An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus

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What’s new? Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have soured since 2017, when negotiations under UN auspices to reunify Cyprus as a bizonal, bicommunal federation broke down. Prospects for renewed talks, let alone a settlement, have receded further amid an increasingly complex geopolitical situation.

Why does it matter? Sovereignty disputes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots leave the latter isolated in the island’s north, inhibit development (including of offshore hydrocarbon deposits), hinder efforts to address issues of mutual concern, and further heighten frictions in an increasingly militarised region.

What should be done? While reunification talks are not on the cards in the near term, confidence-building measures can help de-escalate tensions and create mutual benefits. After forthcoming elections in Greece and Türkiye, the parties should – with EU and other support – work toward arrangements that can improve trade, travel, environmental and other cooperation.

Executive Summary

Prospects for the reunification of Cyprus have dimmed dramatically over the last six years. Following five decades of unsuccessful negotiations, a failed 2017 summit dashed the best hope in years for a deal between the Greek Cypriots, who control the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus (RoC), and the Turkish Cypriots, who have a de facto entity in the island’s north. As the eastern Mediterranean has become more militarised and geopolitically fraught, Cyprus’ two main camps have moved farther apart. The RoC sees the north as increasingly under Ankara’s thumb, while the north considers its counterparts too complacent to seriously negotiate. Both have a point. Meantime, their division complicates everything from exploitation of the island’s hydrocarbon wealth to environmental protection. But even if near-term reunification is not realistic, the parties can ease frictions by coming to the table to discuss more modest goals – eg, to unlock trade, improve intra-island cooperation and take baby steps toward reconciliation.

Cyprus has been divided for decades. Founded in 1960 with a government designed to give voice to both the Greek and Turkish communities, its polity devolved into ethnic violence in 1963, which led to the massive displacement of Turkish Cypriots and Türkiye’s withdrawal of recognition of the RoC. In 1974, Turkish troops responded to a coup backed by Greece’s then-ruling junta by splitting off roughly one third of the island as a zone for Turkish Cypriots. That zone declared its independence in 1983, though to this day Türkiye is the only country in the world that recognises the claim. In 2004, after reunification was voted down in a referendum by 75 per cent of Greek Cypriots, the European Union (EU) granted membership status to the RoC. Throughout this time, UN-sponsored negotiations seeking reunification have failed persistently, most recently in 2017, when a well-prepared and much-anticipated summit at Crans Montana, Switzerland, failed to deliver a deal.

In the summit’s aftermath, the appetite for talks dwindled amid rising tensions. Ankara, after reversing 40 years of support for bringing the parties together in a bizonal, bicommunal federation, called on other states to recognise the independence of the self-proclaimed “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”). Turkish Cypriots insist that the format for any talks recognise their sovereignty claims as equivalent to those of Greek Cypriots, while the RoC is adamantly opposed to anything that might lend legitimacy to the Turkish Cypriot administration. Meanwhile, the latter sees the RoC as content with the status quo and unwilling to enter negotiations in which it might have to make major concessions.

There are other worrying trends and developments besides. Northern Cyprus has become increasingly dependent on support and guidance from Ankara. Greek Cypriots are disconcerted by Türkiye’s increasing sway to their north, while many Turkish Cypriots worry that their agency as a community is being undermined by Ankara’s growing footprint. In an effort to shake up what they see as Greek Cypriot complacency, the Turkish Cypriot administration, backed by Ankara, decided in 2020 to begin opening to the public Varosha/Maraş, a seaside territory held by Turkish Cypriots since 1974 and long fenced off for use as a bargaining chip in future negotiations. To date, actual development has been limited, despite expansive rhetoric, but even these moves risk undermining remaining prospects for rapprochement.

Although cooperation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots continues on some matters – including through twelve joint technical committees created in years past to facilitate needed collaboration – it faces major challenges. Progress is stymied by Greek Cypriot aversion to anything that would suggest recognition of Turkish Cypriot control in the north. Committee projects can be delayed for months, if not years, by fights over terminology to which either the Greek or Turkish Cypriots object. Large-scale environmental efforts funded by the EU run into stumbling blocks because, in practice, they are often limited to the RoC-controlled parts of the island, even though the problems they seek to address are island-wide.

Aside from its many other repercussions, the island’s division complicates exploitation of its Mediterranean seabed hydrocarbon deposits, which in turn exacerbates regional and intra-island tensions frictions. Türkiye contests the RoC’s right to make decisions regarding such resources without the participation of Turkish Cypriots, insisting that the latter be treated as co-owners of the island’s resources in line with the 1960 constitution. The RoC agrees to share revenues, but not to give Turkish Cypriots a say in natural resource management. As it does not recognise the RoC, Ankara will not enter talks with it to delimit the seabed between Türkiye and the island. It threatens to block the Greek Cypriots from benefiting from exploitation of natural gas reserves unless they reach agreement with the Turkish Cypriots.

Tensions in Cyprus both drive and are driven by an already precarious geopolitical environment in the eastern Mediterranean.

Tensions in Cyprus both drive and are driven by an already precarious geopolitical environment in the eastern Mediterranean. The RoC and Greece are making efforts to develop hydrocarbon resources and enter defence partnerships with outside powers like France and the U.S. These are met by parallel moves on Ankara’s part. Meanwhile, Russia, long a partner of the RoC, seems to be dangling the prospect of greater outreach to the north, although to date its overtures are limited.

For its own sake, and for the benefit of regional stability, Cyprus needs to pull out of the spiral in which it finds itself. In recognition of this fact, and perhaps specifically in response to northern moves in Varosha/Maraş, in May 2022 the Greek Cypriot leadership formally proposed a package of confidence-building measures, including steps to build Turkish Cypriots’ connections to other countries. The Turkish Cypriot administration rejected the proposal, calling it an attempt to “spread the power of the Greek Cypriot side throughout the island”. But many of its specifics are worth revisiting, and could be achievable, particularly if in the back-and-forth Turkish Cypriots make clear their continued intention to return Varosha/Maraş as part of a future deal. Even with reunification seemingly far away, an approach that emphasises stronger bicommunal cooperation, as well as opening ports and airports to increase commerce on both sides of the island, could mitigate the damage otherwise inherent in a hardening divide.

Athens/Ankara/Nicosia (north and south)/Brussels, 17 April 2023

An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus 2

A watchtower in the United Nations Buffer Zone in Nicosia/Lefkoşa, Cyprus. November, 2021. CRISIS GROUP/ Claire Boccon-Gibod


Among the myriad overlapping disputes that roil the eastern Mediterranean, the tug of war over Cyprus is one of the most intractable. The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops responded to a coup backed by Greece’s then-ruling junta by splitting off roughly one third of the island as a zone for Turkish Cypriots. That zone declared its independence in 1983, though to this day only Türkiye recognises the claim. Notwithstanding the island’s fractured governance, in 2004, after a reunification referendum was shot down by Greek Cypriot votes, the European Union (EU) granted membership status to the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus (RoC), with its capital at Nicosia.1 Four decades of UN-sponsored negotiations with the aim of reunification have failed persistently, most recently in 2017, when a summit at Crans Montana, Switzerland, broke up without reaching a deal. They have not been revived. Indeed, not only have the parties shown few if any signs of returning to the negotiating table since Crans Montana, but all have also embarked upon policies that harden divides and thus worsen their knock-on effects.

As explored by Crisis Group in past and forthcoming reports, the standoff over Cyprus also feeds and is fed by the many disputes that set Greece and Türkiye against each other in the eastern Mediterranean.2 These include long-running disagreements over Türkiye’s maritime boundaries with the Greek islands scattered off its Aegean and southern coasts, as well as frictions over potential gas deposits and pipeline plans. The RoC has granted exploration contracts to industry giants such as Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Qatar Petroleum and an ENI-Total consortium. This move, in turn, has brought more engagement from the businesses’ home countries (the U.S., France, Qatar and Italy, respectively), as well as from Egypt and Israel, which are working with the RoC to investigate options for joint natural gas export mechanisms.3 Explorers have begun drilling new wells, but are uncertain how large reserves, and thus export potential, will prove to be. The resource competition has sharpened in parallel to the growing militarisation of the eastern Mediterranean.

The question is whether tensions on and around the island will continue to climb, or whether there are mitigating steps that the parties might choose to take.

Given that a political settlement in Cyprus appears increasingly unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, the question is whether tensions on and around the island will continue to climb, or whether there are mitigating steps that the parties might choose to take. At present, the answer is unclear. But there is at least some prospect that broad acknowledgement of the deadlock could lead the parties to seek a more functional modus vivendi – spurring cooperation that would benefit both sides of the island as well as the broader region.

Against this backdrop, this report, for which research was completed in early 2023, maps the history of the Cyprus dispute; the failure of the most recent effort to achieve a political settlement on the island; trends and developments that make such a settlement that much more difficult to achieve; and recommendations for modest steps to create a better atmosphere between the parties in light of these realities.

The report draws on prior and parallel Crisis Group work on the region as well as fresh field research, including interviews with officials, representatives, negotiating team leaders and members, peace activists, civil society figures and businesspeople from the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, as applicable. It also reflects conversations with representatives of Türkiye, Greece and the UK, as well as the EU and UN. Of these interlocutors, all the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders, chief negotiators and senior diplomats were men, reflecting a gendered power divide on the island. Women were represented among all the other categories of interlocutors and other countries’ diplomats, reflecting the make-up of these organisations.

II.The Cyprus Dispute: From Foundation to Crans Montana

The RoC was founded in 1960. The island had previously been ruled by Britain for eight decades, before which it was part of the Ottoman Empire for three centuries. In the 1950s, Greek Cypriots who had long favoured union with Greece rose up to kick the British out by force. In response, a number of Turkish Cypriots joined the British as auxiliary police to help fight the Greek Cypriot paramilitaries. When Greek Cypriots retaliated against the community, the Turkish Cypriots organised their own paramilitary units. By the end of the decade, the two communities were battling over the island’s future.4

The formation of the RoC was intended as a compromise between two divergent visions among the island’s core populations – or, at least, majorities thereof. The Greek Cypriots’ preference for the island’s union with Greece (enosis) stood at odds with the Turkish Cypriots’ desire for its partition (taksim), with their community coming under Turkish protection. The RoC constitution, which was negotiated by Türkiye, Greece and the UK, with the participation ofGreek and Turkish Cypriot representatives, explicitly ruled out both enosis and taksim. Instead, it established a bicommunal state with quota-based representation of and power sharing between the two dominant constituent communities.

Greek Cypriots, who made up nearly 80 per cent of the island’s population, got only 70 per cent of the appointments in government and the civil service.

In the bicommunal state, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities were co-founding partners, though the latter was overrepresented in a variety of structures in comparison to its share of the population. Greek Cypriots, who made up nearly 80 per cent of the island’s population, got only 70 per cent of the appointments in government and the civil service, for example. The vice president, who by the constitution was a Turkish Cypriot, had a veto over policy decisions.5 Greece, Türkiye and the UK pledged to guarantee this new status quo. But hardliners in the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, who still sought enosis and taksim, respectively, were unhappy with the arrangement.6

It did not take long for tensions to boil over. In November 1963, with Greek Cypriots blaming Turkish Cypriot overrepresentation for policy bottlenecks, the Republic’s Greek Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III, proposed a set of constitutional amendments. These aimed to create a more unitary (and thus, due to population size, Greek Cypriot-dominated) state rather than the ethnically divided bicommunal one. Three weeks later, intercommunal violence broke out in the capital city of Nicosia. Turkish Cypriot parliament members and civil servants withdrew from their posts, citing safety issues. (In the Greek Cypriots’ telling, the Turkish Cypriot departure is often depicted as voluntary, intended to prevent the state from functioning.) With no Turkish Cypriot officials left in the government, the Greek Cypriot majority took full control of the internationally recognised RoC. By year’s end, Ankara had ceased all contact with what it to this day terms “the Greek Cypriot administration”. Its current position is that “the Republic of Cyprus, as envisaged in international treaties, ceased to exist” as of December 1963.7

Although UN peacekeepers were deployed in March 1964, intercommunal violence continued in bouts until the end of 1967.8 Abductions, executions and sexual assaults had by then forced Turkish Cypriots from homes across the island, concentrating the community in enclaves covering 3 per cent of its territory.9

Things went from bad to worse in 1974, when a Greek Cypriot paramilitary group, backed by the junta then ruling in Athens, carried out a coup against the Cyprus government. Türkiye intervened with force, ostensibly to protect Turkish Cypriots. Turkish troops pushed Greek Cypriots out of the northern third of the island in an ugly campaign of evictions, plunder, detentions, executions and sexual violence. At the end, the island and its capital were de facto divided, as they remain to this day, with separate administrations in the north and south. In the process, Turkish forces seized the Varosha/Maraş beach resort along the Famagusta/Gazimağusa coast. Viewing this previously bustling economic hub as a bargaining chip in a future settlement, Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots kept it a fenced-off ghost town.10

In the decade that followed the invasion, Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders commenced talks under UN auspices, aimed at establishing a bizonal, bicommunal federation. These negotiations envisioned two equal communities to be part of a single identity for foreign policy purposes. Meanwhile, Ankara sought to bolster the Turkish Cypriots with economic and political support. But prospects for reunification suffered a blow when, in November 1983, the de facto legislative assembly of the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus approved both the establishment of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) and its declaration of independence.11 Since then, Turkish Cypriots and Türkiye have commonly used the name “TRNC” to refer to the entity run by a Turkish Cypriot administration.

The Turkish Cypriots’ moves met with harsh condemnation at the UN Security Council.12 Only Türkiye recognised the new entity, although it stopped short of formally endorsing partition, as it had done between 1955 and 1960. While many Turkish and Turkish Cypriot hardliners continued at least tacitly to favour full partition until 2002, and Ankara continued to base military forces in the “TRNC”, official policy on all sides consistently called for negotiations to reunify the island.13 In line with that, Turkish Cypriots continued talks with Greek Cypriots for a federal state.

In 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took office as prime minister of Türkiye and threw his weight behind the island’s reunification as a bicommunal, bizonal federation. He supported a comprehensive proposal that had been developed under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in anticipation of Cyprus’ EU accession, which foresaw a United Cyprus Republic comprising a federal entity with two powerful constituent states.14 Erdoğan thus sidelined nationalists in Ankara and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktaş, who had taken a harder line.

But Erdoğan’s endorsement was not enough to get the Annan Plan enacted. When it came to an island-wide referendum in April 2004, 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots voted in favour, but 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots voted against it. Polling before and after the vote suggests that Turkish Cypriot women were somewhat more likely than Turkish Cypriot men to support the plan, with the reverse likely true among Greek Cypriots, although other analysis argued that gender had no impact on voting.15 When the RoC entered the EU one month later, in May 2004, it did so with a protocol that deemed the north an area over which the government has jurisdiction but cannot exercise control, with implementation of the acquis (ie, the body of rights and obligations that make up EU law) suspended in that zone.16

The Turkish Cypriots … demand that any unification grant them political equality with the Greek Cypriots

Reunification negotiations since have all failed, and the two communities continue to regard each other with suspicion. The Turkish Cypriots, fearing majority tyranny and ethnic cleansing, demand that any unification grant them political equality with the Greek Cypriots, echoing both UN resolutions and negotiation frameworks to date.17 But how to cement such a dispensation remains unclear. Turkish Cypriots have sought, for example, to require that in a reunified state, at least one Turkish Cypriot minister must vote in favour in order to enact any initiative brought before the cabinet – creating a form of veto for the Turkish Cypriot constituency. They are also loath to give up the protection – and presence – of the Turkish armed forces. The Greek Cypriots, for their part, see the Turkish Cypriot push for a veto as a recipe for more of the stalemates and walkouts that characterised the early 1960s. They also point to the 1974 violence to demand that Turkish troops leave the island and that Türkiye, along with the UK and Greece, lose their status as guarantors of the arrangements reached under the 1960 treaties.18

There have been moments of hope, including in the run-up to a July 2017 summit among the parties most proximate to the dispute. As discussed further below, a deal appeared to be within reach when negotiations commenced at the Swiss town of Crans Montana. But instead of ending in inked signatures, the summit broke down.In its wake, Ankara withdrew Turkish support for continued negotiations for a bicommunal, bizonal federation. Since then, both frustration at the failure to reach agreement and regional power competition in the eastern Mediterranean have reduced the odds of productive talks even further.

In the meantime, northern Cyprus has been and remains isolated. Recognised only by Türkiye, it relies on Ankara for trade and access to the rest of the world. No international flight plan can originate or end at its airport. Only Turkish planes (some 24 flights per day) land there.19 Mail reaches the north only through the Turkish post, using the code for Türkiye’s Mersin province, and northern telephone calls are placed via Turkish exchanges. With a few exceptions, foreign dignitaries abstain from meeting with Turkish Cypriot officials. “TNRC” authorities have no contact with international agencies like Interpol and the World Health Organization. While there is no official commercial embargo, RoC pressure means that most international brands do not open franchises or trade with north Cyprus. Turkish companies and investors thus predominate in the north, and local borrowers must seek loans from Turkish banks, lacking access to other banking services. Northern Cyprus sports teams cannot participate in international tournaments or matches.

III.Crans Montana: Before and After

The period 2015-2017 may have been the most promising for the Cyprus peace process – at least since the lead-up to the Annan Plan referendum in 2004. In 2015, Turkish Cypriots elected as their leader Mustafa Akıncı, a staunch supporter of uniting the island under a bicommunal, bizonal federation. At that time, the RoC president was Nicos Anastasiades, a prominent reunification supporter. Thus, both communities were led by men who were on record as firmly in favour of a federal deal.20 Negotiations began soon after Akıncı took office and the two leaders appeared to have good chemistry. A team member said they met weekly. She reported that the negotiating teams themselves put in long hours and held daily meetings in the buffer zone between Greek Cypriot- and Turkish Cypriot-controlled territory to iron out differences.21 These talks formed the backdrop for the 2017 summit. Both sides’ then-chief negotiators told Crisis Group that they felt they had made so much progress that, in the words of the Turkish Cypriot representative, “There was little left for Crans Montana”.22

The working groups set up through this process reached preliminary agreement on citizenship and voting issues, as well as much of the post-unification governance framework. In their first meeting off the island, during a round of negotiations in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, in November 2016, the two leaders agreed on a range for the area of the island’s territory the Turkish Cypriot constituent state would cover: from 28.2 to 29.2 per cent.

The high-water mark for collaborative work during this period came at the beginning of 2017, when the two sides came together for talks in Geneva. Over the course of three days, starting on 9 January, the negotiators focused on four chapters for an outcome document covering governance, property, EU matters and the economy. Both also for the first time presented their proposed maps for the allocation of territory in line with the percentage range noted above. On 12 January, the guarantor powers from the 1960 treaties (comprising, as noted above, the UK, Türkiye and Greece) joined in, convening what was referred to as the Conference on Cyprus under the UN secretary-general’s auspices. Participants, again for the first time, discussed security guarantees and agreed to establish working groups to hammer out ways forward on key topics.23

Then came a six-month stalemate. Technical talks on how to address security concerns in a unified state dragged on: Türkiye and Turkish Cypriots wanted the guarantor system continued; Greece and the Greek Cypriots demanded that it end. Turkish Cypriots then almost pulled out of negotiations when the RoC parliament considered an extreme right-wing party’s proposal that schools annually commemorate a 1950 Greek Orthodox Church-instigated referendum for union with Greece. Although the parliament rejected the proposal, the fact that it was even discussed underlined the continued appeal of enosis in the RoC and thus added to the bad blood between the communities.24

Hopes rose that the parties were preparing to cement two years of promising progress with a deal.

Nonetheless, the two island leaders met in New York in June 2017 at the UN Secretary-General’s invitation and agreed to resume talks with a second Conference on Cyprus in Crans Montana later that month. The meeting would bring the two community leaders together with a host of high-level UN, EU and UK representatives and the foreign ministers of Türkiye and Greece. Hopes rose that the parties were preparing to cement two years of promising progress with a deal.

But despite the optimism, both Akıncı and Anastasiades arrived in Crans Montana essentially unable to deliver what the other wanted most. Anastasiades faced a re-election vote in less than six months. His opposition accused him of being too willing to entertain Turkish demands. The power sharing envisioned in the talks, including a rotating presidency, was likely to be very unpopular among his constituents. For a deal to be acceptable to his electorate, he needed a binding date by which Turkish forces would leave the island.25 Turkish Cypriots, for their part, needed a guarantee of political enfranchisement, with a decisive role for their community in how Cyprus would be governed.

The Turkish Cypriots were under the impression that Anastasiades was buying time, rather than negotiating in good faith.26 Ankara, meanwhile, was sceptical of Akıncı’s judgement, believing that he had overestimated Anastasiades’ resolve to strike a deal, and worrying that his willingness to compromise had weakened the Turkish Cypriot bargaining position. Meeting with Akıncı in Istanbul days before the Crans Montana talks commenced, Erdoğan reportedly warned, “I wanted to stop this charade, but you requested a last attempt. I will support you one last time, but if it doesn’t work, we’re not doing it again”.27

Indeed, it did not work. Despite ten days of intense talks, the summit failed to deliver a deal. The Turkish Cypriot side was unsatisfied by the power-sharing commitments Anastasiades was willing to offer, which they felt walked back agreements worked out in the lead-up to talks. For their part, the Greek Cypriots were left cold by Ankara’s proffered commitment to forsake its guarantor status and significantly reduce the number of troops it keeps on the island, feeling that unless such a pledge came with a clear withdrawal deadline attached, the Greek Cypriot electorate would not approve a deal at referendum.28

The Crans Montana summit ended abruptly, and both sides walked away frustrated. Anastasiades remained convinced that negotiations could resume after his re-election, as he said at the time and reaffirmed to Crisis Group.29 But Erdoğan, believing that he had “not just gone the extra mile but an extra ten miles” was fed up.30 Turkish officials say they had offered to drop the Turkish troop presence to pre-1974 levels of just 650 personnel and agreed to an eventual end to Turkey’s guarantor status – much more than many in the Ankara establishment could fathom, even if Türkiye’s unwillingness to commit to dates rendered these proposals unacceptable to the RoC.31 As he had threatened, Erdoğan ended his fifteen-year support for creating a federation in Cyprus. Ankara also explicitly blamed Akıncı, accusing him of having been duped by Anastasiades in pre-summit talks into promising concessions without getting a deal in return.

President Anastasiades was re-elected in February 2018, but he no longer had a northern counterpart able to deliver a deal. He described Akıncı as “a changed man”, much weakened, after the Switzerland meeting.32 Akıncı’s own team, which had worked so hard for reunification, faulted Western governments for what they saw as passivity and failure to support Akıncı. In the words of one member, “They did nothing to bolster our standing. Not one international figure visited Akıncı. They simply watched from afar as Akıncı was trampled on by Ankara, and Anastasiades paid no price”.33 Akıncı went on to lose his next election in October 2020 to conservative nationalist Ersin Tatar, becoming the latest of several pro-settlement northern Cyprus politicians to fall to hardliners after failing to attain promised goals. Ankara weighed in strongly in Tatar’s favour, a shift from its past practice of more subtle engagement in northern Cyprus elections. Tatar asserted that Turkish Cypriots would never give up what he referred to as their sovereignty, adding that he planned to use Türkiye’s global leverage to protect Turkish Cypriot rights.34

IV.Seven Worrying Trends for a Divided Island

The failure to reach agreement at Crans Montana has propelled dynamics on both sides of the island that make compromise a more distant prospect and undermine areas of cooperation. Geopolitics and disputes over maritime jurisdiction tend to aggravate these trends.

A.Geopolitics and Militarisation

Competition for sovereignty over seabed hydrocarbons and maritime boundary disputes, layered on top of longstanding geopolitical rivalries, has roiled the eastern Mediterranean. The result has been to increase regional militarisation, draw in outside powers, and generally raise the level of tensions on and around Cyprus.35

Both the RoC and Greece have deepened their defence cooperation with the United States. Washington, Athens and Nicosia have embarked upon two “3+1” initiatives, one with Israel and the other with Egypt, both intended to forge closer ties among actors in the eastern Mediterranean, and between them and the U.S.36 U.S. access to Greek military bases increased in 2022, and on 16 September of that year, Washington lifted the arms embargo it had imposed on the RoC in 1987 to dampen prospects of an intra-island arms race.37 It did so despite Turkish concerns. Washington was aiming, according to U.S. officials, to dissuade the RoC from buying more Russian arms, which had long formed the backbone of its arsenal.38 The U.S. may have previously eschewed such steps for fear they could impede efforts to broker a political settlement; but any perceived constraints disappeared as hopes for a solution vanished following Crans Montana.39

The two have also forged tighter military links to France. Paris, whose relations with Ankara have become deeply strained, has increased its military cooperation with Athens. It sold Greece three warships in 2021 and six new Rafale fighter jets in 2022 (the latter now has eighteen altogether) and signed a defence pact in 2021.40 In September 2022, joint French-Greek military drills further alarmed Türkiye.41 The RoC, too, has strengthened defence ties with France, embarking on exercises, offering base access and welcoming French naval vessels.42

As the [Republic of Cyprus]’s Western partners have upped their support for the Greek Cypriots, President Erdoğan has made parallel moves in support of the north.

As the RoC’s Western partners have upped their support for the Greek Cypriots, President Erdoğan has made parallel moves in support of the north. In the last few years, Türkiye has fortified its military positions in Cyprus, including by stationing drones at the Lefkoniko/Geçitkale base in the island’s north-eastern quadrant. Ankara is also reportedly planning to build a naval base in the nearby Trikomo/Iskele area, which will enable faster deployment of vessels in the region, although these plans are much delayed.43 Now that the U.S. has lifted its arms embargo, Turkish officials are poised to do more. As one said, “We will be watching closely what the U.S. sells to Greek Cypriots, and accordingly fortifying … the north”.44

The backdrop to this dynamic is a Turkish foreign policy that has grown increasingly assertive since the 2016 failed coup against President Erdoğan. At times, Ankara has dispatched naval vessels to prevent energy exploration and exploitation that it argues violates its rights. Türkiye has been active in the wars in Syria and Libya, supported Azerbaijan in its fight with Armenia to take back Nagorno-Karabakh, and stepped up its campaign against militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – designated a terrorist organisation by Türkiye, the U.S. and the EU – sheltering in northern Iraq.45 It is providing Ukraine with armed drones and armoured personnel carriers while also facilitating talks and mediation efforts in the Russo-Ukrainian war.

These policies, and Türkiye’s often seemingly cosy ties with Moscow, which include a 2017 decision to purchase S-400 air defence systems from Russia, put additional stress on the already complicated relations between Ankara and its NATO allies. Turkish officials generally believe that Ankara’s partnerships with Western partners can bear the cumulative strain. They see Türkiye’s provision of weapons to Ukraine, its restoration of relations with Israel (important to Washington), and the U.S desire for regional partners to contain Iran as insulating Ankara from Western pressure to some extent.46

Moscow, meanwhile, may be courting northern Cyprus. In the wake of Russia’s 24 February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the RoC joined other EU countries in closing its airspace to Russian flights and its ports to Russian ships. Moscow then indicated it might consider direct flights to the Turkish Cypriot Ercan airport (called Tymbou by Greek Cypriots). Some nationalists in Türkiye and northern Cyprus see this move as Russia’s “pivot from the Greek Cypriot Administration to TRNC” and a possible step toward Russia’s recognition of a Turkish Cypriot state.47 Russian officials deny any such intention.48 But Greek Cypriots are nervous, especially since the announcement of plans to offer consular services for Russian nationals in the north. The naming of a new Russian ambassador to the RoC, Murat Zyazikov, in September 2022 fuelled speculation as well. Zyazikov, a Muslim, is now in a role in which successive Russian ambassadors have spent much of their time emphasising the bonds between the Russian Orthodox community and the Greek Orthodox church in the RoC.49

Although inflows of military hardware, shifting alliances and episodically rising tensions do not necessarily suggest that the island is facing an imminent flashpoint, they complicate the political landscape and make the challenge of mediating a settlement between the two Cypriot communities that much greater.

B.A Widening Split over Sovereignty

Since Ersin Tatar was elected in 2020, his administration, with Ankara’s blessing, has officially favoured a two-state solution for Cyprus.50 The Turkish Cypriot political elite, however, is split between two definitions of what a two-state solution might mean.

For some Turkish Cypriot advocates of a two-state solution, it means full independence from the RoC, although precisely what that would look like is the subject of another split. In one camp are those who prefer either that the north exist as its own free-standing entity or that it be absorbed into Türkiye. In the other camp are those who seek independence as a prelude to northern Cyprus’ own, separate EU membership. Nationalists in Türkiye and Anatolian Turks who have settled in northern Cyprus often press for an independent north that is maximally integrated with Türkiye. Indigenous Turkish Cypriots by and large favour options that place the north in the EU – as long as they will not be subjugated to the RoC. Most in both camps recognise, however, that independent EU membership, which would require the unanimous agreement of EU member states including the RoC, is highly unrealistic.51

[Some] northern opinion-makers see sovereign equality between two constituent states … as the basis from which the two could then negotiate reunification as a confederation.

Other northern opinion-makers take a very different approach to the two-state solution: they see sovereign equality between two constituent states (one Greek Cypriot and the other Turkish Cypriot) as the basis from which the two could then negotiate reunification as a confederation that would be an EU member.52 Proponents of sovereign equality as a precursor to talks make three main arguments.

One argument is historical. It starts from the premise that the UK transferred sovereignty to both the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities in 1960, with the new republic enshrining power sharing between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. Greek Cypriots, they argue, “hijacked” the state in 1963, in the wake of clashes.53

A second argument works back from the desired end state. It reasons that since a deal on a bicommunal, bizonal federationwould grant Turkish Cypriots political status, and, indeed, the presidency of the republic on a rotating basis, as agreed most recently in 2017, it makes little sense that they be “treated as secessionists” until the day Greek Cypriots volunteer to share political power”.54 Proponents note that at UN-brokered meetings, Greek and Turkish Cypriots already negotiate as equals, though in all other formats, only the former have standing.

The third and final argument holds that the unequal standing of Greek and Turkish Cypriots has precluded a settlement because it benefits Greek Cypriots, who thus have insufficient incentive to change things. Conversely, according to this argument, unrecognised status unfairly leaves the Turkish Cypriot side of the island subject to trade and other restrictions. “We voted in favour of the Annan Plan”, said a Turkish Cypriot official. “Secretary-General Annan acknowledged that the Greek Cypriot leadership advocated for the defeat of the Plan, and he called for the de-isolation of Turkish Cypriots. But, unless our sovereignty is affirmed, Greek Cypriots can block any de-isolation”.55 By contrast, according to proponents, allowing the parties to “sit at the negotiation table with equal conditions” would seed the ground for successful talks.56 A former negotiator for the Turkish Cypriots said, “Continuing negotiations under current parameters just keeps us on hold and prevents our progress”.57

But the RoC shows no inclination to agree to either one of the more definitive visions of northern independence or the confederalist vision described above. In general, Greek Cypriots treat the RoC’s sovereignty over the entire island of Cyprus as indisputable.58 They point to UN Security Council resolutions referencing a single government for the island, and to Protocol 10 of Cyprus’ accession act to the EU, which designates the northern part of Cyprus as an RoC territory, albeit one “on which the government cannot exercise control”.59 Moreover, as discussed below, they argue that the north’s growing reliance on Ankara further undercuts its insistence on being treated as an independent sovereign entity at the negotiating table.

Nor is there much prospect that Turkish Cypriots will build meaningful multilateral support for any present iteration of their sovereigntist visions.60 While Turkish Cypriot officials and experts argue that the UN Security Council should take a decision affirming the equal international status of Turkish Cypriots, the many UN experts Crisis Group spoke to regarded this idea as incapable of gaining sufficient Council support and non-viable.61 But even if some Turkish Cypriot representatives acknowledge their position may not be realistic today, there are also those who contend that “eventually, even if it takes years”, they will get what they want, saying both the Greek Cypriots and outside actors will come around to accepting their perspective.62

Some northern voices express regret for the positions that their representatives now espouse, blaming Ankara for taking an unrealistic stand since 2017. “It is understandable that President Erdoğan felt a need to harden his stance after Crans Montana. But the turn was much too radical. Opting out of negotiations played into the hands of the Greek Cypriot side”, said a former negotiator.63

These contrarian voices, however, are not winning debates either in the north or in Ankara. Hardline positions in both northern Cyprus and Türkiye have continued to ossify. Support for reunification talks is frowned upon by sitting officials in both places.Indeed, Ankara officials have largely stopped engaging with Turkish Cypriot opposition figures who question the utility of the current line.64 In his 2022 speech at the UN General Assembly, President Erdoğan called for international recognition of the “TRNC”, marking the first time Ankara has pressed other countries to take this step.65

An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus 3

A street in northern Cyprus, alongside the United Nations Buffer Zone. November, 2021. CRISIS GROUP/ Claire Boccon-Gibod

C.Ankara’s Bear Hug

Ankara’s influence over political, economic and cultural affairs in northern Cyprus has grown markedly since 2019. It has become so pronounced that some observers call it a “bear hug”.66

As discussed, northern Cyprus has been dependent on Ankara since the island’s 1974 schism left it cut off from the rest of the world. Its international isolation has hindered the development of trade and tourism, while foreign direct investment and real estate have been held back both by uncertainty about the future and property disputes. In addition, a large and inefficient public sector has exacerbated fiscal imbalances.67 Türkiye has essentially kept the north afloat all these years with direct aid. As a result, many of the most skilled Turkish Cypriots have departed for Türkiye, the UK and other countries where past migration had already created expatriate communities.68

While the parties were negotiating it was more plausible for proponents of reunification to look toward an eventual political settlement solving these problems by fostering an influx of European investment once a deal was in place.69 But with talks paralysed for the foreseeable future, and no settlement on the cards anytime soon, there is only Ankara to fill the gap.

It is trying to do so. In 2019, the Turkish presidency established an agency of the presidency, the Cyprus Coordination Unit,to manage the assistance provided to the “TRNC” by various Ankara ministries and agencies. Besides supporting infrastructure, it is meant to help develop the northern Cyprus economy through capacity building, credits and better governance.70 The Unit’s staff describe these programs as a sea change in Ankara’s support for the “TRNC” – saying they are based on the EU’s pre-accession assistance to membership candidates as well as its institution-building programs for non-candidate partner countries.71 Some Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials argue that these programs will facilitate a more functional northern Cyprus, which in turn will have a stronger hand in negotiations, when those resume.72

Tatar’s appeal to many of his 2020 voters included the argument that Ankara’s staunch support for him personally would translate into increased Turkish economic contributions.73 But in the two years that followed, one cause of the north’s economic straits was financial instability in Türkiye itself. Each time the Turkish lira depreciated – due to flawed monetary and interest rate policy, according to experts – rapid inflation hit the north.74 The northern Cyprus economy was also rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, which starved the island of revenue from tourism, higher education (particularly student spending, as courses continued online) and related service sectors. Prior to the pandemic, tourism represented around 20 per cent of the north’s annual GDP, the highest share of all sectors. If combined with related service sectors, the share reached approximately 35 per cent. Tourism’s GDP share dropped to 12.8 per cent in 2020 and rose only slightly, to 13.8 per cent, in 2021.75

Ankara has launched several infrastructure projects in the north [of Cyprus], laying roads and water pipelines that it hopes will spur economic activity

Since the election of its preferred candidate, Tatar, Ankara has launched several infrastructure projects in the north, laying roads and water pipelines that it hopes will spur economic activity, including in agriculture, upon completion. Türkiye is also investing in training local government officials and offering micro-loans to entrepreneurs. It is hard to assess the effects as yet. Micro-loans and capacity building take time to bear fruit, even in economies stronger than that of the north.

Türkiye has continued stepping up its economic engagement in the north. In April 2022, Ankara concluded a financial cooperation protocol with the “TRNC” that came into effect the next month.76 The pact envisaged that 4.25 billion Turkish lira ($200 million) would be transferred from Türkiye to the “TRNC” in 2022 in the form of grants and loans. Among the objectives were to build the capacities of “TRNC” public institutions, eliminate budget deficits, and develop industry and trade. On 31 March 2023, Ankara promulgated a new protocol. By the terms of this one, it will transfer 9.5 billion Turkish lira ($495 million) to the “TRNC”, also in the form of grants and loans.77 This money will go toward building 26 new schools, three hospitals, a health centre, and a national disaster and earthquake centre, as well as supporting infrastructure projects such as irrigation.

Ankara’s assistance is not always warmly received by all segments of the north’s political class. When the 2022 pact was signed, it sparked intense debate. Both Turkish officials and representatives of the Turkish Cypriot administration argued that the protocol would enable the “TRNC” economy to be stronger and more self-sufficient.78 But the 53-page document calls for alignment and coordination in matters that seem unrelated to public finance – on matters such as education, religious affairs, countering disinformation and acquisition of citizenship in the “TRNC”.79 Other controversial provisions include restricting trade union activities, privatising ports, and facilitating the acquisition of Turkish Cypriot citizenship for Turkish nationals. In 2023, the main “TRNC” opposition party released a written statement criticising the second financial protocol, saying it is a repetition of previous documents that does not take Turkish Cypriots’ needs into account.

Public opinion about Ankara’s growing role in the north is mixed. Tatar’s core constituency of predominantly working-class, right-leaning Turkish Cypriots and settlers from Türkiye tends to welcome Ankara’s more hands-on involvement. They expect it to improve public services and infrastructure, as well as to create opportunities for local business.80 But some Turkish Cypriots fear that Türkiye’s support comes with unwelcome ideological and political strings attached – a view that can only be reinforced by the breadth of the above-referenced protocol. Many indigenous Turkish Cypriots see themselves as a distinct identity group. To them, Ankara’s influence has worrying elements, like encouraging religiosity where it is not wanted – Türkiye has funded new mosques – and cramping a historically dissent-friendly culture.81 Turkish Cypriot women and men told Crisis Group that they also fear for their independent judiciary and for their unions that have effectively protected workers’ rights in the face of Ankara’s push for productivity.82

There are other concerns as well, though none is likely to change the trajectory of relations between the “TRNC” and Türkiye. Some from the north worry that more patriarchal views – which they attribute to religiosity – on gender relations will follow increasing Turkish influence.83 Others, particularly concerned with the fate of Turkish Cypriot companies, worry that Ankara’s projects will favour contractors from Türkiye over less experienced firms from the island.84 Still, a former Turkish Cypriot official told Crisis Group that absent the prospect of doing business with the Greek Cypriots, “there is no choice [save] increasing Turkey’s footprint for economic growth. If that comes with governance implications, so be it”.85

One such implication relates to outside perceptions of the north’s agency. With Türkiye seemingly tightening its leash on northern Cyprus, as it steps up its financial assistance, trains the territory’s bureaucrats and openly supports politicians such as Tatar, the Turkish Cypriots have an increasingly difficult time claiming to be a truly independent negotiating party. Indeed, the growing Turkish role in the north’s governance and functioning feeds a Greek Cypriot perception – already strong – that Türkiye is their real counterpart, not the Turkish Cypriot administration. Ankara’s “bear hug”, in the Greek Cypriot view, undermines the argument that the north should be treated as an independent sovereign in negotiations.86

D.Erosion of the Varosha/Maraş Status Quo

In 1974, Turkish troops took control of part of the Famagusta/Gazimağusa district in the east of Cyprus, including both its central port city and the beach suburb, Varosha/Maraş, which was then the top tourist destination on the island. The Turkish military incursion prompted the mass flight of the area’s Greek Cypriot residents (numbering around 39,000 and representing 80 per cent of the total population of the city at that time) to the southern part of Cyprus. Ever since then, 80 per cent of Famagusta/Gazimağusa has been under Turkish Cypriot civilian administration.

The exception is the 6.4 sq km of Varosha/Maraş. Unlike the rest of the city, which bustles with homes, schools and businesses, this suburb, with more than 30 hotels and 3km of sandy beaches, is a ghost town, fenced off and formally designated as a “military zone”.87 The logic of holding this territory but keeping it empty, according to both Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots, was that it could eventually be returned as part of a settlement and, until then, would serve as a bargaining chip.88 Varosha/Maraş is particularly appealing in this regard because, unlike other areas Greek Cypriots left during fighting, it remains uninhabited. Thus, it presents none of the constraints in similar situations where new residents, with their own rights and needs, have moved in.

Greek Cypriots want all the properties in the area returned to the Greek Cypriot persons and businesses who legally own them, and the territory transferred to UN administration, as per UN Security Council Resolutions 550 and 789 on the status of Varosha/Maraş. These resolutions explicitly envision these steps even in the absence of a comprehensive plan for Cyprus as a whole. Numerous proposals (see Appendix A) have supported such a transfer as a confidence-building measure, a notion understandably favoured by the Greek Cypriot side. But Turkish Cypriots were long loath to give up the bargaining chip prior to a final deal – or at least absent significant concessions.89

In the last few years, Türkiye and the north have taken a new direction. In October 2020, Turkish Cypriot local authorities began to develop the infrastructure needed to allow public access to and use of a small portion (about 3.5 per cent) of Varosha/Maraş.90 The following July, they lifted the territory’s “military zone” status, redesignating the beach and road there as a civilian area.91 In addition, President Erdoğan called on Greek Cypriots who own property in this pilot area to apply for either compensation or return of their assets.92 No one could previously do so, as the area’s status as a military zone precluded the Immovable Property Commission – set up by Türkiye in 2005 to deal with Greek Cypriot claims to land and/or property under “TRNC” control – from handling requests related to Varosha/Maraş.

A stalemate needs to be mutually hurting for a compromise to be reached, the chief negotiator explained

Türkiye and Turkish Cypriots likely see a number of advantages to this new approach. Leading figures in the Turkish Cypriot administration describe it as a gambit to improve the north’s hand in notional talks by increasing the costs of the status quo for Greek Cypriots.93 A stalemate needs to be mutually hurting for a compromise to be reached, the chief negotiator explained. A Turkish Cypriot expert presented the approach as “a retaliatory move that reflects the frustration of [Türkiye] with the stance of the Greek side both over Cyprus and the issue of hydrocarbons” – and an effort to dissuade the RoC from further oil and gas projects that the north sees as unilateral and exclusionary.94

Both Turkish and Greek Cypriots suspect other motivations as well. To the extent that the 350-400 Greek Cypriot owners of property in the area where military zone status has been lifted decide to sell or return to live under the Turkish Cypriot administration’s control, the pressure on the Turkish Cypriots to return the territory to RoC control would be diminished. Furthermore, with removal of the military zone designation allowing the Immovable Property Commission to adjudicate claims, Türkiye frees itself from the scrutiny and bad optics caused by property owners’ appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, which holds Ankara responsible for restitution to Cypriots who have lost use of their property since 1974, and to which those property owners had turned in the absence of a local option.

The Greek Cypriot reaction has thus been predictably negative. Critics argue that engaging in the process Erdoğan has laid out would enable Turkiye to “colonise” Varosha/Maraş.95 Greek Cypriot leaders fear that developing Varosha/Maraş properties would make talks that much more difficult. If Turkish Cypriots want to get rid of this key bargaining chip, then surely they are disinclined to deal.96 Nor would it be good for the Greek Cypriots’ motivation to engage in talks: if Greek Cypriot property owners are compensated through the Immovable Property Commission, they could well cease to be a lobby for negotiations, as they are at present.97 (On the other hand, if the north were to undertake reconstruction without consulting legal property owners, Greek Cypriots would be even angrier, and have even less appetite or incentive to reunify.98)

So far, little concrete development has occurred. In June 2019, Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar called on Türkiye’s tourism investment companies to prepare for a new era in Varosha/Maraş, raising the industry’s hopes of refurbishing its dormant hotels.99 But work to date consists of opening two main roads, restoring a mosque and putting up makeshift booths where visitors can buy beverages and snacks.100

In the meantime, while the prospect of more Turkish Cypriot unilateral action in Varosha/Maraş has not motivated Greek Cypriots to halt hydrocarbon exploration as northern proponents suggested it might, it has seemingly triggered new thinking about how to mitigate the risk that the “TRNC” and Ankara go further. A Greek Cypriot analyst told Crisis Group that a desire to stop action in Varosha/Maraş motivated Anastasiades to appoint Ioannis Kasoulides, known for his favouring confidence-building measures as a way to ease negotiations, as foreign minister. Kasoulides introduced new confidence-building proposals (discussed below in Section V) in an effort to re-energise talks and perhaps freeze, if not reverse, Turkish Cypriot actions in Varosha/Maraş. “No president wants the legacy of being at the helm of the republic when Varosha is lost”, the analyst added.101

E.Frustrations and Obstacles in Practical Cooperation

Over the decades, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, bolstered by foreign supporters and donors, have devised a variety of ways to mitigate the harm de facto partition does to ordinary citizens on both sides of the divide. But as prospects for a settlement have faded, cooperation in these channels has also suffered.

An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus 4

The United Nations Buffer Zone in the capital, Cyprus. November, 2021. CRISIS GROUP/ Claire Boccon-Gibod

1.Technical committees

Among the most important tools for managing issues of common concern to Greek and Turkish Cypriots are the bicommunal technical committees created in 2008 under UN auspices to coordinate between and connect the communities. Each committee, of which there are now twelve, comprises an equal number of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot members and is led jointly by two co-chairs, one from each community. The committee members are appointed by community leaders, and their names are not public. Co-chairs are overwhelmingly men (two Greek Cypriot women and four Turkish Cypriot women co-chair committees) and the membership also leans male.102

The committees have been plagued by sovereignty-related squabbles from the start. In order to avoid any suggestion of legitimacy for the Turkish Cypriot administration, the RoC is adamant that no committee member serve in an official capacity with the “TRNC” or have a mandate to act on its behalf. It sees the committees as communication venues enabling experts to coordinate on functional issues that affect the daily lives of both communities. Turkish Cypriot administrators, however, would like the committees to be able to make decisions and take quick action, which of course requires its members to enjoy a measure of authority.

The result [of the bicommunal technical committees] is a system that has brought positive results … though it is often frustrating.

The result is a system that has brought positive results – some more significant than others – for both communities, though it is often frustrating. A member of a previous Turkish Cypriot administration described the committee experience in these terms: “It took us months to overcome little hurdles, finding creative solutions to get something done without involving any ‘TRNC’-licenced entity, even a university. But given how small the returns were for this effort, I doubt this painstaking effort will be replicated”.103 Yet not all the returns are small: committees have helped restore cultural heritage sites, enabled police to cooperate in catching criminals, jointly carried out peace education, facilitated island-wide mobile phone service, and coordinated COVID-19 vaccination and testing procedures.104

But although both communities claim to see value in the committees, rising mistrust has limited what they can do. After the Tatar administration came to power in October 2020, many Turkish Cypriot committee members resigned or were replaced. Many of their Greek Cypriot counterparts saw their new colleagues as less knowledgeable, capable and engaged. Hence, a good number of them also left.

The struggles of one committee – that devoted to environmental issues – offer a case in point of how Cyprus’ political impasse impedes both harm mitigation and general improvements – even when the goals being pursued are apolitical and sought by both sides.105 Cyprus faces a variety of environmental challenges. Over time, climate change is poised to raise the temperature and salinity of the Mediterranean. It will also push up temperatures on the island itself, triggering deforestation and long droughts. Because weather, disease, pollution, plants and animals do not respect lines of separation any more than they do state borders, policy responses to climate change have to be island-wide to succeed. Both communities support collaboration on environmental issues, since there is no way to do much on this file without it. But the north-south divide creates tremendous roadblocks. In the words of a Cypriot environmentalist: “In no area is the ridiculousness of the politics on both sides as evident as it is in the area of environment. We cannot wait until the politics are settled to tackle our shared environmental threats”.106

One challenge concerns the discrepancy in regulatory regimes to which the RoC and “TRNC” answer. While the RoC must work to meet EU standards for combating environmental threats, the north, which does not receive substantial EU funding to support its efforts, is not subject to EU controls. Thus, a multi-million-euro EU project in the south to rehabilitate griffon vultures (a threatened species) that have too little food and have consumed poisonous chemicals, is undermined when the birds are released and fly to nests in the north, where those dangers remain.107 Meanwhile, mining companies in the north are free to use explosives prohibited by EU rules to meet demand for stone, including from Greek Cypriot construction companies. But the resulting damage to biodiversity, notably to the local bat population, affects the island as a whole.108

The relevant technical committee has tried to address some of these issues. Yet while there is wide recognition of the challenges in both communities, here as elsewhere, sovereignty sensitivities flummox initiatives, as authorities on both sides must approve any projects the committee devises. For example, when the committee designed a project to launch a website for scientists and other experts on both sides of the island to share information and collaborate, RoC officials objected to the inclusion of email accounts tied to universities or companies registered by the “TRNC”, for fear of lending the administration legitimacy. After weeks stretched into months of stalling, the technical committee finally agreed to ask all the Turkish Cypriot environmental activists and experts who wanted to be listed on this website to provide personal email accounts. Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriot administration insisted that the website text reference “two sides” rather than “two communities” – which it apparently saw as in keeping with the evolving “TRNC” and Turkish “two-state” approach.

The pattern, in which projects do not move forward for fear that cooperation will be read as recognition, is a common impediment to collaboration across the north-south divide, stalling or precluding work that could otherwise benefit both sides of the island. In June 2022, when the committee finally launched the website, it was only after a year and a half of efforts to resolve such obstacles. By then, some of the experts who had been slated to be involved in the project had moved on to other commitments.109

2.The NGO gap

The island’s deepening division also makes NGO cooperation difficult, particularly when groups are seeking funding for joint projects.

Again, environmental issues offer a case in point. NGOs formally registered with RoC authorities can apply for large, multi-year EU grants in this domain, focused for example on preserving wildlife like turtles, eagles, lionfish and vultures. That funding tends to stay on the south side of the island, but it does not need to. While funded work is carried out in partnership with RoC government agencies, the programs are intentionally designated by the EU as “predominantly” but not exclusively for government-controlled areas. Yet both RoC agencies and NGOs seem loath to work with entities not registered with the RoC.110 Greek Cypriot organisations decline to take on Turkish Cypriot groups as subsidiary partners, perhaps because they fear RoC state agencies would be reluctant to support such projects.111

According to EU representatives … local hesitancy too often prevents projects from operating in the north.

According to EU representatives, this local hesitancy too often prevents projects from operating in the north. Greek Cypriot groups tend to invite Turkish Cypriots to participate, and be paid,only as individuals – cutting their organisations out of funding streams. This practice is unsustainable for the Turkish Cypriot groups concerned.112 It is also bad for the relevant programs, which often fail to achieve their goals, like the vulture rehabilitation effort described above.

While some funding streams go directly to the north, they are fairly modest. The EU Aid Programme for the Turkish Cypriot community disburses some €33-34 million per year – far less than goes to RoC entities. Around one third goes to economic development, the priority identified for the funds by the Turkish Cypriots. The rest underwrites efforts to build bridges between the communities, restore cultural heritage and similar endeavours.113

Because EU funding in the RoC tends not to flow north, and the EU’s direct support to the north underwrites only small-scale projects, a capacity gap has developed between NGOs on the island’s two sides. Turkish Cypriot NGOs – including those working on the environment – are less well-resourced and have developed less expertise in project implementation than their Greek Cypriot counterparts.114 Over the years, the Greek Cypriot NGOs have thus attained significantly greater administrative capabilities. So, even when opportunities do arise for bicommunal projects, Greek Cypriot groups say they have even less incentive to work with Turkish Cypriot counterparts, as they do not want to carry the bulk of the administrative burden.115

F.Tensions over Hydrocarbons

Hydrocarbon competition in and around Cyprus is inextricably linked to the complicated politics of the eastern Mediterranean, but two issues specific to the island have become sources of increasing friction. One is that Türkiye refuses to enter any agreement to demarcate Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) with the RoC, which it does not recognise.116 The other is that the Turkish Cypriots claim equal rights to the island’s resources. They demand not only that any hydrocarbon revenue be shared with them but also that they be given a say in the RoC’s demarcation agreements with third countries, licencing and pipeline-related decisions. Extraction has stalled due to economic viability considerations, but new wells are still being drilled. If and when the RoC begins to export natural gas, tensions may very well flare again.

The Cypriot parties have made efforts to defuse the issues around oil and gas exploration, but thus far to no avail. Before and after the failed Crans Montana summit, Greek and Turkish Cypriots tried to find a way to bracket management of hydrocarbon resources so that a solution for these issues would not be contingent on a comprehensive political settlement. In the summer of 2019, representatives of both communities submitted proposals on the topic to the UN secretary-general, under whose mandate negotiations between them continue to fall. The Turkish Cypriot proposal, proffered on 13 July 2019, called for establishing a joint committee under the auspices and with the facilitation of the UN. With the EU as observer, the committee would be authorised by both sides to take decisions related to exploitation of the island’s offshore oil and gas resources.The proposal also foresaw creation of a trust fund into which the committee would deposit hydrocarbon revenues.117

[Republic of Cyprus] officials… argued that a joint energy committee would be unable to legally allocate contracts to energy companies or draw up agreements with them.

RoC officials said no. They argued that a joint energy committee would be unable to legally allocate contracts to energy companies or draw up agreements with them. Greek Cypriots are willing to discuss sharing information and profit from energy exploration with Turkish Cypriots. But they regard any decision-making role for the northern administration as unacceptable because they see it as legitimating the “TRNC” as a government entity.

In August 2019, the RoC proposed an alternative. It suggested setting up an escrow account that would hold revenues accrued from exploitation of hydrocarbon deposits for Turkish Cypriots in accordance with their anticipated proportion of the voting population in a reunified Cyprus.118 The proposal was vague about whether any funds might be transferred to Turkish Cypriots before reunification. But in April 2022, President Anastasiades indicated the answer was yes, telling Crisis Group that ‘’the money would be available to Turkish Cypriots anytime, even before a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem”.119 He added a condition, however, namely that Türkiye sign an EEZ agreement with the RoC. Turkish officials told Crisis Group Ankara would not do so, because “the RoC [has] not represent[ed] the whole island since 1963”.120 In any case, Turkish Cypriots rejected the proposal as legitimating the RoC’s control of resources. As a Turkish Cypriot parliamentarian explained, “They would be in the driver’s seat”.121

G.Grassroots Distrust

The traumatic events surrounding Cyprus’ de facto partition included death, displacement, pillage, and gender-based and sexual violence on both sides. Over the years since, memories of this suffering have cemented mutual distrust, with both Greek and Turkish Cypriots fearing domination, the former by Ankara and the latter by their fellow islanders. Although donors have spent millions of dollars supporting various bicommunal activities since the 1990s, popular support for reconciliation remains fleeting.

One reason may be that although donors allocated funds to build trust, authorities in both communities have focused the bulk of their efforts on achieving a political settlement, to the detriment of work on reconciliation between the respective populations. In the words of a member of the Turkish Cypriot negotiating team at Crans Montana, reflecting on its failure: “We all focused on the political talks too much. Not enough was invested in reconciling the people. We counted on political will pushing through reunification, but now before starting a new reunification process, we need to focus on social dynamics”.122

Each side accuses the other of downplaying its past suffering. For Turkish Cypriots, the worst memories stem from the eleven years between 1963 and 1974, when 400 Turkish Cypriots were killed or disappeared and 45,000 were displaced. Greek Cypriots, in turn, focus on the 1974 Turkish invasion, in the course of which 3,400 Greek Cypriots were killed or disappeared and 165,000 displaced.123

The memory of gender-based violence, particularly crimes committed by the Turkish army against Greek Cypriot women, adds a gendered dimension to the persistent fears and grievances.124 Scholars assess Greek Cypriot women as the demographic group least enthusiastic about the prospect of Cyprus reunification.125 Turkish Cypriot women, too, show lower levels of interest in and awareness of settlement processes than do Turkish Cypriot men, although economists believe they as a group would gain considerably from resolution of the conflict.

Against this backdrop, both communities have their own perspectives that make reconciliation that much harder. Many Greek Cypriots have accepted a view of the situation that does not particularly differentiate among Turkish Cypriots, Turkish citizens and the Turkish government.126 This narrative treats the closeness of current northern Cypriot leaders to Türkiye as proof that the three are one and the same, and that Nicosia’s main counterpart is in Ankara, not the north. Overcoming this preconception has become more difficult, “especially now that Tatar is in power and boastfully claims to be Erdoğan’s man on the island”, a Greek Cypriot analyst told Crisis Group.127 By some accounts, Ankara’s wider footprint in the north particularly irks Greek Cypriot women, who view the religiously conservative, Turkish nationalist ideology espoused by Ankara’s ruling alliance as a threat.128

Greek Cypriots who doubt the benefits of reconciliation express frustration with what they see as an expectation that they roll out a red carpet for Turkish Cypriots. The latter, they believe, already enjoy many benefits provided by the RoC without paying taxes and while continuing to insist on a different, and indeed antagonistic, identity. Although Turkish Cypriots are not represented in the RoC government, the RoC’s EU membership means that indigenous Turkish Cypriots also have EU citizenship rights. Reportedly, 95 per cent of them have taken advantage by obtaining passports.129 Besides getting travel documents, Turkish Cypriots can benefit from the RoC’s health, education and social security services, at least in theory; in practice, though, only those who are taxpayers in government-controlled territory can (exceptions are made for Turkish Cypriots who live in the north but need urgent medical help due to a life-threatening ailment).130 “They pick and choose who they are depending on what suits them”, complained a Greek Cypriot.

But many Turkish Cypriots clearly do not feel privileged. General surveys suggest that overall dissatisfaction with the status quo, and corresponding levels of emotional distress, are higher among Turkish Cypriots than Greek Cypriots.131 The former tend to doubt that the latter are seriously interested in a settlement that would alter a state of affairs they find agreeable. Former Turkish Cypriot leader Akıncı told Crisis Group that his takeaway from years of work to forge a federation was that there is no point in going back to the negotiating table until the desire to live together and share power trumps comfort with the status quo, particularly among Greek Cypriots.

Perhaps for this very reason, few indigenous Turkish Cypriots have qualms about the seeming tension between their separatism and taking advantage of the rights that come along with getting RoC ID cards and passports.132 Rather, they argue, their inherent rights were denied for too long, and the RoC makes it difficult for them to take advantage of the range of benefits due to them as EU citizens. A Turkish Cypriot told of having family history in Cyprus tracing back to the 17th century, through multiple displacements, with no compensation for lost property in the south (due in this case, he thinks, to his family’s leftist leanings). Such history, the interviewee said, confers as much right to legitimate Cypriot citizenship as that enjoyed by those who pay taxes to the RoC. The Turkish Cypriot said: “Why would I not deserve to get an RoC passport? I got my RoC ID, and then my passport, when I was 29. It was unfair that I could not travel anywhere in the world except Türkiye until then. I have catching up to do. So, yes, I travel a lot, but I resent questioning of my right to do so”.133

V.New Proposals, New Impasse

In the past, whenever Cyprus negotiations hit an impasse, one side or the other proposed a set of confidence-building measures to lay the groundwork for getting talks back on track. These encompassed everything from quick fixes for the everyday problems of island residents to much more substantial deals made up of complex tradeoffs. The ones that worked out avoided certain red lines. They did not imply recognition of sovereignty for the Turkish Cypriots, lest the Greek Cypriots object. Nor did they suggest RoC jurisdiction over the north, which would have been unacceptable to Turkish Cypriots. Some had tangible benefits. The opening of checkpoints between the two sides of the island in 2003 helped foster intercommunal interaction. (See Appendix A for description of the prior proposals that succeeded and those that did not, and for details of the crossings that were opened.134) But efforts to use such measures to jump-start negotiations in the wake of Crans Montana have foundered.

Both the RoC and the “TRNC” have put ideas on the table. Ioannis Kasoulides, who as noted was appointed in February 2022 for his third tour as RoC foreign minister, tried to push forward a set of confidence-building measures. These were formulated in a six-page letter signed by the RoC president and addressed to the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community.135 Likely spurred by the Turkish Cypriot actions to reopen Varosha/Maraş, it echoed longstanding Greek Cypriot proposals for the area.136 It proposed transferring the fenced-off part of town to UN administration (and after an interim period to Greek Cypriot administration) as well as taking measures that would facilitate transit and trade both between northern Cyprus and the outside world and between the RoC and Türkiye.137 In exchange for the above steps on Varosha/Maraş, and for Türkiye opening its ports to Cyprus-flagged ships (none can dock at present) and airspace to RoC aircraft (of which there are none now), the proposal said port customs services for the northern port of Famagusta/Gazimağusa could be placed under EU authority and Ercan/Tymbou airport operations under the UN.138

Some Turkish and Turkish Cypriot former officials told Crisis Group that … they thought Tatar should have tried negotiating to find common ground.

Turkish Cypriot leader Tatar rejected the offer formally in June 2022, without consulting the Turkish Cypriot parliament. Representatives of his administration told Crisis Group that Anastasiades’s proposal was “a bunch of regurgitated old ideas” and that they wanted their sovereignty in the north affirmed before discussing any such thing, a view echoed by Turkish officials.139 The Turkish Cypriot side was also not inclined to hand over Varosha/Maraş. Nonetheless, some Turkish and Turkish Cypriot former officials told Crisis Group that, though they could not accept Turkish Cypriots losing jurisdiction over the airport and port, they thought Tatar should have tried negotiating to find common ground.140

Tatar instead proffered his own six-point proposal for cooperation in July 2022.141 Two of its elements were action initiatives: first, connecting the full Cyprus electricity network to Türkiye to create a joined-up Türkiye-Cyprus-EU grid; and secondly, demining the entire island in cooperation with the UN. The other four involved the creation of new joint committees: one each on hydrocarbons, solar energy cooperation, water (to include improving access to water from Türkiye) and illegal migration. But the Greek Cypriots saw the proposal, with its idea of new committees, as trying to affirm a Turkish Cypriot governing role and elevate the status of the ’TRNC” to that of an equivalent legitimate authority – and possibly also as an effort to lay groundwork for formal partition of Cyprus into two independent states.142 For these and other reasons, the RoC rejected the proposal.

That the two parties each rejected the other’s proposed confidence-building measures underlines the fundamental differences in their respective approaches, summarised by an interlocutor as follows: “For Turkish Cypriots, the state is under occupation; for Greek Cypriots, the land is under occupation”.143

VI.Toward a More Promising Agenda

A return to the sorts of conversations between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots that led up to the 2017 summit is difficult to fathom absent a dramatic (and unforeseeable) geopolitical catalyst. But unfolding election cycles in the RoC, Greece and Türkiye could change the landscape. In the RoC, Anastasiades’ former foreign minister, Nikos Christodoulides, was elected president in February 2023. He is hoping to draw the EU into a bigger role in negotiations despite Turkish Cypriot and Turkish antipathy to the idea.144 Once elections in Türkiye and Greece conclude by the summer of 2023, a broader push for better regional relations could create space for, at least, transactional deals that might limit the damage the continuing Cyprus problem does to prospects for cooperation among the island’s neighbours.

At present, it is difficult to see how Ankara and Athens will position themselves post-elections. Election cycles are notorious for inviting tough talk from leaders and candidates in both Greece and Türkiye. The rhetoric may be somewhat less heated in 2023, in light of the substantial support provided by Greece to Türkiye in the aftermath of February’s devastating earthquakes. If built upon, this new good-will could set the stage for renewed dialogue between the two after voting wraps up.145 But more constructive dialogue between Türkiye and Greece does not necessarily translate into a course reversal on the Cyprus problem.

There is … no indication that a future government in Türkiye will significantly revise Ankara’s approach to the Cyprus problem.

There is also no indication that a future government in Türkiye will significantly revise Ankara’s approach to the Cyprus problem. If Erdoğan wins – and assuming that he remains allied with nationalist partners – he will likely stick to the existing policy (although he is known for his pragmatic U-turns when conditions shift). The Turkish opposition alliance, meanwhile, has signalled that, should it come to power, it might well follow the Turkish Cypriots’ lead more. While these parties would not themselves push for new talks, they would support Turkish Cypriots if the islanders seek to return to negotiations.146

Greek parliamentary elections, which have less impact on RoC positions than do Turkish elections on northern Cyprus stances, are also nearing. Regardless of the composition of the new Athens government, which will almost certainly be a coalition, analysts and decision-makers with whom Crisis Group discussed the topic largely expect incremental rapprochement with Türkiye.147

If improved Türkiye-Greece relations emerge following polls, it will not necessarily make constructive dialogue between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders more likely – but it cannot hurt. If talks do move forward, while a comprehensive settlement will likely remain out of reach for some time, there is a reasonable chance that all parties will see near-term benefit in arresting the downward trajectory of intra-island relations. Some mix of confidence-building measures – to enable projects of mutual benefit, advance intercommunal reconciliation and lay the groundwork for more steps later – is likely to be the most successful. The most plausible deals will aim small in the hopes of building toward a moment when more is possible.

An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus 5

A bench on the southern Greek Cypriot side before the checkpoint at Ledra Street crossing. The wall behind it that used to be strewn with bullet holes has since been reconditioned. November, 2021. CRISIS GROUP/ Claire Boccon-Gibod

A.Trade, Travel and Varosha/Maraş

Trade and travel initiatives may offer the most hope for progress. The Turkish Cypriots have a lot to gain from reopening the Ercan/Tymbou airport to international flights. An airport deal could connect northern Cyprus by direct flights to countries other than Türkiye, which is an especially exciting prospect for hoteliers, who believe their businesses would profit tremendously.148 Travellers from both sides of the island would also benefit from greater airline and airport competition, which could well lower prices and perhaps even improve service.

Turkish Cypriots, however, do not want to reopen the airport if that means its registration and controllers would be under RoC control, for fear, as with all else, that this step would amount to recognising RoC sovereignty. Greek Cypriot leaders have previously said they are open to exploring creative options. Kasoulides, when he was foreign minister, explained to Crisis Group that “the proposals are not a take-it-or-leave-it scenario but a springboard for further discussion”.149 A way forward might therefore be possible, although no specific workarounds have been identified to date.

As alluded to above, in return for movement on the airport, the RoC would likely require two things.

First, the RoC would want Türkiye to reverse its bans on docking at Turkish ports by RoC-registered ships and ships moving directly to and from the RoC, as well as on the use of Turkish airspace by RoC-registered aircraft. The Turkish ban, first instituted in 1987 to deny access to ROC-registered ships, was later expanded to prohibit vessels registered in third countries from travel between RoC ports and Türkiye’s ports in 1997.150 The ban hits the RoC in a key industry: its commercial shipping fleet is the eleventh largest in the world, and some 16 per cent of the EU’s cargo vessels sail under the RoC flag.151 But the fleet could be still larger: vessels have often refrained from registering under the Cyprus flag due to Turkish restrictions.152 If more register, the RoC would gain revenue.153 Türkiye opening its airspace is less significant for Greek Cypriots. There is no Cypriot national carrier at present.154 All other things being equal, the Greek Cypriots would like the air access, but most say they would not make any concessions to secure it.155

The benefits of a ban rescission [on docking at Turkish ports] would accrue not only to the Greek Cypriot economy but also to European and global commercial interests.

The benefits of a ban rescission would accrue not only to the Greek Cypriot economy but also to European and global commercial interests. Foreign producers would be able to bundle cargo destined for Türkiye with that headed to RoC, rather than shipping to the island separately. One estimate placed the resulting savings at €100 million a year.156 These lower costs would presumably reduce the prices of imported goods on the island and benefit suppliers. Türkiye and its economy would also gain. Türkiye already ranks fourth in the world in terms of number and tonnage of ships recycled in shipbreaking yards. Under this deal, it could benefit from offering destruction and recycling services for RoC ships as well.157

Secondly, it is hard to imagine the Greek Cypriots allowing a deal to move forward without concessions by Turkish Cypriots and Türkiye on Varosha/Maraş. Before coming to the table, the RoC will want to hear the Turkish Cypriots reiterate that they intend eventually to hand this area over to an UN interim regime, so that it can subsequently be incorporated into the Greek Cypriot zone of administration as part of a comprehensive settlement. To make clear that it is not trying to create new facts on the ground that would undercut this arrangement, the Turkish Cypriots could pair this statement with a moratorium on future development, pending agreement with the Greek Cypriot administration.

B.Reconciliation Efforts

Structured reconciliation efforts within and between the communities could, over time, help alleviate the frustrations both sides feel. Despite institutional challenges to effective coordination between communities, direct contacts have increased, albeit slowly, particularly since the creation of checkpoint crossings in 2003.158 But by itself this step has not been enough to build a feeling of solidarity between north and south. As a former Turkish Cypriot official argued, “We need to work on areas of cooperation that will lead people on both sides, but particularly the Greek Cypriots, to feel that they gain from living together. We need a bottom-up approach that evolutionarily results in understanding each other and overcoming the otherisation”.159 It is a tall order, but progress is conceivable in some areas.

First, historical education reforms – though difficult to achieve – are worth exploring. Though northern schoolbooks have improved significantly to remove hostile stereotypes of Greek Cypriots, pro-federation Turkish Cypriots in civil society are concerned that, absent a commitment from the RoC to carry out similar reforms, the de facto authorities will revert to the old ways of narrating the island’s history.160 Greek Cypriot advocates of reunification, on the other hand, point out that the current Turkish Cypriot administration has pulled out of peace education initiatives undertaken by its predecessor.Meanwhile, the history taught in Greek Cypriot schools continues to reinforce what some analysts have termed a “Hellenocentric dominant narrative of the twentieth century”.161 This slant, and continuing church involvement in education, contribute to children developing deeply skewed views, according to pro-reunification Greek Cypriots and others.162

Gaining support for broadened civil society efforts to raise awareness on both sides of the other community’s suffering in the 1960s and 1970s would be worthwhile.

A common historical narrative may currently be out of reach, and efforts to encourage teachers to present students with alternative narratives are sure to face tremendous backlash, but there are still areas where the two sides might work together.163 At the very least, gaining support for broadened civil society efforts to raise awareness on both sides of the other community’s suffering in the 1960s and 1970s would be worthwhile.

Secondly, the EU and other donors could improve the performance of their large-scale environmental projects in Cyprus by more explicitly encouraging the RoC’s inclusion of Turkish Cypriot counterparts. Donors could promote collaboration by favouring inclusive bicommunal applications, particularly for projects that would be much more meaningful if carried out on both sides of the divided island. For all bicommunal committees, adopting a shared lexicon of agreed-upon terminology would go a long way toward speeding and smoothing the cooperation they ostensibly seek.164


After more than five decades of failed talks, and the particularly spectacular collapse of promising negotiations in 2017, it is hard to see a clear way forward to the reunification of Cyprus, or even to talks about reunification. But the tensions that have emerged or intensified since the Crans Montana summit should not be ignored. They threaten to deepen rifts in the eastern Mediterranean and sour Türkiye-EU relations, while aggravating old disagreements and creating new ones between Ankara and its NATO allies. Among other things, the impasse between Cyprus’ two main communities underlines the limits of pressure tactics for both sides. Decades of isolation and economic pressure have led Turkish Cypriots to closer ties with Ankara, not acceptance of Greek Cypriot terms. Türkiye’s military posturing and turn away from negotiations have not led the RoC to recognise the Turkish Cypriot entity as sovereign and equal.

With no comprehensive deal in reach for the time being, the parties should try a more conciliatory approach – looking to cooperate transactionally for mutual benefit, for example in support of trade and travel, and to take other small steps together. To create an atmosphere conducive to such steps, Greek Cypriots will probably needto be assured that a future political settlement will return to them the long fenced-off areas of Varosha/Maraş. Since Crans Montana, politicians in Cyprus have been a bit too ready to allow opportunities for de-escalation to pass them by. It is time for them to change course for the benefit of their own communities, as well as for peace and security in the eastern Mediterranean.

Athens/Ankara/Nicosia (north and south)/Brussels, 17 April 2023

Appendix A: Proposals Related to Trade, Hydrocarbons and/or Varosha/Maraş

See the timeline here.

Source: International Crisis Group

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