Impact of the Cyprus Election Results on the Security of the Eastern Mediterranean Region
Salome Abramishvili, Student of the International Master in South European Studies (EUROSUD), University of Glasgow
Giorgi Pachuashvili, President of Civil Movement "Question Mark", Student of the International Relations Department at Tbilisi State University
In February 2023, presidential elections were held in the southern part of Cyprus, in which conservative politician Nikos Christodoulidis won 51.8% of the votes. Given the fact that Christodoulidis is supported by centrist and right-wing parties opposed to the unification of Cyprus under a federal umbrella, the election results cast doubt on prospects for resolving the conflict on the island, and all but guarantees the continuation of strained relations between Greece and Türkiye. That is why the question arises as to what impact the Cyprus presidential elections have on Turkish-Greek relations and, more broadly, on the future of NATO. In order to better understand the current context, the roots of this controversy must be traced back to the last century.
Division of the island into two states
Cyprus was freed from British colonialism in 1960. The National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), composed mainly of Greek Cypriots, called for the reunification of the island with Greece, a request which was opposed by the Turkish Resistance Organisation (TMT). This is when the ethnic Greeks and Turks were divided for the first time, and it still reflects in the current politics. The 1960 constitution divided power between a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president, further alienating Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The island was split into two in 1974, when Türkiye invaded its territory to perform a "peacekeeping operation". An estimated 160,000 Greek Cypriots were forcefully displaced to the south and 45,000 Turks to the north, forming the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), recognized only by Türkiye. Since then, the conflict has been considered frozen.
Frozen conflict and failed negotiations
Over the years, there have been many attempts to resolve the conflict, with the two country’s presidents playing a decisive role. Negotiations first started in 1988 between Giorgos Vassiliou, who was elected as President of Cyprus, and Rauf Denktaş, the leader of the KKTC. Because Denktaş demanded the recognition of both parts of the island as entities with sovereign status and the Cypriots not as one community but as two different peoples, the negotiations failed. The possibility of resolving the conflict took another hit in July 1994, when the European Court of Justice banned the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus from exporting to the EU, after which the KKTC National Assembly removed the future prospect of a confederation with the Greeks from the constitution. In 1995, the Greek Cypriots began to focus instead on EU membership.
Things looked promising in December 2003, when Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the opposition Republican Turkish Party (CTP), took over as prime minister of the KKTC. In March 2004, talks were held in Switzerland with the participation of the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and the foreign ministers of Greece and Türkiye. As a result of the negotiations, it was decided that twin referendums would be held on the island on 24 April 2004 to decide on the "establishment of the United Republic of Cyprus". In the referendum, Annan's plan was supported by 24% of Greek Cypriots and 65% of Turkish Cypriots, leaving the conflict unresolved. In the following years, support for the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Cyprus waned.
In 1996-98, the already strained relationship between Greece and Türkiye over the Cyprus issue worsened. In 1996, a dispute between Türkiye and Greece began over the uninhabited island of Kardak (Imia in Greek), leading Türkiye to suspect that Greece might claim sovereign rights over the entire Aegean Sea. Fortunately, the risk of direct armed conflict between Greece and Türkiye was averted by the quick intervention of the Americans as mediator. A year later, the dispute resumed when the government of Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides announced it had ordered 48 S-300 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, which Türkiye saw as a threat. In December 1998, Clerides backed down under strong pressure from Washington.
Following the decision made at the European Commission’s Helsinki Summit in 1999, relations between Türkiye and Greece seemed to improve. Greece clearly supported Türkiye's accession to the EU, which had a positive effect on, and resulted in a change in Türkiye's attitude. Later, an agreement was signed between the two states to encourage investment and avoid double taxation, and, in 2007, the Türkiye-Greece gas pipeline was opened. Greece and Türkiye also agreed on a number of other issues of cooperation: The fight against organized crime, illegal migration, promotion of tourism, and environmental protection. Despite some progress, the dispute over the territorial waters and natural resources of the Aegean Sea has yet to be resolved.
In 2020, the tension between Türkiye and Greece increased significantly when the two sides fell out over the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. Later, the centre of controversy shifted to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, and one could observe increasingly belligerent rhetoric in both countries, raising expectations that small incidents could escalate into a major military clash.
The Cyprus elections and their implications on the Eastern Mediterranean region
In the February 2023 presidential election in Cyprus, three leading candidates were identified: Averof Neofytou – leader of center-right party DISY (whose representative has held the presidential mandate for the last decade); Andreas Mavroyiannis – supported by communist party AKEL; and former foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides – an independent candidate supported by the third largest party, DIKO. Dissatisfied with the ruling party, the Cypriots decided to carry Mavroyiannis and Christodoulides to the second round. As Mavroyiannis also represented the traditional establishment, however, Christodoulides was able to beat him. Why is the result of this election so crucial, and how does it affect the Eastern Mediterranean region?
To answer those questions, it is first necessary to concentrate on the discourse within the electoral campaign, which has consisted of various socio-political topics, corruption scandals, and domestic affairs, yet which has suspiciously lacked points on foreign policy. For instance, where in the past the question of the unification of Cyprus was heavily debated, the topic lost its relevance in the recent campaign. The president-elect of Cyprus was supported by radical groups, which will make reaching a compromise on unification all the harder. If Recep Tayyip Erdoğan manages to win the upcoming elections in Türkiye, both sides will be left with a leader that is unwilling to resolve the dispute on realistic terms. On top of this, last year, Erdoğan strengthened the military contingent in Northern Cyprus after the US dropped an embargo on defensive weapons for Cyprus. Hence, an escalation seems the more likely eventuality, rather than cooperation.
Ongoing tensions between Greece and Türkiye only worsen the situation. Greece desires to expand its maritime borders on the Aegean islands, which it is entitled to do according to Section 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Athens can enhance its maritime borders 12 nautical miles from its landmass. Doing so, however, will block Türkiye’s access to the sea, which is considered an act of war according to the 1995 Turkish parliamentary declaration. The upcoming elections in both countries have only aided the growing tensions, with the parties each desiring a strongman image before their respective populations.
The strategic value of natural resources must also be considered. The dispute over nautical miles is ongoing for the sake of taking control over natural gas reserves found on the sea bed. For Cyprus, this is an obvious predicament, as it has signed treaties on natural gas extraction with American, Dutch, French, Korean, Israeli, and other countries’ companies. Tensions with Türkiye threaten these prospects, and consequently, Ankara holds pivotal leverage. Unwillingness to solve the conflict portends a constant struggle between Türkiye, Cyprus, and Greece, which generates a belligerent and unstable environment in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Greco-Turkish relations from the perspective of NATO
The issue of Cyprus naturally increases tensions between Türkiye and Greece. Both nations are part of the same military alliance – NATO, the alliance which creates a defense structure in the Eastern Mediterranean region. The existing dispute creates several problems:
- Cyprus is still outside the NATO defense area, which increases the probability of a conflict on the island;
- Cyprus is a member of the EU, unlike Türkiye. Accordingly, these actors lack a shared Western platform for potential cooperation;
- The Eastern Mediterranean defense architecture is fragile due to the differences between the two leading actors, Türkiye and Greece. This leaves more chances for a conflict.
The US sees this challenge clearly. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tour in February 2023 entailed visits to Türkiye and Greece, as well as to Germany. Greco-Turkish cooperation is essential for mending the cracks in the South-Eastern flank of the alliance, although the elections in Cyprus lack prospects for solving one of the main causes of the conflict. The issue of territorial integrity is not only pivotal for Eastern Mediterranean security, but forms a precedent for every other nation that has its territory occupied, including Georgia. The issue of occupation also affects the latter’s prospects for NATO membership.
Cyprus’s issue of territorial integrity is a fairly complex matter and aggravates tensions between the two leading actors, Türkiye and Greece. This in turn shakes the foundations of the regional defense structure in the Eastern Mediterranean. It creates a negative precedent regarding the restoration of territorial integrity, and at the same time highlights a point of weakness in the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization in the form of a conflict between two member states. As such, the presidential election in Cyprus should serve as one of the cornerstones of a stable environment in the region. Unfortunately, the election of Nikos Christodoulides to that post does not bode well for alleviating the situation. Only time will tell if the cracks can be fixed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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