NICOSIA — When Mustafa Akinci was elected leader of the occupied Turkish-Cypriot side of the island in 2015, hope soared for reunification because he was a moderate who wanted a solution, but didn't get one.
With his ousting now by Ersin Tatar, the self-declared premier of the occupied territory, any chance the island will be brought back together again seem doomed because the hardliner said he will take his marching orders from Turkey.
That means Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with Turkey not recognizing the legitimate Greek-Cypriot government, a member of the European Union that Turkey has been fruitlessly been trying to join since 2005.
Even before meeting Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades in what loomed to be a photo opportunity and obligatory ceremony – elbows bumped during COVID-19 in lieu of a handshake – Tatar said he didn't want unity, but two states.
That would create permanent partition and continue to leave the Turkish-Cypriots isolated in their own self-declared republic that no other country in the world recognizes, ending the dream of a reunified island split by an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion with the implicit backing of the United States.
All those during the pandemic that has left people worried about just surviving.
Tensions have also risen over Turkey's drilling for oil and gas in Cypriot waters, ignoring soft sanctions from a European Union afraid to confront Erdogan in fear he will send to the bloc – through Greece – more refugees and migrants who went to his country fleeing war, strife and economic hardships in their homelands.
In a feature for the site Politico, the journalist Nektaria Stamouli outlined how tough a year it has been for peace activists, Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots tired of decades of political game playing that hasn't brought an answer.
Erdogan made it worse for them when – to help give an edge to Tatar – he opened the beach front at the abandoned resort of Varosha on the occupied side, wanting his own man installed after Akinci opposed a two-state idea.
Deniz Birinci, 39, a Turkish-Cypriot who became a peace activist when she returned to the island after studying in the United States, worked for Akinci's government and sends her daughter across a United Nations buffer zone to a Greek-Cypriot kindergarten.
“I want her to know both cultures and both languages. I want her to celebrate both Orthodox Easter and Bayram. This is what reunification means to me,” she said. “Cyprus is too small to be divided,”she told the news site.
Cyprus is known as the “graveyard of diplomats” because so many – along with United Nations leaders – have failed over the years to make any progress toward reunification.
The last round collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when Akinci and Erdogan said a 35,000-strong army on the occupied side would never be removed and they demanded the right of further military intervention.
That led Anastasiades to walk away and he said he wouldn't go back to the bargaining table as long as Turkish ships are drilling but that he would meet with Tatar anyway, although Erdogan has the last word for the Turkish side.
In his first meeting with Tatar last month, Erdoğan declared talks for a federal solution to be “a waste of time,” essentially signaling the end of hopes for Turkey joining the EU.
RUNNING OUT OF TIME
Peace activists on both sides told Politico that Anastasiades has blame too for letting Turkish-Cypriots fall into Erdogan's arms despite their frustration for
“Where was Nicos Anastasiades for the last three years?” said Birinci. “He was the first to call Tatar to congratulate him, but why didn’t he pick up the phone for the last years to call Mustafa Akıncı?”
Greek-Cypriot Katie Economidou was equally frustrated. “All those years, I never really believed that we were close to a solution. The obstacles are insurmountable but the main (problem) is our corrupt political leadership, which built careers on the Cyprus issue,” she said.
That was in apparent reference to Anastasiades reluctantly ending a Golden Visa scheme selling residency permits, citizenship and EU passports to rich foreigners after media reports showing corruption, his own law firm a link although he had stepped away from it – leaving it in his family's hands.
Economidou, 61, has devoted her life to reunification. Now a pensioner, she has worked for the national tourist association and as a tourist guide, but spent most “During the coronavirus people got really scared. I thought that this would make us finally get closer to the Turkish Cypriots. Yet our first act was to close the checkpoints.”
She added: “I was expecting Tatar would be elected … Akıncı was there for five years, willing to discuss, and we did nothing.”
The invasion has been lost in time for those who were born after it happened despite the Green Line buffer zone in the capital Nicosia that shows buildings abandoned as they were in 1974, crumbling away as politicians bicker.
“The moment you mention the Cyprus problem, people switch off. The younger generation is used to living apart and there is nothing to make them think this is problematic, that this pseudo-stability is bound to change,' said Andromachi Sophocleous, 32, a Greek-Cypriot who's a founding member of Unite Cyprus Now, formed as the Swiss talks were going on in private.
She remembers UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who presided over the debacle – and later issued a report blaming neither side for anything – saying that, “I wish the next generation good luck on this.”
“Sadly, up to this day, Cypriots and especially Greek-Cypriots failed to understand what a historic opportunity was missed in Crans-Montana,” Sophocleous said. “We are literally now endangered with the possibility of having a hard border with Turkey in the middle of Nicosia.”
Turkish-Cypriot activist Kemal Baykallı, one of her fellow UCN founders, said the island is running out of time.
“The more time we lose, Turkey is economically, demographically, socially, politically gaining an upper hand in the northern part of the island,” said Baykallı, 45, who was born in Famagusta, just next to Varosha.
“Our mission is to connect the Cypriots. We want to continue investing in the youth, make sure they understand the history and heal the wounds of the past,” Baykallı said. “Had others started it before us, the island would have been a better place.”