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Tension mounts as Erdogan heads for northern Cyprus breakaway

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Varosha (Cyprus) (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is visiting northern Cyprus on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the 1974 Turkish invasion, a visit infuriating Greek Cypriots with island reunification talks in limbo.

Erdogan’s visit is seen as a show of force to support a two-state solution to the island’s division for decades, but also to bolster his ambitions to dominate the strategic eastern Mediterranean.

In a move meant to escalate tensions, Erdogan will review some of the thousands of Turkish soldiers from the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in the abandoned resort town of Varosha, which the invasion has emptied of its Cypriot inhabitants. Greek.

“It is not just a symbolic visit (…) but a visit that will affect the Cyprus problem,” said Giannis Ioannou, from the Cyprus Geopolitics think tank.

Tensions are already high, fueled by an influx of undocumented migrants into the south whom the government sees as a pressure tactic from Ankara.

Cypriot government spokesman Marios Pelekanos on Friday condemned Turkey’s “aggressive behavior” after Cypriot police said the Turkish Coast Guard fired warning shots at one of its ships in off the north coast of the island, information denied by Ankara.

– ‘Red line’ –

The Turkish invasion – launched in response to a coup d’état organized by Athens in Nicosia and intended to unite Cyprus with Greece – was followed in 1983 by the proclamation of the TRNC, still recognized only by Ankara.

Varosha – once the celebrity playground and nicknamed a “Jewel of the Mediterranean” – has been left as a fenced-in ghost town, where former luxury hotels have become overgrown with weeds.

The Turkish military restored public access to parts of the waterfront last year and Erodgan is expected to extend it during his visit.

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“He will announce the opening of new parts of the city. His message is clear: he wants to change the paradigm for future negotiations,” said Ioannou.

“Varosha is a red line for the Cypriot government not to cross,” he added.

The predominantly Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union with effective control over the southern two-thirds of the island, condemned Erdogan’s last visit in November 2020 as an “unprecedented provocation”.

The UN-backed talks on reuniting the island as a bicommunal federation collapsed in 2017 and efforts to revive them reached a new, harder Ankara line demanding a two-state solution.

In April, a UN summit in Geneva failed to negotiate a deal to launch a new round of talks.

“Erdogan (…) thinks that the Greek Cypriots do not want peace, but to maintain the status quo”, declared Ioannou, accusing the Turkish president of exploiting Varosha as “card” of “retaliation”.

During Erdogan’s last visit to Varosha in November, he said “compensation would be paid” to Greek Cypriots who lost property in the resort.

– “Hard negotiations” –

But Ahmet Sozen, a Turkish Cypriot who heads the Cyprus Policy Center at the University of the Eastern Mediterranean, says Erdogan only made the proposal to blame “ill will” for his refusal.

“Turkey wants to start the future round of negotiations from a higher position and impose the two-state solution,” Sozen said. “It is a difficult time for negotiations.”

Supporters of the two-state solution argue that it would allow the economy of northern Cyprus to diversify and be viable without Ankara’s continued support.

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Earlier this month, however, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Brussels “will never, ever agree to a two-state solution.”

Erdogan “knows very well that this solution will not work, no country will support it,” said Sozen.

But for Kemal Baykalli, a Turkish Cypriot analyst and activist for Unite Cyprus Now, the island of about one million people does not live up to the power of its close neighbor, Turkey, located just 70 kilometers away ( 44 miles) to the north.

“What the EU forgets is that Cyprus is too small to be divided,” Baykalli said.

“If you let Turkey have the upper hand for too long, it will eventually dominate this European island.”

Erdogan’s visit is also being scrutinized for what it might say about Turkey’s regional ambitions and the search for oil and gas in the disputed waters of the eastern Mediterranean.

“Turkey is fighting against the new bloc formed around Cyprus on the gas issue,” Sozen said.

“Turkey feels isolated and is ready to use any means to put pressure on Cyprus, and it can use Varosha.”

Israel, Greece and Cyprus signed the EastMed deal last year for a massive gas pipeline to transport gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe, prompting Ankara’s objections.

“It’s a game of poker,” Baykalli said, adding that there is “no doubt that the Cypriots – especially the people of Varosha – will be the big losers.”