Turkey and the Cyprus Problem

by George Hatjoullis

The abortive coup in Turkey has created quite a lot of chatter on the implications for resolving the division of Cyprus (the so-called Cyprus Problem). A few speculative observations may be pertinent.

The Turkish invasion of Cyprus was carried out under the leadership of Mustafa Bülent Ecevit, leader of the Republican People’s Party. He was not an Islamist. The invasion was carried out by a military not known for relinquishing land won through battle and self-proclaimed guarantors of the secular Republic of Turkey. The idea that a settlement was more likely if the coup had succeeded does not stand up to scrutiny. There has been more progress towards a settlement (not a lot, but some) under Erdogan than at any time before.

Erdogan has evidently pursued an overtly inward looking policy. He appears to have favoured police and internal security over the army. This is consistent with someone trying to consolidate power not embark on expansionism. The expansionism may follow but for the moment the domestic power struggle is dominant. It is not a secret that he wishes to amend the constitution and move Turkey towards a presidential republic with himself as president. The parallels with Putin are striking.

Erdogan’s attitude to the EU is becoming clear and is evidently hostile. Membership would restrict his freedom to manoeuvre. If Turkey reintroduced the death penalty it has basically said it does not wish to join under Erdogan. He would appear to have a vision of Turkey at the head of an emergent middle eastern power group of muslim, though not necessarily islamic, states. If this judgement is correct then it may be very good or very bad news for Cyprus.

Erdogan is a ‘big picture’ man. He has a grand vision and will do whatever it takes to achieve the vision. If the division of Cyprus becomes an obstacle to this vision then he will do whatever he can to ensure the division is resolved. If the division serves his purpose then it may never be resolved. It really does depend…

The Turkish Cypriot community will have a big role to play in determining Erdogan’s response. The TC community has a powerful distrust of the Republic of Cyprus (and vice versa). The TC community does however trust the EU and seems keen to become part of the EU. How will the TC community respond to Turkey, under Erdogan, alienating itself from the EU? How will the TC community respond to the purge extending to occupied Cyprus? To whom do the thousands of Turkish troops on Cyprus hold loyalty?

Turkey has traditionally been a big supporter of the TC community. Erdogan has bigger fish to fry. Moreover, his interests may lie with friendly relations with Greece and Russia, two supporters of the Republic of Cyprus. The Erdogan gambit and the coup that it provoked has changed the political realities of the region and in particular of the TC community. The ultimate implications for the Cyprus problem are far from definitive but the notion that it may be harder does not hold up to scrutiny.