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President Erdoğan’s (C) remarks in Cyprus during a meeting with Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar (L) provide clues for new policies.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s remarks during a Nov. 15 visit to Northern Cyprus provided clues to Turkey’s shifting strategies about the divided island.

The failure of the last reunification talks in 2017 in Crans Montana, Switzerland, reinforced the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) conviction that the exhaustion of all trials for a settlement leaves only one option: peaceful separation.

Yet with Mustafa Akıncı, a staunch supporter of a federal solution, in power until recently in Turkish Cyprus, Ankara could not voice forcefully its strategy of working for a two-state solution.

This important hurdle in front of Ankara has been eliminated as Ersin Tatar, a proponent of the two-state solution, won the presidential elections held last month in the north of the island.

No doubt that Cyprus leader Tatar will be exactly in the same tune as Ankara.

Election result reflects Turkish Cypriots’ frustration

Many foreign observers, however, might jump to the wrong conclusion that the outcome from the ballot box does not reflect the true will of the Turkish Cypriots due to Ankara’s interference in the elections. First of all, the Turkish government’s interference in elections is not a novelty.

Governments predating the AKP have all tried to influence elections on the island. True; this one has done it in a much less sophisticated way. Still, the election outcome reflects a genuine frustration on the part of the Turkish Cypriots about endless negotiations.

Wars of perception to restart

Following the elections, Erdoğan did not lose time to go to the island and as expected, he said talks about Cyprus solution should aim for a two-state solution.

However, this transparent rhetoric carries the risk of weakening the hand of the Turkish side as the future will entail a war of perception based on who to blame for the failure of talks aimed at finding a settlement based on a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation. It also risks ending Turkey’s decade long moral advantage.

Let me explain.

The ruling AKP government has genuinely expressed its wish for a federal solution in the first half of the 2000’s when Erdoğan stated ahead of the U.N.-brokered Annan plan that Turkey would “take two steps forward each time Greek Cypriots will take one forward.” Turkish Cypriots accepted the Annan plan in the 2004 referendum held on the island while the Greek Cypriots refused it.

As a result, decades’ long perception among the international community that the Turkish side is blocking a federal solution was shattered. Turkish side unveiled the Greek Cypriot unwillingness to share power with Turkish Cypriots, an important dimension of federal governance. As such, Turkey has gained an invaluable upper hand.

Two-state solution: A non-starter

The Turkish side believes it again showed its goodwill to reach a settlement based on a federal solution in 2017 but that with the failure, it is now time to shift to a two-state solution.

As elections ended in the North, the United Nations secretary-general is expected to make a call for a conference with the participation of the representatives of the two communities on the island as well as Turkey, Greece, and the U.K., the three guarantor states.

Currently, neither Greek Cypriots nor the U.N. or any other international actor will accept to sit on the negotiation table to talk a peaceful divorce. Doing so will mean refusing the U.N. Security Council decisions that foresee a federal solution. To insist on a peaceful separation ahead of the negotiations will be seen as a non-starter and allow Greek Cyprus to blame the Turkish side.

Instead, the Turkish side could give one last chance to negotiations, insisting on a clear deadline to end talks so that they do not go on indefinitely; a situation desired by the Greek Cypriots who believe the time is on their side.

Erdoğan’s message on Varosha

In contrast to his messages about a future solution, President Erdoğan’s statements in ghost town Varosha (Maraş) reflect a better-calculated strategy.

His call to Greek Cypriots to apply to the Immovable Property Commission (IPC) to claim their properties in Varosha is particularly important.

To those who might be unfamiliar with the IPC, we need to go back to 1996 when the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled against Turkey in the case of Loisidou, opening the way for Turkey to pay billions of euros of compensation to Greek Cypriots who left their properties in the North. The IPC was then set up in the North of the island to prevent Greek Cypriots from directly going to the Euro court; which recognized it as an effective domestic remedy in 2005.

The 2012-2013 financial crisis speeded the applications of the Greek Cypriots to the IPC despite a strong obstruction from their government. The IPC, however, did not function efficiently as it faced the resistance of certain circles in the North. Also, Turkey has failed to provide the necessary budget required for the compensation that amounted to billions of euros.

Erdoğan and Talat’s reference to the IPC indicates that this mechanism is being seen as a step that will facilitate the road toward a two-state solution.

400 applications for Varosha

To give you an example, Varosha, Güzelyurt (Morphu) was completely inhabited by Greek Cypriots before the division. Had the IPC functioned properly, assuming that most of the Greek Cypriots would prefer to be compensated rather than going back to their properties in the North; it would have been easier to negotiate the status of Morphu during negotiations. Under the Annan plan, Turkish side had accepted returning Morphu to the South. But with most of the property issues solved through compensation, it would have been easier for the Turkish side to keep Morphu in the North.

It remains to be seen to what degree the Turkish government will allocate the necessary budget so that Greek Cypriots can reunite with their properties. An already heated debate seems to have broken in the South especially among those from Varosha on the next step to take.
As for the Turkish side, the first step is to strip Varosha of its military status. The IPC has been unable to oversee the nearly 400 applications for Varosha as the ghost town remains a military region.

A step to push back criticism

Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s rhetoric indicates a carefully crafted tactic to rebuff potential criticism from international players. Statements about the plans on Varosha have already unleashed criticism as the reopening of the ghost town is not being done according to U.N. Security Council resolutions. As expected, the U.N., as well as EU, criticized Turkey far for taking unilateral action. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was last in line to express his reaction by claiming that the move contradicts U.N. resolutions. It was striking to see that his written statement was made during his one-day visit to Turkey, which ended without any meeting with Turkish officials.