There are two states and two people on the island. We have our own culture and ambitions. Reversing the clock back to reunification of the island is absolutely impossible.”

Tatar’s critics say his two-state plan is a nonstarter and instead of giving Turkish Cypriots greater sovereignty, his strategy risks turning the isolated north of Cyprus in effect into an economic colony of Ankara, something that will eventually threaten the north’s prized secular status.

Tatar admitted that if the international community did not engage with his plan and lift the embargo on the north to open up, the north would be forced to integrate even more closely with Ankara. “Obviously if there is no agreement, in the long run we will have more and more Turkish influence on the island because we will over time become more and more dependent on Turkey,” he said. His “republic” already receives at least €270m a year from Ankara.

The fear of a conservative Islamification is real. Protests have been continuing on the island over the state-appointed grand mufti, Ahmet Ünsal, recently saying women had a duty to answer their husband’s invitation to go to bed to procreate. Yet at the same time, Turks and Russians pour into the north to gamble, albeit in vast subterranean and money-spinning all-night casinos operating in the basements of luxury hotels.

Tatar sees Turkey as the motherland. “Whenever we have been kicked around or suffered, Turkey always came to save us,” he said. “Turkey sacrificed her own children for our security. We feel part of the Turkish race. In 1974, the Turkish army came as a protectorate, and now we, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have overlapping interests.”

Tatar’s experienced advisers accept it is legitimate to ask how, and with what levers, they can put pressure on the Greek Cypriots, or the international community, to negotiate on the premise of a two-state solution, something that has been widely rejected, including by the recently resurgent Turkish Cypriot opposition parties.

The first lever is largely unspoken. Cyprus remains a geopolitical nerve centre. If the west needs to draw Turkey closer to its alliance and away from Russia, recognition of the Turkish Republic of northern Cyprus would be a good place to start.

Long-running disputes over hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean also provide Tatar with a lever. Tatar said: “Any deals made by Greek Cypriots with big petrol companies are absolutely illegal since they should have our consent as the co-founders of Cyprus.

“If there is conflict, then exploitation of these billions of dollars’ worth of natural resources obviously comes with risks. We have our own maps. I have my own people, my own territory, my own coastline and my own right to make an agreement with other countries, and I have done this already with Turkey.”

He added with a hint of menace: “Where this is a source of conflict over billions of dollars of natural resources, it can lead in the future to unpleasant events.”

His aides said the value of the hydrocarbons in the east Mediterranean was time-limited, and if the status of Cyprus was deadlocked, the hydrocarbons risked being left untapped as governments moved on to greener technology such as solar.

“With global warming there is a potential risk that a day will come when we cannot use these resources,’’ Tatar said.

Tatar insisted there were signs that governments were willing to look at the Cyprus issue anew. But so far he has failed to persuade the British, one of three guarantors for the island. He said he was very disappointed that the UK, post-Brexit with its hands untied, had not even agreed to direct flights to northern Turkey, let alone recognition.

Educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, he said wistfully that he was not even given an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, even though he said he was prepared to take his country if recognised into the Commonwealth.