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[ANALYSIS] Does Erdoğan intend to annex northern Cyprus with Putin’s support?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

When Turkey conducted the “Cyprus Peace Operation” in 1974, Bülent Ecevit was prime minister of the coalition government. The operation and subsequent military victory led to Ecevit becoming popularly known as the “Conqueror of Cyprus.” In the 1977 elections the Republican People’s Party (CHP), led by Ecevit, achieved the most significant electoral victory in its history, garnering 41.4 percent of the vote, showing that the Turkish people support victorious politicians.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will face the most critical election of his political career in June 2023 unless a decision is made to hold early elections. The decline in people’s standard of living due to poor economic conditions and rising inflation has reduced support for Erdoğan. In addition, Russia has received significant political, military, and economic concessions from Turkey due to the close but mysterious relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdoğan. If Erdoğan loses the upcoming election, critical projects such as the procurement of a second batch of S-400 missiles and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant could be halted. That is why Russia also wants Erdoğan to be elected. If Putin supports him, Erdoğan has the opportunity to make himself a hero and victorious commander-in-chief. That opportunity lies in annexing northern Cyprus.

After the Cyprus Peace Operation, the island of Cyprus was divided between Greeks and Turks. Due to the de facto partition and the inability to reach a consensus between the parties, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) was established on Nov. 15, 1983. However, according to United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 541 and 550, the KKTC is not officially recognized by any country other than Turkey.

UNSC Resolution 541 states that the “declaration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent state is incompatible with the 1960 Treaty concerning the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus and the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. Therefore, the attempt to create a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is invalid and will contribute to the worsening of the situation in Cyprus.”

The relevant portion of UNSC Resolution 550 reads as follows:

“The Security Council,

            – “Gravely concerned about the further secessionist acts in the occupied part of the Republic of Cyprus which are in violation of resolution 541 (1983), namely, the purported exchange of ambassadors between Turkey and the legally invalid ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ and the contemplated holding of a ‘constitutional referendum’ and ‘elections’, as well as by other actions or threats of actions aimed at further consolidating the purported independent State and the division of Cyprus,

            – “Condemns all secessionist actions, including the purported exchange of ambassadors between Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership, declares them illegal and invalid, and calls for their immediate withdrawal;

            – “Reiterates the call upon all States not to recognize the purported State of the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ set up by secessionist acts and calls upon them not to facilitate or in any way assist the aforesaid secessionist entity;

            – “Calls upon all States to respect the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, unity, and nonalignment of the Republic of Cyprus; …”

Under the UN Security Council resolutions, no country has recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to date. Although Turkey recognizes the KKTC as an independent state, the Erdoğan government has recently treated northern Cyprus as if it were a province of Turkey. In addition there is a widespread belief that President Ersin Tatar was elected with the intervention of Turkey in the last election. At present, it is literally impossible for the KKTC to make a decision independent of Turkey. For this reason, even if the Erdoğan government de facto annexes northern Cyprus as Turkish territory, nothing will change in reality. Only the reality on the ground will be re-defined accordingly.

If Turkey’s annexation of northern Cyprus will in fact change nothing, why hasn’t Turkey yet chosen this path? Turkey is a medium-sized regional power. For this reason, it cannot carry out political maneuvers that can be perceived as revisionist moves without the support of one superpower. In addition, Turkey could not have annexed northern Cyprus in the unipolar global system led by the US as the sole hegemonic power, and in any case, the delicate political balances in the region didn’t allow Turkey to do so. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 clearly show that the unipolar global system in which the US is the sole hegemonic power has ended. A new era of great power competition has begun between Russia, China, the US and the EU.

If the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions agree to join Russia with the so-called referendum, the Russo-Ukrainian war will enter a new phase. In that case, Russia’s demands of Turkey will increase even more. For this reason, Erdoğan’s victory in the upcoming election will be even more critical for Putin. Erdoğan has to date exploited the gaps left by the great power struggle. But at the moment, Erdoğan has no choice but to win the election. While everyone focuses on Putin and Russia, Erdoğan might annex the KKTC with Putin’s tacit support.

The last resort for dictators is to acquire a piece of land to instill pride in their supporters. In 1982 the Argentine military dictatorship invaded the Falkland Islands under British rule to make the Argentine people, overwhelmed by deteriorating economic conditions, forget the economic crisis. In the political situation, the military dictatorship thought Britain would not intervene in the Falkland Islands, 9,600 nautical miles from its borders, and would accept the occupation. But they were wrong. I hope the Erdoğan government does not make the same mistake in northern Cyprus.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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