Turkish Cypriot leader warns that Cyprus faces a permanent section

The president of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus has warned the Mediterranean island faces permanent partition of its Greek and Turkish communities unless an agreement is swiftly reached involving an “equitable” federal solution.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mustafa Akıncı said the differences between the two sides were growing more entrenched every year, diminishing the prospect of reunification. “We need to hurry up. After all these years we have come to a crossroads, a decisive moment,” he said.

Akıncı – who on Wednesday evening launched his re-election campaign – said the only viable solution to Cyprus’s nearly half century of division was reunification under a federal “roof”. If this failed to happen, he said the north would grow increasingly dependent on Ankara and could end up being swallowed up, as a de facto Turkish province.

Akıncı met his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades, on Monday in the UN-controlled buffer zone that straddles the divided Cypriot capital, Nicosia. The two leaders attended an exhibition of art that had been stored in a basement following Turkey’s 1974 invasion of the north of the island. “Art serves as a unifying force,” Akıncı said.

On-off negotiations over a solution to the Cyprus problem have taken place without an agreement. Since winning office in 2015, Akıncı – a leftwing former Nicosia mayor – has tried to push the process forward. He led UN-mediated talks with Anastasiades in Crans-Montana, Switzerland, which collapsed in 2017. The process is currently in limbo.

Speaking from his presidential office in Nicosia, a short walk from the pedestrian crossing point connecting the Turkish- and Greek-controlled zones, Akıncı said he was cautiously optimistic a dialogue would resume: “The train was derailed in Crans-Montana. I think we have relaunched it again on a realistic and mutually acceptable path.”

Both sides agree in principle on Cyprus’s future: as a bi-communal, bi-zonal island with political equality and a single “personality”. But the issues that have bedevilled reunification remain. Turkish Cypriots want substantial devolution and the right for some of the 35,000 Turkish troops garrisoned in the north to remain. Greek Cypriots want them to leave.

Akıncı said conditions were being created for lasting division. “It’s becoming more consolidated each year, physically, demographically, economically. It consolidates in the mind of youngsters.” The president said he and his wife – both born in the south – had a closer, more emotional relationship with Greek Cyprus than a newer generation including their own children.

Meanwhile, Akıncı’s future as Turkish Cypriot leader is uncertain ahead of elections in April. Only Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) as a sovereign state. The rest of the world supports the southern (Greek Cypriot) Republic of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004.

Akıncı’s likely election run-off rival is Ersin Tatar, an outspoken pro-Ankara populist who opposes reconciliation with the south. Tatar, the current prime minister, favours a two-state solution. He enjoys strong support from Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and from settlers who have arrived in unquantified numbers from the mainland, changing the island’s religious and cultural makeup.

Tensions between Akıncı and Erdoğan have recently grown. In November, Akıncı criticised Turkey’s military incursion into northern Syria, to which Erdoğan responded by saying the Turkish Cypriot leader should “know his limits”, adding that the electorate would soon teach him a “lesson”. Turkish nationalists have bombarded Akıncı with abuse and threats.

Akıncı said he disagreed with Erdoğan’s vision of the relationship between Ankara and Nicosia as one of “mother and baby”. “I want independent, brotherly relations,” he explained. He acknowledged the TRNC had to do more to make its economy less reliant on Turkey, which pays the government’s bills. To do this he needed support from the south, he said.

The president said Turkish Cypriots had their own distinct identity. This was secular, democratic, and plural. “We want to keep this,” he said. Civil society activists complain that Ankara has embarked on a campaign of creeping Islamic influence, characterised by mosque building, the establishment of Koranic schools and the removal of evolution from the curriculum.

A full-blown Turkish military takeover of the north is unlikely but not impossible, they add. Akıncı said the prospect of Crimea-style annexation was “horrible” and against Turkey’s own interests. His vision was wholly different, he said – of a unified Cyprus within the EU. “I’m not going to be a second Tayfur Sökmen,” Akıncı added, referring to the president of Hatay, who in the 1930s merged his republic – formerly part of French-mandated Syria – with Turkey after a referendum.

A peace deal might smooth rising regional tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, the president suggested. Last summer Akıncı proposed that Greek and Turkish Cypriots should cooperate over oil drilling activities, sharing revenue from hydrocarbon discoveries. But the Greek Cypriot government has rejected a proposal from Ankara for all sides to cease exploration until a settlement is reached, saying this contravenes international law.

Akıncı said he hoped Boris Johnson – who has a Turkish great-grandfather – could use his good standing with Ankara to reboot stalled Cyprus negotiations. Of Brexit, the president said: “I didn’t applaud it but we have to respect it.” He added: “I don’t know if you will be able to keep your country as one, after this. That might be very difficult.”