Hardliner’s win in North Cyprus vote may increase regional tensions

Ersin Tatar is seen as closely aligned to the Turkish president amid conflicts over gas rights

A UN guard post along the buffer zone of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus as a Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot flag wave nearby (photo credit: REUTERS)
A UN guard post along the buffer zone of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus as a Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot flag wave nearby
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The election of a conservative nationalist to head the Turkish Cypriot-held area of the island nation could lead to greater tensions in the region, analysts tell The Media Line.

Ersin Tatar was elected president of Northern Cyprus on Sunday with nearly 52% of the vote, narrowly beating incumbent Mustafa Akinci, who received 48% support in a runoff round.

While many analysts see the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) as a pseudo-state, Akinci supported a level of independence from Ankara.

The island is split between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The latter control some 36% of the island; no country other than Turkey recognizes their government. Another nearly 4% of the island consists of a UN buffer zone.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded after a Greek-inspired coup that Ankara feared would lead to the island becoming part of Greece.

Tatar is widely seen as closely aligned with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“It just gives more [ammunition] to Erdoğan to adopt a hard line,” Timothy Ash, a London-based economist who focuses on Turkey, wrote to The Media Line.

Ash added, however, that Tatar’s win was not a “game-changer.”

Cyprus has become a flashpoint for Turkey’s strained international relations, especially after the discovery of gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey has sent out vessels for exploration, angering the European Union and especially Cyprus and regional rival Greece.

In February 2018, Turkey prevented an Italian ship, which had received rights to drill for gas from the Cypriot government, from reaching the exploration zone off the island.

Last year, US energy giant ExxonMobil announced it made a large natural gas discovery there.

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean heightened over the summer as Turkey faced off with Greece for influence in the waters, leading to fears of an accidental military confrontation between the two NATO allies.

In September, the US angered Turkey by announcing it would lift a decades-long arms embargo on Cyprus.

“Gas will be a peacemaker or a conflict-maker,” said Muzaffer Şenel, a professor of political science and international relations at Istanbul Şehir University.

Ash said there would eventually be negotiations over the Eastern Mediterranean and that all the parties were waiting for the results of the November 3 US presidential election.

Erdoğan will use his country’s involvement in regional tensions, including in the renewed fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, as leverage in such talks, the economist said.

“With [a] nationalist in the TRNC, Erdoğan can argue that he will find any solution hard to sell to the Turkish population on the island. But reality is we all know that TRNC policy is set in Ankara,” Ash said.

Şenel told The Media Line that the North Cyprus election result could be a boost for negotiations with the west because Tatar will take a diplomatic approach with the EU.

“If there is a political will to solve the issue, Tatar will present a big chance for the international community, even if he’s seen as somehow a kind of conservative nationalist,” Şenel said.

Tatar was born into a Turkish Cypriot political family in 1960 and was educated in the UK, graduating from Cambridge in 1982.

He brought up prospects for negotiations after his win, telling supporters that a solution can be reached if Greek Cypriots change their attitudes, and added that the EU and UN need to be “fair” in supporting negotiations.

Erdoğan congratulated Tatar on Twitter and said Turkey would continue to back the rights of Turkish Cypriots.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tweeted that “[Ankara] Will work together for the welfare, development and security of Turkish Cypriots. Will protect all together the legitimate rights and interests of #TRNC in Eastern Mediterranean.”

Şenel expects Tatar will disagree with Erdoğan less often than Akinci did and that Greek Cypriots are unhappy with the election result because they believe Akinci was more independent of Erdoğan while Tatar is less willing to negotiate with them.

“Ankara doesn’t want to lose its influence over the island,” Şenel said. “It is very clear now.”
Read more at The Media Line.