Understanding Turkey’s Cyprus Problem

On the 28th of December, the Cypriot President Demetris Christofias announced that the Aphrodite Block 12 field off the coast of Cyprus contains between 5 and 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which “opens up great potential for Cyprus and its people,” he said. Now the question is whether the gas find might also create a new dynamic which could lead to greater regional cooperation and a faster solution to the Cyprus problem.

Apart from President Christofias many other officials and academics supported the idea that the discovery of natural gas could make the conditions for a settlement more favourable. This notion implies, among other things, that Turkey will recognise the great interest it has from a future settlement in Cyprus; that it will appreciate how it could benefit from a future joint exploitation of the natural gas by the two communities under a federal state; as well as the possibilities of cooperation between Cyprus and itself, in consuming and transporting the gas. This is not implausible. And no one could question the benefits that Turkey would have from the implementation of such a scenario. However, this logic does not take into account the coercive attitude and unproductive diplomacy that Turkey has been pursuing of late. Moreover, this rosy picture also does not consider the other external relations of Turkey such as with the EU, nor the state’s domestic politics. Thus, while we cannot exclude the possibility that Turkey will change its stance, at the same time, the realities we have at hand do not leave us much space for optimism.

Given the way Turkish foreign relations have been developing in the region and beyond, including internal developments, it seems that Turkish policy is not simply based on rational cost-benefit calculations. It is deeply affected by internal conflicts of various kinds, especially on issues of a very sensitive nature like the one of Cyprus. Furthermore, Turkey’s assessments of its costs and benefits differ very much from those of other states. Some of this has to do with the geography of Turkey, its geopolitical and geo-economic goals. But, above all, it has to do with the fact that Turkey is currently faced with strategic deadlocks and diplomatic dilemmas. This leads to incorrect decisions being taken, often irrationally, simply because the strategic calculations it is having to make externally and internally are not only too numerous but are also incompatible and contradictory. In this light one might say that the only logical thing for Turkey to do is to resolve the Cyprus problem in order to minimise its problems. Yet, this is not the route that Turkey has been following. Its stance is determined by the Cyprus issue, its EU accession process, and the domestic front. All of these affect Turkey’s policy.

For starters, the resolution of the Cyprus problem will only become useful for Turkey if it paves the way to EU membership. In this way the Turkish political elite will also be able justify its “compromises” and possible “withdrawal” from the territories that were – for Turkish public opinion at least – “won”, in 1974. The latter point is extremely important as any “concessions” on the Cyprus issue by any political force in Turkey, without proper justification, would be a huge mistake with serious political costs. Furthermore, Turkey is aware that some EU member states do not want it in the Union for various reasons which have nothing to do with Cyprus. The Cyprus issue is just a serious pretext to keep Turkey out. Therefore, Turkey prefers to respond to its own needs and challenges by resolving regional problems in an effort to create stability, and also further its ambitions to become a regional hegemon. To achieve this end, the Turkish political elites need all the public support they can get to carry out their policies and remain in power. From that perspective, the promotion of a settlement in Cyprus by Turkey, without obvious and immediately apparent positive results for the Turkish state and its people, is unlikely to be a policy favoured by Turkish politicians.

The calculation and planning mechanisms of Turkish foreign policy, more often than not, rarely meet the rational expectations of others. Although the settlement of the Cyprus problem and the extraction of natural gas appear to be positive for Turkey, this does not mean that the country’s political elites feel the same.

Zenonas Tziarras, Global Politics, 11/01/2012.

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