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Cyprus Seeks Peace Talks With Turkey Over Divided Island

Ankara’s recent interest in improving EU access seen as window of opportunity to restart diplomatic process.

By Patrick Wintour

A gate marking the United Nations buffer zone that cuts across the northern third of Cyprus. Photograph: Angus McComiskey/Alamy

Cypriot diplomats are seeking to revive peace talks on the divided island with proposed appointments of UN and EU envoys in a bid to find a federal solution five decades after occupation of the north of the island by Turkish troops.

A small window of diplomatic opportunity may have opened due to Turkey’s recent interest in negotiating its relations with the European Union, especially on visa-free travel and the customs union. Furthermore, the Cypriot foreign minister, Constantinos Kombos, is hoping to restart the process, the Guardian understands.

Cyprus – a former British colony – has been split since Ankara sent in troops in 1974, seizing its northern third in response to a coup orchestrated by the junta then in power in Athens aimed at uniting the country with Greece. In the intervening years reunification efforts on the island have repeatedly failed.

However, the recent completion of elections in Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus gives politicians greater room for manoeuvre if they wish to revive talks after a poorly prepared UN-led conference in Switerzland failed in 2017.

Since then Turkey has become even more committed to a two-state solution for the island, but Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus (the self-styled “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”) is recognised only by Turkey, leaving it dependent on Ankara both economically and in terms of security. There are up to 30,000 Turkish troops on the island.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is due to visit the island on Thursday to mark the occupation and to open a new airport in the north.

Some argue that Turkey’s desire to reopen talks on its relationship with the EU might give Brussels some leverage to persuade Erdoğan to re-examine a Cyprus strategy that is probably draining Ankara of badly needed funds.

The last EU council in June called “for the speedy resumption of negotiations” and said it was “ready to play an active role in supporting all stages of the UN-led process, with all appropriate means at its disposal”.

Although the UN will remain the ultimate venue for any talks on the future of Cyprus, diplomats have been encouraging the EU to appoint a special envoy who would have the clout to look for solutions. Kombos is hoping a UN special envoy might be appointed around the time of the UN general assembly in September.

There are also some tentative signs that Erdoğan – who has always played a balancing act between Russia and the west – may be tilting towards the US camp after securing re-election, and therefore might be more amenable to talks on Cyprus.

To Washington’s relief, Erdoğan has in principle lifted his veto on Sweden joining Nato, but appears to be waiting on confirmation from Washington that the US Senate is willing to supply F-16 jets to Turkey. The sale of the jets is supported by the Biden administration but requires the agreement of the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Menendez. He wants written undertakings that Turkey will not use the F-16s to continue overflights of Greek islands, creating an elaborate piece of choreography that affects not only Turkey, Sweden and Nato, but also Cyprus.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is due to address the EU foreign affairs council where he is likely to update EU foreign ministers on US relations with Turkey.

Ersin Tatar, the elected Turkish Cypriot leader, has opposed unifying the island and wants the north of Cyprus to be recognised as an independent country. Tatar told the Guardian earlier this year there were “two states and two people on the island” and that “reversing the clock” by reunifying the island would be “absolutely impossible”.

But there are hints at change. Tatar’s influential special representative, Ergün Olgun, recently resigned citing health reasons at the age of 80. He denied any differences over the preconditions for future talks, but at a recent conference he suggested the requirement that the other side recognise northern Cyprus as a precondition for talks had been dropped.

© 2023 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies.

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