The temptation of blaming Turkey’s Erdoğan on Cyprus

The temptation of blaming Turkey’s Erdoğan on Cyprus

“Turkey holds key at last-ditch Cyprus talks,” was the headline of an analysis published in the EUObserver a few days before the intercommunal talks started in Geneva on Jan. 9.

From this headline you would assume that the Geneva talks are not negotiations or a give-and-take exercise between the two communities on the divided island, but it was an effort aimed at convincing Turkey.

Presenting the talks between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots in Geneva, which is expected to be followed by a conference with the participation of guarantor states; Turkey, Greece and the U.K., would be doing great injustice to Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can be harshly, and in most cases, rightly be criticized on several foreign policy issues, but its Cyprus policy is not one of them. 

On the contrary, the Turkish side’s decades-long policy, which was perceived by the international community as a lack of desire to find a solution preferring to keep the island divided, was reversed by the AKP, headed by Erdoğan. Many might prefer to forget today that an agreement reached in 2004, called the Annan plan, was turned down by Greek Cypriots who were hardly blamed for failing to reunite the island. Ankara’s genuine desire to find a lasting solution based on reciprocal compromise did not change ever since. 

Until the 2000’s, any diplomatic meeting between European and Turkish officials would include a part where Ankara would be asked to encourage the Turkish Cypriot side to be less intransigent. That was no longer the case after 2000. On the contrary, it was the Turkish side who kept trying to have the Greek Cypriot side’s back on the negotiating table. 

Turkey kept the moral high ground ever since 2004, until today.

“Do you really believe that Mr. [Mustafa] Akıncı is free to negotiate?  Do you really believe he can agree on anything without the approval of Mr. Erdoğan?” a Greek Cypriot reader asked me in an email after in my last article I said Turkey had left Akıncı’s hand relatively free. Any government in Ankara whether headed by Erdoğan or not would have a say on the negotiations not least because it is a guarantor state. 

But here, the Turkish side is running the risk of being a victim of Erdoğan’s international image. Erdoğan has been projecting the image of a leader who wants a one-man rule and wants to have the last word. This is going to make it easy for the international community to blame Erdoğan for the failure in Geneva. 

Yet, with changing strategy, Turkey had unmasked the Greek Cypriot side, which thanks to the intransigence shown by the Turkish side, projected itself for decades as the side that genuinely wanted a “compromised solution.” Indeed the Greek Cypriot administration wanted a solution, but only one based on their terms. 

Even I, as a Turkish journalist, was tempted to blame the Turkish side for a lack of solution, until I went to south Cyprus for the referendum. What I came across was a country preparing to be a member of the EU, yet still hardly democratic.  U.N. officials were not allowed to express their views on Cypriot TV channels, the few advocates of a “yes” vote could not make their voices heard, they kept being harassed, and school children were asked to parade on streets wearing “no” t-shirts. They said no and entered the EU, as though it was a reward.

Just like Ankara, Athens too is carrying the responsibility for a successful end to the peace talks. But when you compare the all-smiling Alexis Tzipras to the West-bashing Erdoğan; who do you think is going to get the blame in case of a failure?