Erdogan's election ploy? The annexation of Northern Cyprus
The former leader of the Turkish Cypriots made a depressing statement a few months before his term in office ended. Mustafa Akinci communicated the following to Cypriots and the international community in the wake of the failure of the Cyprus negotiations and the deterioration of his relations with Ankara: "I won't be another Tayfur Sokmen (n.d. President of the Republic of Hatay). I have always advocated for a federal solution in my political career. Today, however, this paradigm is lagging. Alternative situations (in this context) might take center stage. This worries me."
At the beginning of 2023, academics and journalists from Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities share Akinci's worry and predict that Turkey's powerful statesman may annex Northern Cyprus to secure his residency in the new presidential palace in Ankara. The most recent communications from the Turkish Cypriot leadership add additional context to the threat of Turkey annexing the northern portion of Cyprus.
"A referendum is planned to 'legitimize' the annexation"
In an opinion article published recently in the Greek Cypriot newspaper Philenews, the Greek Cypriot Professor of Economic Development & Ethics and Director of the International Institute of Management Cyprus Dr. Theodoros Panagiotou says, "I have direct information, from my sources, from Turkish officials in key positions in the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government, who were graduate students of mine at Harvard University in 2000-09, where I taught economics and public policy.”
Agreeing on the fact that the annexation plan, as "the most likely outcome," carries "less risk and more symbolism," the Greek Cypriot academic's former colleagues and acquaintances in science add: "A referendum is planned to 'legitimize' the annexation because 1) 50 years of dialogue have not yielded a resolution, 2) the opposing side has rejected the two-state option, and 3) the international community still does not recognize the 'Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.'"
"Therefore, annexing the seized territories to the 'motherland' is the only alternative left to end the 'half-century-long isolation of Turkish Cypriots,' concludes Panagiotou.
Turkish Cypriot analysts and advocates for a solution share the fear of the Greek Cypriot academic. Ulas Baris emphasizes that "the island's potential reunification or any attempt to do so, according to (Ersin) Tatar, the present head of the Turkish Cypriots, is ‘impossible.’ "What is workable if the two-state solution is impossible? What options are there if federation or recognition (of the internationally non-recognized 'TRNC") aren't possible? A Hatay model or annexation?" asks Baris.
Baris continues: "As you know, Turkey will hold elections on May 14th. The annexation of the northern portion of Cyprus is a gift for Erdogan's government, which is having trouble with the economy and needs to attract nationalist conservative voters. Such a move would explode the AKP's support during the 100th anniversary of Lausanne and the Republic of Turkey. What does it matter if annexation occurs today or tomorrow? The UN will be outraged, the EU will denounce it, and the rest of the world will express concern, just as Panagiotou predicted. And we (the Turkish Cypriots) will respond on the second day by saying, 'Well, weren't we already like that, what difference does it make?'"
Turkish Cypriot leader adds fuel to the fire
Tatar spoke to the British media a few days after Professor Panagiotou's remarks. The Turkish Cypriot politician's statements, notwithstanding the leadership's prior announcement that the annexation plan was not on the table, caused concern among the Cypriot public. According to Tatar, combined with the Turkish Cypriots' isolation, the Turkish Cypriot community's dependence on Turkey is exacerbated because the two communities in Cyprus cannot agree on a solution.
In Cyprus, Tatar's latest comment was interpreted as an acknowledgment that the annexation scenario is currently taking place in the country's north. The Turkish Cypriot opposition reacted angrily to Tatar's message. The leader of the Republican Turkish Party, Tufan Erhurman, stressed that "Tatar's 'policy' will prevent negotiations from the beginning, the Cyprus problem from being resolved, and will cause us to depend more and more on Turkey. This doctrine prevents negotiation, finding a solution, and (Turkish Cypriot's) independent stance."
"It is up for interpretation whether 'growing more and more dependent on Turkey every day' is Tatar's worry or a 'threat' that he believes will raise others' concerns," concluded the leader of the Turkish Cypriot's main opposition party. The party's Secretary General Asim Akansoy added to Erhurman's remarks: "Tatar inadvertently acknowledges the harm this is doing to the Turkish Cypriot people and that he cannot even assert his ('separate state') claim. He realizes he cannot advance the strategy of two separate states or sovereign equality. For this reason, he 'heralds' to the world that his people and his government system would vanish."
What are Turkish columnists afraid of?
Turkish opposition columnists share the concerns of Cypriot analysts and politicians over Ankara's plans for the northern half of Cyprus. From their perspective, shortly before Turkey's elections, President Erdogan, who is dealing with an unprecedented economic crisis and the diminishing popularity of the government he leads, could take a dramatic step in Cyprus.
"For Turkish governments, Cyprus serves as a 'political slush fund.' You can do whatever you want in Cyprus and take advantage of the political repercussions," emphasizes Daghan Irak, who also points out that this has been the tradition of Turkish politics for over 70 years. To reenter Turkish politics after being expelled in the 1940s, the extreme right used the "Cyprus case," which was created by Britain as an ethnic issue for the maintenance of colonial control. To keep the authority he was losing owing to the economic crisis and corruption in the 1950s, Adnan Menderes leaned on a nationalist fervor that reached a peak on September 6-7—invading Cyprus in defiance of international law allowed Bulent Ecevit to escape his forced alliance with Necmettin Erbakan and gain power in 1974. Simply put, what happened in Cyprus remained in Cyprus, and even if that were all that happened, the offenders got away with it. Even heroes were proclaimed for them."
According to the columnist, the Turkish Cypriot side "has been prepared as a parachute that will turn Erdogan's fall into a comfortable landing." "Erdogan is seeking a solution for the Cyprus problem. This is a 'crazy project' for Turkey whose consequences could be direr than Putin's Ukraine campaign (Reminder: We are not Russia, we don't have nuclear weapons, and we don't produce natural gas), but not so crazy for Erdogan's future," adds Irak who also mentions that "In 2023, I consider it extremely likely that Erdogan will annex Northern Cyprus to Turkey."
Another columnist in Turkey with Cypriot ancestry, Metin Munir, adds, "The goal of Ankara is to alter the political and judicial system in the TRNC and impose a system more akin to that in Turkey. In this system, the government is in charge and free to act as it pleases. The judiciary is not independent, the media is under the president's influence, and religion is the dominant force. The TRNC will become an unofficial province of Turkey (if this is accomplished). This will be an undeclared annexation."
"I have no idea why Erdogan engages in this clumsy social engineering in the TRNC, but he undoubtedly believes that he is doing it 'in the national interest.' This is unjustified because those who shut down the Welfare Party and imprisoned him also thought they were doing 'in the country's best interests,'” Munir concludes.
*Dr Nikolaos Stelgias was born in Istanbul. He is an independent researcher, writer, historian and journalist. His doctorate is in the field of the modern Turkish political system (Panteion University, 2011). His latest book “The Ailing Turkish Democracy” was published by the Cambridge Scholars Publication in 2020. Dr. Stelgias was a correspondent of the newspaper "Kathimerini (Cyprus edition)" for Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot community from 2009 to 2021. Currently, Dr. Stelgias works at the Cyprus News Agency. Dr. Stelgias publishes in Turkish news articles and analyses on Cyprus and Greece.