Cyprus Votes: Solidifying the Schism
Cyprus has a new leader, with former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides emerging as victorious in a tightly contested run-off election. The Red Line’s Derek Henry Flood reports on the ground in Nicosia about the race and the reaction on the ground to the result.
On 12 February, an extraordinarily tight presidential race came to a conclusion, with the win of an independent barely edging out a more senior career diplomat thrilling some, while leaving others feeling downbeat about the prospects for peace in the EU’s only divided member state.
As polls closed at 18:00, Nikos Christodoulides, Cyprus’ former foreign minister under a centre-right-led government, beat the left’s Andreas Mavrogiannis by a fraction of the vote at approximately 52 to 48 per cent respectively. As loyal campaign staff and local press watched pensively as the results were broadcast at the Mavrogiannis HQ and a giant flatscreen erected outdoors to celebrate a hoped-for victory, suddenly fireworks erupted for the Christodoulides camp just down the hill. Cars honked, police sirens flashed, and the energy immediately shifted.
As The Red Line approached, a crowd of ardent Christodoulides supporters had gathered in the street, waving more Greek than Cypriot flags, and chanting ebulliently for their newly elected leader who ran against the odds after breaking away from the ruling DISY party that has dominated Greek Cypriot politics for the past decade. Although both candidates pledged to work to reunify the Greek-majority south with the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), occupied by the Turkish military since mid-1974, Mavrogiannis was seen as the far more likely of the two to prioritise peace talks given his past role as chief negotiator under the outgoing president Nikos Anastasiades’ administration from 2015-2017.
A Divided Country
The TRNC is currently led by right wing pro-Turkey President Ersin Tatar, who nearly identical to Christodoulides beat his left-wing pro-reconciliation opponent by 52 to 48 per cent in October 2020. Tatar, a staunch ally of President Erdogan, has made clear in recent statements to Turkish media that he has no interest in pursuing a federated Cyprus or leaving the Turkish orbit for far-off Brussels that has long given the once EU-aspirant Turkey the cold shoulder.
Formal political and economic reunification of the island nation was not the dominant theme in this most recent election cycle. Internal schisms within the ethnic-Greek south were far more prevalent. The disastrous economic policies of the last AKEL-run government until 2013 may likely have been an Achilles heel for Mavorgiannis, who, while formally running independently of the party system, was staunchly backed by AKEL with its roots in early 20th century Marxist-Leninist ideology. AKEL remains an anathema to much of DISY’s more conservative electoral base who were conflicted about voting for Christodoulides, a DISY dissident with plans for form a coalition government of smaller centrist and right-wing parties that will likely result in weakening DISY’s overall power in Nicosia.
"Tatar, a staunch ally of President Erdogan, has made clear in recent statements to Turkish media that he has no interest in pursuing a federated Cyprus..."
Nicosia, officially known as Lefkosia internally, is very often dubbed “the world’s last divided capital,” a coded reference to Cold War-Berlin or perhaps Beirut during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. The heart of the old city acts as a convoluted maze of dusty metal barrels topped with razor wire denoting either Greek, Turkish, or UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) control. This haphazard appearance denotes both a physical and communal void of despair for a long term, viable settlement. With the UN forces stationed here keeping the warring parties at bay for nearly five decades, the lack of kinetic friction between north and south seemingly only further ensconces a conflict in deep freeze. The UN forces stationed within the demilitarised zone keep the island at peace, while also helping to justify an officially hostile status quo.
Although Christodoulides pledged during his campaign to work towards a settlement with a long ago agreed upon international framework such as that articulated by the finalised 2004 ‘[Kofi] Annan Plan’ that was meant to create a federalised Cypriot state, where both majority communities ran their own canton-like states under a unified government structure, this seems highly unlikely at present. In the early morning hours after the previous Sunday’s vote, Cyprus was shaken by a 3.8 magnitude earthquake with no infrastructure damage or casualties. But the seismic calamity that originated northwest of the city of Gaziantep in Turkey registered at 7.8 and killed as estimated 33,000 in that country as well as in Aleppo and Idlib governorates across the border in Syria. A second quake shattered many more lives just hours later but the ripple was barely felt offshore in the Cypriot capital. In Athens and Ankara, a form of pragmatic disaster diplomacy was set in motion, albeit with good optics, as Greece launched an aid bridge to ferry in tonnes of medical supplies and rescue personnel to help sift through the rubble.
Aftershocks and Aftermaths
A thaw in the eastern Mediterranean’s intra-NATO Cold War appeared to be giving hope that common humanitarian goals may reduce, at least temporarily, geopolitical tensions over hydrocarbon fields and conflicting maritime claims. However, in the flurry of positive diplomatic messaging there was no mention of the deeply contentious Cyprus issue. When the Cypriot Foreign Ministry pledged to send search and rescue teams in a spirit similar to that of Greece, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan politely but firmly declined Nicosia’s offer. Some 48 Turkish Cypriots are thought to have been killed in the disaster, which has struck a chord with communities on either side of the Green Line.
While the victims were born north of the island’s de facto internal border, the Greek Cypriot olive branch put forth in the final days of the Anastasiades administration was meant to put the bitter dispute here aside for the time being. The effort fell flat in the face of Erdogan’s stubbornness ahead of Turkish elections later this year. The hopeful Cypriot team had arranged for a neutral Romanian aircraft to transport them to the disaster zone to deconflict the matter for Ankara, after it had initially greenlit the idea but subsequently quashed in line with nationalist optics. Christodoulides, who does not yet appear to have a coherent plan for rejuvenating that stalled peace talks which remain in in their longest hiatus to date, stands to inherit an incredibly challenging near-term foreign policy portfolio.
"When the Cypriot Foreign Ministry pledged to send search and rescue teams in a spirit similar to that of Greece, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan politely but firmly declined Nicosia’s offer."
While supporters excitedly awaited their candidate’s victory announcement at his campaign offices, an older man sporting a sticker of the newly elected president on his blazer furiously shouted out “enosis, enosis!” (the outmoded concept of a political union with Greece that triggered the failed 1974 coup) until others in the crowd hushed him into silence with almost embarrassed looks that also understood his long held grievance. Cyprus has elected its youngest leader since independence from the UK in 1960. The republic’s new president was an infant when war broke out here and as the enosis generation ages out of politics, much of the Greek Cypriot polity only knows the island as the fissured state is has been since the mid-1970s.
Despite non-governmental peace building initiatives by organisations like Unite Cyprus Now that work to bridge the crevasse-like communal divide on a person-to-person level, Nikos Christodoulides is backed by a grouping of smaller parties that do not espouse reunification by conceding any significant issues to diametrically opposed Turkish interests. As Ankara has been creating facts on the ground for nearly fifty years with both hard and soft power measures via its occupying military and settlers from Anatolia, the EU-integrated republic has little realistic leverage to negotiate with a quake rattled but still very belligerent Erdogan. Should President Christodoulides include the ultranationalists from the far-right ELAM party in his new government owing to his pledge of political inclusivity, the prospects for lasting peace will be further dimmed.
The two-state solution called for by the TRNC’s President Tatar may be more likely that many in the international community care to admit. The two men may have both won by the thinnest of margins on either end of this halved city but their mutual ascendancy owes, in part, to the failures of years long diplomatic endeavours that have never been able to satisfy both sides with equal measure.
Written by Derek Henry Flood, reporting from Nicosia.
Edited by Wade McCagh.