Michael Peel in Nicosia-Financial Times
A leading candidate to be president of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus has called for permanent partition from its southern Greek-speaking neighbour, complicating efforts to reunify the island that has been divided for almost 50 years.
Ersin Tatar, the north Cypriot prime minister, said years of peace talks to end one of Europe’s most intractable conflicts had led nowhere and called instead for deeper ties with the Turkish “motherland” and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Tatar’s tough stance ahead of April’s election highlights a hardening of attitudes on both sides of Cyprus’s UN-controlled “green line” as regional tensions rise between Turkey and the EU on matters from Syrian refugees to Mediterranean energy resources.
Mr Tatar denounced a decision by Greek Cypriot authorities late last month to temporarily close several crossing points to the north for the first time since they were opened in 2003, ostensibly to stop the possible spread of coronavirus.
“The reality of Cyprus is that we have two states living side by side,” he said in an interview. “Nobody can deny this.”
The prime minister of northern Cyprus said Turkish Cypriots had been “very, very unfairly treated” and made to feel they should “succumb” to authorities on the Greek-speaking side of the island who “believe they are the real masters of Cyprus”. He insisted that he was prepared to negotiate and collaborate with his southern counterparts, but warned against “forcing a wedding”.
“We want a Turkish Cypriot state,” he said, speaking in his office in north Nicosia, against a backdrop of the Turkish and northern Cyprus flags and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s founding father. “We don’t believe that after all these years we should be united in a federal republic where the Greeks rule the Turkish Cypriots. This is something we can never accept.”
Cyprus has been split since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island with the justification of protecting the minority ethnically Turkish community, after a coup that sought to unite the territory with Greece.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 but the bloc’s laws are suspended in the north, which Turkey alone recognises as an independent state almost 40 years after it declared itself one. North Cypriots backed the idea of unification with a majority of 65 per cent in a referendum that took place shortly before EU accession, but the idea was overwhelming rejected by their southern neighbours.
Talks for a peace deal to unite the island have repeatedly failed, most recently in 2017 in the Swiss Alpine resort of Crans-Montana. If Mr Tatar beats incumbent northern Cyprus president Mustafa Akinci in the election, he is likely to come under international pressure to open a fresh round of UN-sponsored peace talks with the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades.
Mr Akinci favours reunification of Cyprus in a federal state and has clashed with Mr Erdogan, notably over a Turkish military offensive in north-east Syria last year.
The relationship with Ankara is a contentious subject in northern Cyprus, with some accusing Turkey of meddling in its affairs. Mr Akinci has argued in the past that it should be “a sibling relationship, not one of mother and child.”
Mr Tatar, who became prime minister after northern Cyprus parliamentary elections last year, said his policy was “always to get on well with Turkey” and praised Mr Erdogan for supporting projects including a new hospital and expanded water supply. Asked what he disagreed with Mr Erdogan on, he appealed only for “more economic support from time to time” for northern Cyprus, which has historically been heavily reliant on Turkish aid.
Motherland Turkey has been with us at all the critical momentsErsin Tatar, north Cypriot prime minister
“Motherland Turkey has been with us at all the critical moments,” he said. “We cannot exist without Turkish support.”
Mr Tatar said he planned to work with Turkey on drilling for hydrocarbons in waters off Cyprus, a move that triggered sanctions from the EU which says the activity is illegal. He suggested the closure of the crossing points by southern Cypriot authorities was partly in retaliation for Mr Erdogan’s decision late last month to allow thousands of refugees to travel to the Greek border, provoking a bitter dispute with Brussels. Greek Cypriot authorities deny the crossing point closure is political.
Having worked as an accountant in the UK as a young man, Mr Tatar said his reputation had not been hurt by his former role as assistant treasurer at the collapsed UK conglomerate Polly Peck International. The fruit-to-electronics empire of the Turkish Cypriot businessman Asil Nadir became a byword for 1980s corporate excess when it went bust in 1990 after claims of fraud.
Mr Nadir fled to northern Cyprus to escape criminal charges in 1993 but returned voluntarily to the UK in 2010. He was found guilty in 2012 of stealing £29m from Polly Peck and jailed for ten years, after a trial in which prosecutors alleged others, including Mr Tatar, aided his activities.
Mr Tatar, who has never been charged with any offence, denied any wrongdoing over Polly Peck and said Mr Nadir – now a free man in northern Cyprus – was not offering support to his political campaign. “I was a very small fish, I couldn’t have done anything,” Mr Tatar said of his time at Polly Peck.
Mr Tatar, a Cambridge University graduate, stressed his links with the UK, which occupied Cyprus until 1960 and still has military bases in the south. He expressed hopes that Boris Johnson, prime minister – and great-grandson of the Ottoman Empire’s last interior minister, Ali Kemal – might be able to play a mediating role in the Cyprus conflict, as part of efforts to improve relations with Ankara after Brexit.
“He’s a popular man, he’s a courageous chap, he’s a brave man,” Mr Tatar, who visited Britain last month, said of Mr Johnson. “And Turkey is a very important country now outside Europe. [Britain] is out of Europe. Therefore, things are a little bit moving in our favour.”
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Ankara and Kerin Hope in Athens