18 Ekim 2021

‘They are Greeks, they are Christians. We are a different race’

The hardline leader of breakaway north Cyprus will press his government’s push for a two-state solution at the UN next month, calling for a “reality check” after half a century of failed efforts to reunite the divided Mediterranean island.

Northern Cyprus has taken an uncompromising line on possible reunification since Ersin Tatar was elected president of the Turkish Cypriot enclave last year with robust backing from Turkey. 

The two sides of the island, segregated along ethnic lines since the mid-1960s, are now too estranged to reunify and future negotiations require recognition of his side as “equal and sovereign”, Tatar said in an interview with the Financial Times. 

“It is time for the world to recognise the reality that we have two different states, [and] any effort to push us into a mixed marriage is doomed to fail,” Tatar said. “They are Greeks, they are Christians. We are a different race. We speak Turkish, our religion is Islam, our motherland is Turkey.”

Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkey invaded its north in response to an Athens-inspired coup which aimed to unite the island with Greece. 

The decades-old dispute is now enmeshed in a region-wide conflict over rights to hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean, with Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Egypt and the EU squaring off against Turkey and north Cyprus.

Only Turkey recognises Tatar’s administration, and keeps tens of thousands of troops on the island. The rest of the international community sees the Greek Cypriot government, which joined the EU in 2004, as the island’s sole authority.

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan backs partition but it failed to gain any traction when Tatar met Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades for UN-backed exploratory talks in Geneva in April. 

Tatar will travel to New York in September during the UN General Assembly, when he expects to meet Anastasiades again in an attempt to establish enough common ground to restart formal negotiations for the first time since UN-brokered talks collapsed in 2017.

“I’m not saying that we will shut the door,” Tatar said. “I am here to negotiate for a fair settlement based on two sovereign states.”

Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean escalated dramatically last year when Erdogan sent a seismic research vessel, accompanied by warships, into waters internationally recognised as belonging to Greece and Cyprus to hunt for natural gas, threatening a military confrontation with Turkey’s Nato partner Greece.

Tatar said he “does not trust” a pledge from Cyprus to share a potential gas bonanza with Turkish Cypriots, and energy deals with Ankara mean Turkey may continue exploring for gas off the Cyprus coastline. That would risk rekindling the dispute, which led to EU sanctions against Turkey in December.

The few hundred thousand people living in northern Cyprus remain deeply isolated under an international trade embargo that allows no direct flights other than to and from Turkey. 

Tatar rejected an offer he said Anastasiades floated in April to open north Cyprus’ airport and seaport to international trade and passengers under the control of the EU and the UN, in exchange for the return of the ghost town of Varosha. Turkey sealed off the former luxury resort in 1974 and left it to decay after the UN Security Council passed resolutions prohibiting resettlement.

Tatar said relinquishing control of transportation hubs would be tantamount to “losing a war when foreigners take away your assets”.

Instead, Erdogan defied rebukes from the US and EU late last month by announcing that a second section of Varosha would be converted from military to civilian use, after a sliver of beachfront was opened last year. Greek Cypriots accused Erdogan of a land grab in the city; Tatar said Greek Cypriot property owners were “more than welcome” to move back or apply for compensation.

Tatar, a Cambridge university-educated former accountant, defended his efforts to forge close ties with Erdogan. Critics have suggested Turkish interference may have swung last year’s election, but Tatar dismissed that allegation as unfounded.

Turkish Cypriots have long relied on Turkey for security, funding and infrastructure investment. Last month, Erdogan promised to build Tatar a new presidential complex as the “expression of being a state”, calling his office “a shanty house belonging to the Brits” because it was built in the 1930s when Cyprus was a British protectorate. 

“Further integration with Turkey is only natural because we have not had the friendship nor the justice we expected from the international community,” Tatar said. “It is only with Turkish support that one day we will be recognised as a state.”

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