Simmering tensions over a divided island

The Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders will soon take part in UN-sponsored negotiations to find a solution to the long-standing political conflict that left Cyprus divided. However, there is little chance the two sides will see eye to eye.

A map showing Cyprus' different territorial structures
Both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot governments have their seat in Nicosia, which is cut in two by a UN buffer zone. The city is often described as “the world’s last divided capital” © macpixxel for GIS

In a nutshell

  • In Cyprus, the Greek and Turkish sides are not budging
  • Ankara and Athens are adding fuel to the fire
  • Bilateral talks are unlikely to bear fruit

Cyprus has gone through numerous wars and foreign occupations, and one of the legacies of this history is the divide between the Greek and Turkish parts of the island. Turkish Cypriots unilaterally declared the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which only Ankara recognizes. It is the Greek-led Republic of Cyprus that belongs to the United Nations and the European Union. 

Who controls Cyprus?

Today, the division of Cyprus means the island has two autonomous administrations. Although the two communities have been ruling their respective territories independently since 1974, there has been no official partition. The Greek-Cypriot side refused a two-state solution proposed in 1983. It also turned down a UN power-sharing deal in 2004 meant to unify the island prior to joining the EU.

More recently, the Greek government of the Republic of Cyprus has one-sidedly taken decisions on hydrocarbon initiatives, creating significant tension with Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. The Greek side has agreements with multinational companies like Eni, Noble Energy, ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum and Shell.

The EastMed Gas Forum poses a real threat to the Turkish presence in the Mediterranean Basin.

Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea holds natural gas, including the Aphrodite gas field discovered in 2011. Egypt, Lebanon and Israel all recognize the Greek Cypriot EEZ, but Turkey has been intruding in the area. Ankara has also threatened to mobilize its naval forces against Greece and the Republic of Cyprus. The situation plays into Turkish energy disputes with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France.

Energy dispute in the Mediterranean

In 2019, Cyprus, Greece and Israel signed a deal to build a pipeline linking the Israeli Leviathan and the Cypriot Aphrodite gas fields to Europe through Greece, bypassing Turkey. In January 2020, Egypt organized the EastMed Gas Forum with Cyprus and Greece, as well as Israel, Palestine, and Italy. The UAE and the United States will take part as observers in 2021.

The EastMed Gas Forum poses a real threat to the Turkish presence in the Mediterranean Basin, much to the UAE’s liking. The initiative creates an opportunity for EU and non-EU states to align against Turkey, and an anti-Turkish front indeed appears to be forming in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since 2017, the UAE has participated in the Greek-led annual military drills in the Peloponnese alongside the U.S. and Israel, and more recently Cyprus, Italy, and Egypt. In 2020, MEDUSA, the first joint aeronautical exercise with the active participation of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece and the UAE, was held in Alexandria. In early 2021, Cyprus and Greece implemented military cooperation agreements with the UAE. Meanwhile, countries like Germany, Spain, and Italy are calling for a more balanced approach to Ankara.

The Turkish view

Turkey maintains that the Turkish Cypriots also have the right to undertake energy exploration activities and issue licenses. In 2011, the Turkish-Cypriot authorities offered the Greek side, through the UN Secretary-General, an agreement that would suspend all hydrocarbon exploration activity until a deal was reached, or a UN-supervised joint committee was formed. 

The Greek Cypriots rejected both options and kept up their unilateral exploration to such an extent that Turkey started to take action to protect its interests. Turkish research vessels intensified their study of seismic activity in the blocks licensed to Turkish Petroleum and in the Turkish Cypriot waters, and Ankara adopted a more aggressive tone over matters concerning the Mediterranean Sea. The crisis flared up again in 2018 when an Eni ship licensed to drill by the Greek Cypriot authorities was blocked by the Turkish Navy.

On March 8, 2021, the Republic of Cyprus signed an agreement with Israel and Greece to build the Euro-Asia interconnector. The underwater power cable – the world’s longest – will go through the Mediterranean and should be completed by 2024. The project will remedy the problem of energy isolation in Cyprus, the last EU member not to be connected to the European network. But it also sparked Ankara’s ire since the pipes will have to pass through Turkish waters.


Facts & figures

Map showing EastMed pipeline
Turkey strongly opposes the EastMed pipeline, which will bring natural resources from Cyprus and Israel to continental Europe. The Turkish Foreign Ministry called the project “a new example of futile steps in the region that try to exclude our country and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. © macpixxel for GIS

Returning to the negotiating table

The Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders and the British, Greek and Turkish foreign ministers will soon attend informal UN-sponsored 5+1 talks, scheduled to take place in Geneva from April 27 to 29. The previous 2017 bilateral talks in Switzerland had ended in stalemate. During the negotiations, the Turkish side will be asked to put aside its two-state solution and accept what is de facto reality – namely that the Republic of Cyprus is the only recognized actor on the international scene. Meanwhile, the Greek side will be called upon to support an internationally recognized federation with two distinct EEZs to reunite the island. Because the two outcomes are mutually exclusive, a compromise is unlikely.

The Turkish Cypriot president, a close ally of Mr. Erdogan, is advocating partition.

The UN is hoping for a federation, but there have been rumors in the Greek Cypriot press for some time that President Nicos Anastasiades no longer believes this solution is possible. The British would probably be satisfied with any compromise, like a loose confederation. The EU appears invested in settling the matter, and High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell met with the heads of both sides on his last visit to Cyprus. Both the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots have shown little appetite for reconciliation despite the international repercussions that separation would bring. Although Mr. Anastasiades may not personally believe a federation is realistic, he cannot voice support for the two-state solution without angering the nationalist Greek Cypriot media and opposition. 

Meanwhile, Turkish Cypriot President Ersin Tatar, a close ally of Mr. Erdogan, is advocating partition. It is possible that he is merely setting out the maximum price and would accept a lower offer if it can be tied to concessions on the EastMed issue. Turkey has been trying to promote its brand of Islamism in Northern Cyprus, building mosques and funding allied local politicians. This has caused concern among Turkish Cypriots, who are more secular and Europe-oriented than mainland Turks. Still, links between the north of the island and Ankara are multiplying and Mr. Tatar’s victory in 2019 implies the trend could continue.

Both the Turkish and Greek parts of the island have suffered from the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tourism accounts for much of the island’s income and pressure to reopen is strong. Rates of infection and hospitalizations have been rocketing, leading to a new lockdown in January. On March 9, 2021, the European Commission approved a total budget of 200 million euros to support Cypriot companies and self-employed individuals whose activities were suspended due to restrictions. The lockdown also led to the closure of the crossing points between the Turkish and Greek parts of the divided island, severely affecting the bi-communal programs that had been put in place at great effort.



The UN meeting will lead to a comprehensive solution

It is very unlikely that the meeting in Geneva this April will resolve the 50-year conflict. Only a joint intervention by key countries in the Eastern Mediterranean like Egypt and Israel could ease tensions between Greece and Turkey and, as a result, between the two political parties of Cyprus. But given the geopolitical stakes at play, this outcome is the most improbable.

The UN meeting will lay the groundwork for productive discussions

This scenario is possible, but unlikely. The profound socioeconomic crisis unleashed by Covid-19 has deepened the wounds dividing Cypriot society. In an unstable economic situation, tensions are likely to flare up rather than recede. 

The UN meeting will amount to little

This is the most likely scenario. Frictions between Turkey’s aspirations in the Mediterranean and the rigid Greek policies are deeply rooted. They are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

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