NICOSIA – With Turkey drilling for energy offshore and opening a beach at the abandoned Varosha resort on the occupied side of the island, Turkish-Cypriots on Oct. 11 were voting in presidential elections that could shape any potential talks to restart dead-in-the-water reunification talks.
Incumbent Mustafa Akinci, whose term started off so promising when he took office in 2015 and prospects for unity seemed to bloom before withering, is facing challenges from other self-declared officials.
Only Turkey recognizes what it calls a republic on the northern third seized in an unlawful 1974 invasion, with long lines of diplomats, envoys, officials, negotiators, moderators and others failing to broker a deal to bring the sides together.
The election comes amid allegations that Turkey is overtly trying to steer the 200,000-strong electorate toward right-wing candidate Ersin Tatar, a hardliner on nationalism, to replace the moderate Akinci, who has tangled with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Tatar is aligned with Erdogan and Turkish policies, such as pursuing a possible two-state deal as an alternative to the long-held federal model for the divided Mediterranean island which would bring permanent partition.
Analysts predict a race between Akinci, center-left CTP party leader Tufan Erhurman and Tatar although whoever wins could be largely irrelevant as Erdogan has the last word on what happens in the occupied territory.
The election in Cyprus’ breakaway north is likely to head into a runoff in a week. Most opinion polls put Akinci into the second round, against either Tatar or Erhurman among a host of other challengers seen as having little chance.
The first major test for the winner will likely be a meeting hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that will bring together the two sides with Cyprus’ guarantors of peace – Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom, the former Colonial ruler which has military bases on the island.
Guterres was the latest UN leader to fail to bring a reunification deal when he presided over the last round of talks in 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana.
Those fell apart when Akinci and Erdogan said they would never remove a 35,000-strong standing army on the occupied land and wanted the right to militarily intervene – invade – again when they wanted.
DEEP CONCERN, NOT GRAVE
The island has been divided between a Greek-Cypriot south, the legitimate government that is a member of the European Union that Turkey has been trying to join since 2005, and the Turkish-Cypriot occupiers.
Akinci said Erdogan tried to tilt the scales in favor of Tatar by reopening the Varosha beach front, to condemnation, including from the UN.
Varosha is a Famagusta suburb that for has remained off-limits since 1974 when its Greek-Cypriot residents fled advancing Turkish troops, leaving behind homes they still own and as Erdogan said he wants to rebuild the town and give the property to Turkish-Cypriots.
Many Turkish-Cypriots voiced opposition to the move that they saw as a ploy to boost support for Tatar, and Greek-Cypriots expressed anger at the beachfront's reopening but Erdogan has shown he can do what he wants although reopening Varosha would violate UN resolutions.
Turkey's drilling in Cyprus' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has been going on in defiance of soft EU sanctions but Anastasiades withdrew a veto over sanctions on Belarus he had been using as a tactic to get penalties on Turkey.
That was done to let officials from Turkey and Greece meet in Ankara over Turkish plans to also drill off Greek islands, the EU saying that sanctions could be imposed at year's end if there is no resolution.
The UN Security Council expressed “deep concern” – that's a higher alarm for them than just “concern” but not as strong as “grave concern_ over the beach reopening and called for its reversal while cautioning against “any unilateral actions that could raise tensions on the island.”
But the UN and Guterres have repeatedly ignored entreaties from Anastasiades to intervene even as the President said what Turkey's been doing is tantamount to another invasion, this time over energy.
Akinci, a strong supporter of a federal accord with Greek-Cypriots and a champion of Turkish -ypriots who oppose Turkey’s complete dominion over their affairs, denounced the move as a “stain” on democracy and election meddling.
He claimed he had received threats against him and his family, urging him to withdraw his candidacy but he pressed on.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)