“Hagia Sophia is done! Next is Varosha!” wrote a Turkish journalist known to be close to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) on his social media account on the same day Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reconverted Istanbul’s world-famous Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque.
Varosha is a town in the northern part of Cyprus which has been fenced off as a forbidden military zone since 1974, when its Greek Cypriot population fled from the advancing Turkish army. It is among the places to be returned to its lawful former Greek Cypriot inhabitants under the control of the future Greek Cypriot constituent state within the framework of a comprehensive federal solution on the island. Recently however, Turkey has been declaring plans to open Varosha under Turkish Cypriot control despite United Nations Security Council resolutions prohibiting the move.
There are fears that instead of inviting its lawful former Greek Cypriot inhabitants, Turkey will invite big businesses to come into the once popular destination, which in the past was bustling with tourists but is now characterised by lifeless, deserted hotels lining beautiful turquoise waters.
The fears are not unfounded as Evkaf – the Turkish Cypriot religious foundation has already claimed to own the majority of properties in the abandoned city. The Islamic foundation has been publishing full-page newspaper notices, producing videos, and campaigning as well as lobbying about Varosha’s status.
The Turkish journalist’s bold statement about the opening of Varosha was provocative yet highly symbolic because it demonstrated Turkey’s growing encroachment in the northern part of Cyprus, which many fear could lead the island to permanent partition.
For almost 60 years, the international community, led by the United Nations has made efforts to find a comprehensive federal solution for the Cyprus problem and reunite an island divided between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. After decades of negotiations, seven Secretaries-General, countless plans, failed referenda and most recently an unsuccessful international conference, Cyprus remains divided.
The most recent round of negotiations to reunite Cyprus failed during an international conference at the Crans-Montana Swiss resort in July 2017. The climate surrounding the peace process has deteriorated greatly since the closure of the conference and a series of developments in and around Cyprus have made a federal solution increasingly unattainable. Many fear such developments could irreversibly make Cyprus drift towards permanent partition.
As soon as the negotiations failed in Crans-Montana, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told reporters that four decades of UN parameters, which stipulate Cyprus would be reunified under a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation based on the political equality of the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities, are no longer applicable. This suggested Turkey might start looking for alternative solutions.
Since Crans-Montana, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades has also hinted that alternative approaches might be necessary. In October 2018, he talked of an undefined “loose federation” and even a confederation. Anastasiades’s political opponents also suggested he was considering a two-state solution. Anastasiades came under heavy criticism, particularly from the leadership of the left-wing AKEL party, for abandoning the goal of a federal solution. Some Turkish Cypriots saw Anastasiades’s suggestion of a decentralized federation as a way to avoid giving Turkish Cypriots the political equality they had sought through a federal solution.
It has also been revealed that Greek Cypriot leader Anastasiades and Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu have met a number of times—initially in Crans-Montana during the Cyprus Conference—to discuss new ideas including a two-state solution, which would effectively mean a de-facto permanent partition.
In fact, the Greek Cypriot leadership also does not seem ready to abandon the status quo for the establishment of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation in which power would be shared equally between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. It seems content with the legal, political, and economic supremacy of its republic and is not willing to relinquish this status for true power-sharing with a smaller community. There is also fear that in a power-sharing agreement with Turkish Cypriots, Turkey will meddle in the affairs of a federal Cyprus through Turkish Cypriots.
In 2017, Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said “from the Greek Cypriot point of view, conceding political equality with the Turkish Cypriots means giving power away. But absent a real incentive for both sides” to actually reach an agreement, “the reality is that no Greek Cypriot leader will ever be able to get their electorate behind a deal. The status quo for the south is simply too comfortable.”
The collapse of the talks also strengthened Turks and Turkish Cypriots, who have long argued the solution is, in fact, already there: the de facto partition. They say if this were to be internationally recognized, both “states” would be able to normalize relations and move on.
While Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı has become increasingly isolated over his insistence on a federation, this irreparably damaged his relations with Turkey.
When during a visit to Cyprus in April 2018, Çavuşoğlu tabled a two-state solution for Cyprus, Akıncı told him he would rather resign than seek any model of solution other than a federation. Çavuşoğlu later described the federation model as the Turkish Cypriot leader’s “personal opinion.”
The disagreement between the Turkish Cypriot leader and Ankara over the nature of a solution deteriorated further earlier this year when Akıncı, in response to a question by the British newspaper The Guardian on the possibility of Turkey’s annexation of the North, said: “It’s a horrible scenario.” The Turkish Cypriot leader was relentlessly criticised and, some would say threatened, by Turkish officials.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described Akıncı’s comments as “very unfortunate,” while Çavuşoğlu said Akıncı is “unreliable” and accused him of “supporting terrorism.” Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said Akıncı’s attitude would “not be tolerated,” while Erdoğan’s chief advisor Yiğit Bulut wrote they would “fight with the last drop” of their blood against a fait accompli in Cyprus. Among other statements, were calls “to go to Cyprus and work so that he doesn’t win” and “blow him up like one of the PKK leaders.” AKP senior official Metin Yavuz said Akıncı “needs to be a man before he can be a leader.” Yavuz added, “If it weren’t for us, you couldn’t have even become a trashman, let alone becoming a president.”
Despite such attacks and sustained pressure, Akıncı, who will be running for a second term in Northern Cyprus’ presidential elections on 11 October, stood his ground and said people would respond at the ballot box.
With Turkey and—apparently—Anastasiades placing themselves outside the federal framework, Ankara sees Akıncı as the biggest obstacle in front of pursuing a two-state solution policy. It has been revealed that in an effort to remove Akıncı, Ankara in early August, invited Turkish Cypriot right-wing party leaders to encourage them to agree on a joint candidate to compete against the Turkish Cypriot leader. However, to date there has been no agreement and Akıncı is leading the polls.
Turkey’s increasing influence
Since the failure of the latest round of negotiations in 2017, Turkey’s cultural and religious hegemony on Turkish Cypriots has significantly increased, further complicating prospects for reunification. As the Erdogan administration has cemented its power in Turkey, the northern part of Cyprus has seen more pressure to give citizenship to people of Turkish origin, more attempts to interfere in the way Turkish Cypriot youth are educated, more threats against freedom of expression, more efforts to change its laws, the construction of larger mosques all over the island and more Quran courses mushrooming illegally without acquiring the necessary permissions from Turkish Cypriot authorities.
Turkish Cypriots, who are among the most liberal Muslims globally and traditionally practise a very peaceful and moderate version of Islam, are increasingly restless in the face of what they describe as ever-growing Turkish oppression.
Besides more and larger mosques and illegal Quran courses, Turkish Cypriots feel threatened by plans to establish more theological schools, pressure to introduce religion as an obligatory lesson in primary and secondary schools, youth camps where boys and girls are kept in separate spaces, hotels with separate recreation areas for men and women, more conservative imams and religion teachers sent from Turkey and attempts to control the Turkish Cypriot education system and curricula.
The continuous pressure on the Turkish Cypriot administration to give citizenships to an increasing number of people from Turkey and the changing demographics in the northern part of Cyprus and is of particular concern. The growing number of Turkish citizens coupled with a growing number of Turkish Cypriots leaving the island might soon see Turkish Cypriots become a minority in their own land. Although the exact numbers are debatable, research suggests that out of a total population of 400,000 in the northern part of Cyprus on any given day, half are likely to be Turkish citizens. If other foreign residents are included, then Turkish Cypriots are a minority. This demographic change raises questions about the long-term existence and identity of Turkish Cypriots and threatens to alter the very nature of any Cyprus settlement.
In December 2019, Turkish media reported Turkey was planning to establish a naval base in the northern part of Cyprus. According to reports, a team of experts from the Turkish Armed Forces were surveying the area to determine a location for the base. The plans included the construction of new military quarters and naval facilities. Earlier, Turkey had started using an airport in the northern part of Cyprus for unmanned aerial vehicles operating in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Another factor that will increasingly complicate a federal solution on the island is the rapid construction and development that started with the failure of the Annan Plan in 2004, and which is continuing to this day. As a result of the ethnic conflict in 1963 and the division in 1974, over 150,000 Greek Cypriots living in the north were forced to flee to the south, leaving behind some 1,350 million donums (551,844,058 m2) of land (80 per cent of all private properties in the north). Some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots living in the south fled to the north at the time. Huge hotels and casinos are now being lined up along the northern shore while large houses, universities and night clubs are continuously being built on previously empty land, originally belonging to Greek Cypriots. This change in the physical environment will surely complicate a federal solution, which would require a resolution for the property problem through restitution, compensation or exchange. As construction activity increases, the amount of empty land available to be returned to the Greek Cypriots or exchanged in the event of a federal solution is decreasing.
The Turkification and Islamisation of north Cyprus will—before long—be complete with unrestricted population transfers from Turkey, with pressure on Turkish Cypriots on every field of life—who will eventually have to adapt to survive—and with Turkish capital seizing all vital sectors and filling any empty land.
Besides the unrestricted and rapid demographic, economic, political, religious, social and cultural alteration of the north, an incident in January 2018 was particularly worrying for Turkish Cypriots, who fear the intolerance towards freedom of expression and infringements on other fundamental freedoms and rights that characterise Turkey today will be transferred to the northern part of Cyprus.
In January 2018, after Turkish Cypriot newspaper Afrika called Turkey’s offensive in north-western Syria a “second occupation by Turkey,” Turkish President Erdoğan called on his “brothers” in Turkey to give the newspaper the necessary response. Responding to his call hundreds of mainly Turkish-origin demonstrators stormed the offices of Afrika smashing the windows of the building, throwing stones and iron bars and threatening the editor-in-chief.
All these developments in Cyprus, coupled with the changing dynamics around Cyprus and across the wider Eastern Mediterranean region are making a federal solution increasingly unattainable. Relations between Turkey and Greece are at an all-time low and tensions surrounding hydrocarbon exploration activities in the waters around Cyprus leave little room for optimism.
This was echoed in Secretary General’s report to the UN Security Council dated 14 November 2019 in which he said: “The people of Cyprus deserve to know that this time is different.”
At this point, despite continuous efforts by the UN Secretary-General Guterres to restart negotiations and despite the fact the Security Council has repeatedly called on the sides and all involved participants to renew their political will and commitment to a settlement under United Nations auspices, there is little evidence a meaningful process
for a federal solution can start soon. In June 2018, Guterres appointed high-level UN official Jane Holl Lute to consult with the two Cypriot leaders and the three guarantor parties Greece, Turkey, and Great Britain to determine if conditions were there to resume negotiations under the auspices of the UN. If so, Lute was to prepare a “terms of reference” document that would include a 2017 framework proposed by Guterres, previous “convergences” between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders, and a proposed road map for how the negotiations would proceed.
Lute’s numerous consultations unfortunately did not result in an agreement on the terms of reference. There may be a slight chance of resuming negotiations if Akıncı wins the elections in October. Otherwise, negotiations are likely to remain suspended indefinitely.
Cyprus, after 55 years as a politically separated nation and 45 years as a physically divided country, may never be reunified again. In the absence of a federal solution, the northern part of Cyprus will rapidly integrate/disintegrate into Turkey, which will effectively mean a permanent partition on the island.
 The UNESCO World Heritage site was built as a cathedral in the sixth century during the Byzantine empire, converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and had been opened to all visitors, regardless of their faith, since its inauguration as a museum in 1935. The reconversion generated anger and dismay among Christians around the world and many in academic and conservation communities. It also increased tensions between NATO members Turkey and Greece.
 UN Security Council Resolutions 550 (1984) “Considers attempts to settle any part of Varosha by people other than its inhabitants as inadmissible and calls for the transfer of this area to the administration of the United Nations” UN Security Council Resolution 789 (1992) urges “That, with a view to the implementation of resolution 550 (1984), the area at present under the control of the United Nations Peace-keeping Force in Cyprus be extended to include Varosha.” With the new attempts to open the fenced-off city on 9 October 2019, the UN Security Council discussed the issue of Varosha in closed consultations and subsequently issued a press statement in which they recalled the importance of the status of Varosha as set out in previous Council resolutions, reiterating that no actions should be taken in relation to Varosha that were not in accordance with those resolutions and stressing the importance of implementing the Council’s resolutions.
 Jack Straw, “Only a partitioned island will bring the dispute between Turkish and Greek Cypriots to an end,”
Independent, October 2017.
 Turkish Cypriot leader warns Cyprus is facing permanent partition, The Guardian, February 2020.
 Mete Hatay, Population and Politics in north Cyprus, p.42
 Report of the Secretary-General on his mission of good offices in Cyprus, 14 November 2019