Whatever Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to come out of his visit to the occupied part of Cyprus – on the day that marked the 47th anniversary of the Turkish invasion that led to the division of the island – did not materialize.
Even among Turkish Cypriots, his intervention received a mixed reaction, with opposition parties boycotting his speech to the district’s internationally unrecognized ‘parliament’. More importantly, his visit and position on the ghost suburb of Varosia (known colloquially by the Turks as ‘Varosha’), and his statements that followed, received universal condemnation from the US and EU, as well as the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council – the UK, Russia, France, and China (as well as the aforementioned United States).
Loyal Turkish Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar welcomed Erdogan, who described the Cyprus issue as a major national affair for Turkey, while insisting on a two-state solution.
Emboldened by Erdogan’s presence, and supported by him, Tatar added, “Now, the only demand of the Turkish Cypriots in international negotiations is the recognition of the status of a sovereign state,” adding that only a two-state solution will work. Erdogan supported this when he said, “A new negotiation process can only be carried out between the two states,” challenging the island’s future reunification.
Tatar also announced a partial reopening of Varosia – an abandoned suburb of the far larger ghost city Famagusta. The Greek and international population fled after the Turkish invasion in 1974. Tatar wants to allow Varosia to be partially resettled by the island’s Turks, while at the same time completely ignoring UN resolutions calling for Varosia to be handed over to UN administration and to allow the pre-invasion population to return to their homes.
The move by Tatar prompted UN Secretary-General Anotnio Guterres to say that he is “deeply concerned over the announcements of July 20 by the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey regarding the further opening of the enclosed city of Varosia.” He added that the position of the UN on Varosia remains unchanged and is guided by the relevant resolutions of the UN.
EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, went on to say: “The unilateral decision announced by President Erdogan and Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar risks raising tensions on the island and compromising return to talks on a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus issue,” adding that the plans for Varosia announced by Tatar and Erdogan constituted an “unacceptable unilateral decision.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made it clear that the EU would “never accept” a two-state proposal for Cyprus. “These clear messages have been sent. I told the president (Erdogan) personally. It is therefore up to him now to give a positive signal.” Von der Leyen’s warnings to Erdogan not to jeopardize a push for better ties with the EU by inflaming tensions in Cyprus do not appear to have been heeded.
The UK issued a statement of concern but the strongest response came from the US.
At a Senate hearing on US-Turkish relations, Victoria Nuland, the American Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, said: “We condemn the announcement by Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar and Turkish President Erdogan to allow Turkish Cypriots to take control of parts of Varosia. This move is incompatible with UN Security Council Resolutions 550 and 789, which explicitly call for Varosia to be administered by the UN. The US considers this action provocative, unacceptable and detrimental to the prospect of a resumption of settlement talks. We urge that this decision be reversed. We will work with like-minded partners in the UN Security Council. A comprehensive settlement by the Cypriot leadership for the reunification of the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation is the only way to lasting peace and stability.”
Nuland added that the US urged Erdogan to address differences in the region through diplomacy and not by provocative actions or rhetoric.
This followed a strong condemnation by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who emphasized that “The US views Turkish Cypriot actions in Varosia, with the support of Turkey, as provocative, unacceptable, and incompatible with their past commitments to engage constructively in settlement talks … We urge Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to reverse their decision announced today and all steps taken since October 2020.”
Greek Foreign minister Nikos Dendias was unequivocal in his statements, saying, “There can be no prospects of improving Greece-Turkey and EU-Turkey relations as long as Turkey insists on breaking the law in Cyprus.” He later added, “We want to be clear that illegality is not law, violation does not produce rights.”
But Turkey is proceeding with construction projects and the further militarization of the occupied part of Cyprus with the building of two new bases for their armed forces, one of which will be used as an airstrip for Turkish combat drones. The tone and content of the visit appeared to have been designed to bolster Erdogan’s flagging position domestically.
Natural gas lurks in the background
With regards to natural gas, during his visit, Erdogan reiterated his proposal for a wider international conference on Eastern Mediterranean maritime and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) issues. Referring to ExxonMobil’s plan to complete appraisal drilling of the Glaucus discovery in block 10 of Cyprus EEZ, he said that the Greek Cypriot side ignored this proposal and plans to resume work in the autumn.
Turkish Cypriot media expected Erdogan to announce a gas discovery in the areas in Cyprus’ EEZ where Turkey drilled in 2020. But in the end, no such announcement was made.
This preceded the visit. On July 2, Erdogan announced that Turkey will continue its activities to explore oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even after drilling eight wells with no discoveries made, Erdogan said Turkey had been receiving “signals of natural gas” and vowed to continue defending Turkey’s ‘rights’ in the region, without providing a timeline or further details.
Given that this announcement happened after the EU leaders summit in June, where Turkey was asked to “show restraint, respect the sovereign rights of Cyprus and refrain from any such actions”, Erdogan’s decision not to comply is worrying and puts Turkey’s sincerity about peace in the region deeply in question.