Cyprus: On the brink of a breakthrough?

Stefanos Evripidou

Long-running attempts to reunite the divided parts of Cyprus and reconcile the interests of Greek and Turkish Cypriots are tied up with wider strategic concerns, especially those of Turkey

The longevity of the Cyprus conflict has earned it a worthy description as a ‘diplomat’s graveyard’. While no diplomat has actually died trying to solve the Cyprus problem, the issue has outlived a number of United Nations Secretaries- General and special envoys assigned to this unpromising task.

After independence from Britain in 1960, relative peace between the two main communities, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, lasted all of three years, after which inter-ethnic clashes broke out over power sharing clauses in the new republic’s constitution. The internal rift never healed and in July 1974, Turkey invaded the island in response to a Greek military-backed coup against Cyprus’ first President, Archbishop Makarios. The coup was foiled after eight days but Turkey invaded a second time in August 1974, citing its role as guarantor power and, in the process, securing occupation of the northern part of the island.

At the time, the two communities were interspersed across the island, with dozens of ethnically-mixed villages spread around the country, but contact between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots all but ended in 1974, with access across the buffer zone restricted to a handful of politicians and bi-communal groups.

Cyprus has remained divided ever since, with Turkish Cypriots living in a breakaway state in the north, recognised only by Turkey, economically backed by Turkey and closely guarded by up to 40,000 Turkish troops. South of the buffer zone, Greek Cypriots run what is left of the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the United Nations (UN) and, since 2004, the European Union (EU).

On 23 April 2003, the Turkish Cypriot leadership finally allowed restricted movement across the dividing line, opening a number of checkpoints on the buffer zone, for the first time in 29 years. Despite decades of separation, violence did not erupt as Cypriots from both sides peacefully crossed the border to see old houses, villages and friends. But the euphoria was brief. A year later, a UN-sponsored blueprint for a solution was put to separate referenda, a week before EU accession.

The Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected the plan, heeding the call of then President Tassos Papadopoulos. The plan’s opponents cited unpopular provisions and the fact that it was not mutually agreed upon by the two community leaders. EU accession, even with a divided state, seemed a safer bet for weary Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, voted largely in favour, hoping the plan would replace their pariah state with a loosely federal one under the EU umbrella. The peace talks ended. The whole of Cyprus became a member of the EU, despite the continued division and occupation, but EU law was – and remains – suspended in the north.

In 2008, Greek Cypriots elected a pro-reunification candidate, Demetris Christofias, as President of the Republic, giving him a clear mandate to have another go at finding a solution. A month after his election, Christofias, nominally a Communist, called for the resumption of UN-sponsored peace talks with the man he referred to as “comrade”, then Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who also sits to the left on the political spectrum. This time, the peace process was to be Cypriot-led without strict timetables imposed. It was a clear effort to avoid the setback seen in 2004.

Direct talks began in September 2008. Talat and Christofias found convergences on the economy, EU affairs, governance and power sharing, but did not touch upon territorial adjustments, property, security and guarantees.

In April 2010, Turkish Cypriots voted Talat out, replacing him with Dervis Eroglu, a veteran hardliner who would appear to prefer a two-state solution in Cyprus. But Turkey, keen to show its pro-solution credentials, ensured that Eroglu turned up to the negotiating table talking about a bizonal, bi-communal federal solution.

Christofias, perhaps wishing to test Eroglu’s true intentions, asked that negotiations resume on the thorny issue of property. And there the talks remain. A key question hangs over how much land Turkey is willing to give back, which would then come under the control of the Greek Cypriot authorities in a federal state. Eroglu refuses to link territory and property, despite callsby the UN to discuss all chapters in an interrelated fashion. Government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou says: “Despite the assurances given that the talks were to continue on the same basis and from the point they were left off with Talat, many of the positions put forward by the Turkish Cypriot side now constitute either retrogression or overturn the basis of the negotiations.”

Eroglu accuses the Greek Cypriot leadership of filibustering and has repeatedly called for an international conference to overcome the deadlock. This could be interpreted in a number of ways. Either he wants to share any responsibility for reunification with Turkey sitting at the same table or he believes the Greek Cypriots will end up rejecting the outcome of an international conference, leaving the breakaway state intact, perhaps even upgraded to something resembling a Taiwan-type status.

With both sides pointing the finger at the other, the UN has been puzzling how to overcome the impasse. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has met with the two leaders on a number of occasions, first in Cyprus, and more recently in New York and Geneva. In early March this year, he warned of the “very real risk” the talks would run out of steam. He called for the two leaders to make significant progress before the next election cycle begins – Cyprus’s parliamentary elections take place in May and Turkey’s in June.

The UN chief has also referred to the prospect of an international conference, if sufficient progress on the core issues can been achieved, and has issued a thinly-veiled warning regarding the presence of UNFICYP (the UN peacekeeping force that has been stationed on the island since 1964) saying he would review its future in a report in June.

According to local analyst Makarios Drousiotis, the UN is trying to find a way for the talks to come to some sort of conclusion, one way or the other. Ban may be preparing to call an international conference with the two sides, the three guarantor powers and possibly the EU, to bring the talks to an end.

In the meantime, thousands of Turkish Cypriots held mass protests in January and March this year against austerity measures imposed on the north by its paymaster, Turkey. Friction between Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots has been growing, with the latter feeling that their very identity is under threat by Turkey’s own strategic interests in the island and the influx of Turkish settlers, mainly from Anatolia, changing the northern enclave’s demographics. Their exact number remains unknown, though many Turkish Cypriot newspapers claim Turkish settlers now outnumber Turkish Cypriots. The protests were not viewed kindly by Erdogan, who effectively branded Turkish Cypriots as ungrateful “daughters” going against their “motherland”.

The question of how many settlers will remain post-solution is another issue for which Eroglu and Christofias have found no common ground.

The barbed wire, minefields, soldiers and divided people are all reminders of the past conflict, with implications far beyond the island’s coastline. Cyprus, as a member of the EU, has stated clearly that it supports Turkey’s EU accession bid but on the condition that Turkey normalises relations with Cyprus, and actively supports a solution on the island. Turkey, so far, has not responded well to the threats to its attempts to join the EU, refusing to meet calls by the European Parliament to remove its troops from the island. As a result, its accession negotiations threaten to grind to a halt.

The recent talk of exploiting massive hydrocarbon reserves believed to be lyingin Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone has added further pressure and, in an undesirable turn of events, could lead to more overt threats from Turkey against Cyprus.

Whatever the geopolitical significance of the island’s position in the region, from a purely humanitarian perspective, this tiny island needs to be reunited. And yet, as so many times before, the omens hardly seem favourable right now.

About the author:

Stefanos Evripidou is Cyprus News Editor of Cyprus Mail


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