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New Hope for Peace in Cyprus
New Hope for Peace in Cyprus
Report 210 / Europe & Central Asia

Cyprus: Bridging the Property Divide

Stability in the Eastern Mediterranean will remain hostage to full settlement of the Cyprus dispute, but the property issue – one of its most intractable knots – can be solved now if Greek and Turkish Cypriots compromise on new proposals currently before them.

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Executive Summary

The property issue is one of the most intractable knots in the settlement of the Cyprus dispute, without which stability in the Eastern Mediterranean remains fragile. Greek and Turkish Cypriots own tens of thousands of buildings and parcels of land on both sides of the divided island. A convincing plan to resolve conflicting claims would give great support to reunification efforts and persuade external partners of Cypriots’ will to find a compromise, even as the 2011 electoral calendar sets what is in effect a deadline for the present negotiations. But as Cypriot politicians and Turkey fail to come to terms, the property question is increasingly being atomised by individual actions and the courts – a process that will be more expensive, slow and inefficient for all than a comprehensive property settlement. With a comprehensive deal proving elusive, heavy court and administrative penalties and the actions of Cypriot individuals mean that the property issue can no longer be ignored or avoided. New ideas are urgently needed.

The passage of time since the events that led to mass displacements – 47 years in some cases – means many properties have been assigned to new users by local authorities, sold, destroyed or significantly developed. The two communities have grown apart and established new socio-economic structures in their respective areas, having lived behind closed front lines for three decades and interacted only superficially since crossing points opened in 2003. They have adopted opposing approaches to property, Greek Cypriots emphasising return and Turkish Cypriots resettlement, and a body of local legislation reflects this divergence. There are also disagreements about the amount and value of property each community owns on both sides of the island.

Attempts to find a negotiated settlement have tried to tackle property, which has implications for the individual and collective human rights of the island’s 210,000 displaced persons and their heirs, at least one fifth of the population, the majority of whom are Greek Cypriots. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s efforts in 2002-2004 were the most comprehensive. But these failed, together with the broader talks, and left more questions open than they provided answers. While there is general agreement that Cyprus should become a bizonal, bicommunal federation, the two communities have diametrically opposed ideas about how bizonality should affect the right to return. Greek Cypriots stress displaced persons’ right to return and enjoy property as enshrined in international law. Turkish Cypriots emphasise that they should remain the majority in their zone and that this will impact how many Greek Cypriots can regain their property. In fact, fewer than one quarter of Greek or Turkish Cypriots say that they will definitely or probably return to their old homes if these fall under the other constituent state.

In the absence of a political settlement, more Cypriots are turning to costly and slow judicial solutions. International courts have found Turkey liable for blocking Greek Cypriot access to their properties in the north and imposed substantial financial penalties. But the courts are recognising that long-term users also have rights and that individual owners should be able to voluntarily exchange properties. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) especially has been encouraging Cypriots to rely on domestic remedies, such as a Turkish Cypriot property commission to which several hundred displaced Greek Cypriots have already applied.

In the round of reunification talks underway since September 2008, the two leaders have agreed in principle to settle the property dispute through a mix of restitution, exchange and compensation. Any compromise should balance the rights of displaced Greek Cypriots with those of the displaced Turkish Cypriots, as well as take into account the accommodation needs of a mutually agreed number of Turkish settlers. This migration to Cyprus contravened the spirit of the Fourth Geneva Convention, but the immigrants’ children may now have been born and lived their whole lives on the island.

The failures of the past three decades prove that neither side is likely to achieve its ideal settlement, and flexibility is needed. Turkish Cypriots should recognise that while they want to retain a majority in their constituent state, two thirds to three quarters of property in their area was owned by Greek Cypriots in 1974, when the present division of the island took place. They must understand that the right to restitution holds great importance in Greek Cypriot discourse. Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaders must remind their populations that the division of the island has no legal basis.

Politicians in Ankara, especially, should relaunch and sustain their outreach to Greek Cypriots to assure them of Turkey’s commitment to seeing through a settlement and return of property. For Ankara in particular, indefinite occupation would invite higher costs, both in court judgements and in its efforts to join the European Union. Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, should pay heed to international court rulings that challenge their conviction that the rights of original owners and their heirs supersede all other considerations. A compromise solution will have to accept that not all Greek Cypriots will automatically be able to return to their old properties within a new bizonal, bicommunal federation.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 9 December 2010

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

New Hope for Peace in Cyprus

Originally published in The Majalla

As a new round of talks started on February 11, 2014 between Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu—respectively the leaders of Cyprus’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities—cynicism is rife among ordinary Cypriots. Most people think it will take a miracle of some kind to reach a settlement anytime soon.

This is due to a number of reasons: The four-month delay in starting the talks over what were widely seen as pedantic details, the disappointment of high hopes invested in the 2008–12 talks, and the failure of the 2004 Annan Plan, which was accepted by 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots and most of the international community but rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots.

After all, the goal of the talks, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation for Cyprus, is not new; the UN-facilitated parameters are much the same, and many of those involved in the talks are veteran negotiators. The process now started is in large part an attempt to revive the round of talks held between 2008–12, itself the fifth major round in nearly four decades.

Three new aspects have, however, excited some diplomatic hopes. The first is that Anastasiades, who was elected as president of the Republic of Cyprus a year ago, has made it clear he is seeking a light federal structure for any new republic, with constituent entities controlling their own borders and citizens having no contact with the central federation government in their daily lives. This is a more realistic approach than that of his predecessors and is more likely to lead to a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots, who are keen to keep as much power in their constituent entity as possible.

The second novelty is that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot chief negotiators will soon visit Ankara and Athens respectively, opening up a vital new channel of communication. Especially on the Greek Cypriot–Ankara axis, a lack of trust, and an inability to see that the other side really does want a deal, has long held back progress.

The third new aspect is that the United States has taken a leading role in pressing for this round of talks to start. One reason is the increasingly active world of east Mediterranean energy politics. An American company, Noble Energy, is the main operator working to extract natural gas from deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade. The most commercial deposits have so far been found in Israeli waters, but there is significant potential in offshore Cyprus too.

The cheapest, quickest, most secure and profitable way to get this gas to market is probably by pipeline to Turkey. But such a pipeline would have to pass through Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and a senior Greek Cypriot official tells us there is no chance Nicosia will allow that to happen before a Cyprus settlement is agreed, or, at the least, before there is a very good prospect of one. And if a settlement doesn’t materialize quickly, energy experts say the Israeli developers will choose a more expensive, but more certain, alternative export method, such as a floating terminal that freezes and liquefies the gas to load into tankers.

The US is interested in supporting Israel as its ally appears to seek an insurance policy against Middle East turbulence by building a stronger line to the European Union through closer ties with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. A gas pipeline linking three or four of these countries would be one way of reinforcing such a strategy. US mediation since March 2013 is also now close to resolving the crisis of confidence between Israel and Turkey.

The best confidence-building measure to help the talks along their way would be for Turkey simply to extend its EU Customs Union to the Greek Cypriots, a measure that was already fully negotiated back in 2005 and is known as the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. It has been blocked for political reasons in Ankara, partly as a sanction against Greek Cypriots but also because Turkey lost interest in actively pursuing EU membership.

Ratifying the Additional Protocol would be a leap forward on several tracks: it would normalize trade with Greek Cypriots, helping their economy, which was shattered in 2013 by a financial-sector meltdown, and change their perceptions of Turkey; it would clear the principal obstacle to opening fourteen of Turkey’s thirty-five negotiating chapters with the EU; it would almost certainly result in Turkish Cypriots winning tax-free “direct trade” with the EU; and it would greatly improve the atmosphere of the Cyprus settlement talks.

Turkey has shown no sign of doing any of this yet. But, after years of neglecting Cyprus and its EU accession process, Turkey has now announced that 2014 will be a &lsquoYear of Europe.’ In January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels for the first time in five years and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, played a crucial part in pushing forward the beginning of this new round of Cyprus talks. Such moves may partly be to shore up domestic popularity after a bumpy year, but they are steps in a positive direction.

Turkey should also undertake sustained outreach to Greek Cypriots. This was successful in 2010, when Prime Minister Erdoğan invited to Istanbul a group of former Greek Cypriot officials, journalists and civil society activists. At the meeting, they were wowed by his repeated assurances that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. This visibly began to neutralize one of the most important drivers of the Cyprus dispute: institutionalized Greek Cypriot fear of the intentions of their far bigger and more powerful neighbor.

While all sides would benefit from a settlement—any settlement—failure to make the politically painful compromises necessary to reach an outcome quickly will deepen the de facto partition of the island. Indeed, the level of disconnection between the two communities already looks almost irreversible. Lack of a settlement will leave Greek Cypriots isolated and poorer on the far eastern tip of the EU; Turkish Cypriots will remain stranded with little way to escape integration into Turkey; and NATO-member Turkey will be burdened with, at best, a frozen EU accession process and the steady drain on its resources of propping up the Turkish Cypriot administration. Myriad regional benefits will also likely stay stuck: the EU and NATO will remain unable to share assets; east Mediterranean natural gas will remain orphaned from its most lucrative market in Turkey; and Greece and Turkey will most likely fail to solve their expensive maritime-boundaries dispute in the Aegean.