A New era with Mustafa Akıncı in Northern Cyprus

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Representing a bi-communal federation and clean politics, as opposed to Derviş Eroğlu who represented the status quo, Mustafa Akıncı got 60% of the votes and became the new president of TRNC.

The election of Mustafa Akıncı as the new president of Northern Cyprus clearly marks the beginning a new era for Turkey-Northern Cyprus relations, as well as a new era for reconciliation in Cyprus.

The presidential election in Northern Cyprus on 19 April 2015 produced a result where no candidate managed to get more than 50%, which is the minimum to be elected president. In this first round of voting, 28% of the northern Cypriots supported incumbent President Derviş Eroğlu, who had been in office since 2010. The three remaining significant candidates, Mustafa Akıncı, Sibel Siber and Kudret Özersay, who highlighted “change” and “clean politics” as the main focus of their election campaigns, received the support of 70% of the voters.  The second round of the elections on 26 April was largely seen as a referendum between those who are satisfied with the status quo, incontestably represented by Derviş Eroğlu, and those who support a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation as well as change, clean politics and good governance in Northern Cyprus represented by Mustafa Akıncı. In the end, the second round was won by Mustafa Akıncı, who obtained 60.5% of the votes against Derviş Eroğlu, with a major difference of 21 %. In a way, this result can be interpreted as the failure of the status quo and an approval to those who desire change – that is, a solution to the Cyprus conflict and good governance in Northern Cyprus.

Starting from the second half of the 1970s, Northern Cyprus has been governed by right-wing parties and up to the 2000s the ‘Cyprus Problem’ was by and large handled solely by the late president (and community leader) Rauf Denktaş, a right-wing politician who supported the status quo. He believed in “No solution in Cyprus is the solution” basing this policy on the belief that the division of the island will be cemented as the time goes by without a solution to the Cyprus conflict. For a long period of time, while the Turkish Cypriot community has been labelled as the “intransigent” side in Cyprus peace negotiations in the eyes of the international community, the same community has struggled against extreme partisanship and nepotism of the majority of the governments in Northern Cyprus.   Making things worse, the submissiveness of the governments as well as the majority of the presidents of Northern Cyprus regarding the “interventions of Turkey into the domestic affairs in Cyprus” did not go  unnoticed by the Turkish Cypriots. All these factors have led to the formation of a frustrated and upset community in Northern Cyprus. In a way, Turkish Cypriots directed their fury towards Dr. Derviş Eroğlu, a former prime minister of the governments formed by the right-wing National Unity Party for 18 years. He was a firm follower of the Denktaş tradition and strong supporter of the established system (the status quo) in Northern Cyprus during his tenure as president which commenced in 2010. 

Mustafa Akıncı’s political career started in 1976 when he became the first elected Mayor of the Nicosia Turkish Municipality at the age of 28. Since the beginning of his involvement in politics, he has become known for his distinct qualities in politics such as hard-work, steadfastness and seriousness, a distance from corrupt politics and support towards a federal solution in Cyprus. In addition to these qualities, Akıncı collaborated with the then Greek Cypriot Mayor of Nicosia on the implementation of the Nicosia Sewerage Project and the Nicosia Master Plan, which contributed to his positive image both in Northern and Southern Cyprus. In a nutshell, Mustafa Akıncı’s name is twined with “clean politics” and a “federal solution” in the Greek Cypriot community. Hence, the election of Mustafa Akıncı as the new president of the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) and the new Turkish Cypriot leader in the eyes of the international community has brought fresh hope to those who support a federal solution in Greek Cypriot politics. In this respect, no Greek Cypriot leader will have the luxury of refusing to attend the peace talks with a Turkish Cypriot leader like Mustafa Akıncı, who has supported a federal solution in Cyprus throughout his political career, that is, the establishment of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation consisting of two politically equal communities.  The Greek Cypriot leader Nikos Anastasiades has not missed any opportunity to leave the negotiation table in the past, and used Turkey’s declaration of Navtex (navigational telex) in searching for natural gas as a reason to leave the table in October 2014. He interrupted the peace talks with the former Turkish Cypriot community leader Derviş Eroğlu, a strong supporter of a “two-state” solution, but it is expected that this time he will not have the luxury to withdraw from the negotiations with Mustafa Akıncı.

At the very beginning of his election campaign, Mustafa Akıncı presented the public a detailed document outlining his vision and throughout his campaign, he explained his four-dimensional policies to public without using conventional campaign methods such as defamation of the other candidates:

  1. Solution Oriented Policies
  2. Responding to Social Issues
  3. A Relationship with Turkey Based on Mutual Respect
  4. An Independent and Impartial Presidency

In short, Akıncı stated that he will pursue a pro-solution and reconciliatory stance on the Cyprus problem; that he will not be a figure head in the office but actively engage in social issues in the country; that unlike his predecessor, he will have equal distance to all the political parties without prejudice; and that he will transform the existing TRNC-Turkey relations into one that is based on mutual respect and equal footing.

Relations with Turkey

Mustafa Akıncı’s firm stance in the crisis in his encounter with the president of the Republic of Turkey Tayyip Erdoğan on his first day of presidency regarding the nature of the relationship between the Turkish Republic and the TRNC—whether the relationship should be one of a “mother and child” or “fraternal”—and his declaration that he would stand by his words are important signals indicating that during the post-election period, he will abide by his four-dimensional vision. This has received the support of 60.5% of the community. In other words, Akıncı’s relationship with Turkey during the new era will neither be based on ‘surrenderism’ nor ‘confrontationalism’ and in this respect, he will transform the relationship between the TRNC and the Turkish Republic into one of reconciliation, dialogue and problem-solving.

It is widely believed that part of the reason for the spat between Erdoğan and Akıncı was due to the election season in Turkey where Erdoğan resorted to a nationalist and heroic discourse in order to cash in on Turkish citizens’ votes for the Justice and Development Party (the AKP). This was typical of Erdoğan as exemplified in his famous Davos ‘One Minute’ episode in January 2009 or when he called Turkish Cypriots ‘free-riders’ (‘besleme’) in January 2011. It is also widely believed that after the general elections in Turkey on 7 June 2015, the discursive tension between Turkey and the TRNC will decrease dramatically. Most probably, the post-election relations between Turkey and the TRNC will be more technical and based on more rationality and less valor (‘hamaset’) during Akıncı’s presidency.

The EU Element

The usual Turkish Cypriot position vis-à-vis the EU’s enhanced role in the Cyprus issue had always been negative. The Turkish side quite frequently indicated that the EU is not able to play an impartial role in the Cyprus issue as long as Greece and the Greek Cypriot dominated Republic of Cyprus are full members of the EU while Turkey is not. Hence, the Turkish side has always opposed the idea of the EU’s enhanced involvement in the Cyprus peace negotiations, as well as having developed an allergy to Greek Cypriot arguments like “the Cyprus solution should be based on EU values.” However, there are strong indications that Mustafa Akıncı will not be adamant on this issue. Akıncı has always been a pro-EU politician who based his previous election campaigns on championing a united Cyprus’ EU membership as well as such EU values as democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights for all citizens. It is only natural to expect that he will in fact welcome more EU involvement in the process of solving the Cyprus problem as well as in the period after a solution has been implemented. Therefore, compared to the Eroğlu presidency, one can expect that there will be a rapid enhancement of relations between the EU and the Turkish Cypriots. The indicators of this are the recent enthusiastic visits of the several EU member countries’ ambassadors to Akıncı to congratulate him on his election victory. Hence, it is naturally expected that there will be more open and enhanced dialogue between the current Turkish Cypriot leader and the EU (countries and officials).

A better and enhanced dialogue between the Turkish Cypriots and the EU is also expected to positively influence the relations between Turkey and the EU. However, the improvement of the Turkish-EU relations are based on several other important factors, such as Turkey’s record sheet on the quality of its democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, Turkey’s track record on these issues in the last couple of years is, simply put, not very encouraging.

The Inter-communal Peace Negotiations and the CBMs (Confidence Building Measures)

Regarding the inter-communal peace talks in Cyprus, the signals coming from the Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriot leaderships so far have been quite positive. The relevant background for the start of the negotiations has been ensured by the UN, USA, Turkey and Greece as the relevant stakeholders. For example, Turkey’s non-renewal of the Navtex and the Greek Cypriot side’s putting a hold on the gas drilling activities of the Eni-Kogas partnership are not coincidental.  These deliberate steps paved the way towards the resumption of the peace talks between the new Turkish Cypriot leader and his Greek Cypriot counterpart within a new context freed from external factors that would derail the negotiation process. Hence, the two leaders have started the negotiations soon after Akıncı’s election and complemented the negotiations with a series of confidence building measures that have already positively transformed the political climate between the two sides in Cyprus, ranging from opening new checkpoints for crossing of the people to the other side of the UN buffer zone to uniting the electricity grids of the two sides.

However, I believe that one needs to be a bit cautious before jumping to the conclusion that the Cyprus conflict will be resolved soon, as we have witnessed many failures in the Cyprus peace talks in the past. Hence, one needs to carefully evaluate the chances of success in the current peace talks. Having commenced on February 11, 2014, the previous round of peace talks that were put on hold in October 2014 were based on a one-page joint declaration agreed by both leaders. This declaration, which was reluctantly accepted by both leaders as a result of the initiative of the USA and Turkey, has serious problems in three areas. 

No formal or informal calendar for negotiations agreed by two sides was specified.

Whether the sides accept formerly agreed issues (“convergences”) that form the basis for the negotiations is unclear.

The modality of the negotiations, in other words, the format, method and frequency of the negotiations to be carried out by leaders, negotiators/special representatives and technical teams, is unclear. 

It is known that Akıncı and Anastasiades repeated their endorsement for the February 11, 2014 joint declaration that has serious weaknesses regarding the process of the negotiations. If the aim of the two leaders now is to finalize the negotiations with success, the peace talks should start and proceed in the right context and with the right approach. For this to happen, prompt specification of the three above-mentioned weak spots in the joint declaration is of utmost importance in the resumption of peace talks with clearer goals, modality and calendar.

Finally, it is of utmost importance that the peace talks that are carried out by the two community leaders be conducted differently from what has been done up to now – i.e., totally in isolation from the communities. Instead, the talks should adopt a more inclusive methodology allowing the hopes, fears and desires of both communities to be integrated into the peace process. On one hand, we need to bring fresh hope to the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, who have lost their hopes for a solution in Cyprus and on the other hand, we need to bridge the big gap of trust between the two communities. The most important tool in this respect would be the implementation of a series of confidence building measures (CBMs) between the two communities. In this way, positive change will be brought to the very lives of the ordinary people who can then observe that cooperation between the two communities is indeed possible and that it is something desirable. In this way, the possibility and desirability of a federative solution, or a ‘mega cooperation,’ based on the power-sharing between the two communities will be solidified. These confidence building measures may focus on an array of potential areas of collaboration which may include a mobile phone roaming agreement between the two communities, opening of the fenced area of Varosha, allowing Turkish Cypriots to have direct trade with the EU through the Famagusta Port, and erasing all traces of hatred and racism from both communities’ history books. A simultaneous implementation of confidence building measures that would accompany the official track of the peace negotiations at leaders’ level has not been tried before. A methodology as such would go beyond the accustomed pattern of behavior and will transform the peace process into a broader, more inclusive and democratic method. The current peace process started with signs of this format that I proposed above and I hope that the two leaders do not let go of the CBM track for the sake of focusing solely on substantive issues of the Cyprus problem for a comprehensive solution.