Cyprus: The Last and Best Chance for Peace
Cyprus: The Last and Best Chance for Peace
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus

Cyprus: The Last and Best Chance for Peace

It is tempting to see the results of the recent parliamentary elections in northern Cyprus as a blow for the peace process. Voters in the Turkish Cypriot north rejected the party of their leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, who has been meeting almost weekly for eight months with his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Dimitris Christofias, to work out the terms of a settlement to reunify the island.

But the election result has more to do with the dire state of the economy than it does with the peace process. Voters are feeling the pain of economic isolation, made worse by the global downturn. While he has lost his parliamentary majority, Talat is still head of the Turkish Cypriot administration and will continue to lead negotiations on behalf of the north. Both he and Christofias remain committed to finding a solution, despite the difficulties they face. 

The election result nonetheless underscores the fact that time is running out to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. Talat has set the presidential election in early 2010 as a deadline for agreement, while Christofias is not without political challenges within his own coalition.

Cyprus presents visitors with a deceptive image. The sunny climate of the eastern Mediterranean draws a steady stream of tourists, and European Union membership in the south has pushed income levels for Greek Cypriots higher than the EU average. The island might be divided, but life for many is comfortable. However, Cyprus remains a conflict zone: There are still fortified streets in Nicosia, a United Nations peacekeeping operation patrols the buffer zone and there is a substantial Turkish military force in the north.

This is all the more reason to make sure that the energy and courage of Talat and Christofias are not squandered. These two leaders have limited political capital, and they need more than their own goodwill to succeed.

First, they need their own people to join them in the peace process. An overwhelming majority of Cypriots are unhappy with the status quo, believe a settlement is possible and reject any return to violence, but are deeply distrustful of each other and of the peace process. They have seen too many previous efforts fail. A culture of cynicism and complacency seems to be the default position, especially among politicians and the media.

Opening up the debate about what peace could look like would help. When we visited Cyprus late last year, we noticed how few women and young people were engaged in politics. Old men (like us) dominate public debate, and we strongly urge Cyprus’s leaders to make more space for those whose voices are not so readily heard.

Second, strengthening links between the two communities is essential. The island has been split for so long that generations have grown up with no idea of life on the other side. It is very difficult for schools, law enforcement agencies, soccer clubs and telephone, electricity and water companies to cooperate across the Green Line. Teenagers can’t even send text messages across the divide. Trade between the communities is limited.

Lowering these barriers with respect and sensitivity would help to heal the wounds of the past and, importantly, to build trust. Researchers already estimate that reunification could raise annual incomes by about 1.8 billion euros -- more than 5,500 euros per household. Everyone needs to see that there are benefits to reunification that will simplify life, strengthen the economy and outweigh the compromises that any settlement will require.

Third, the major regional powers, whose presence hangs heavily over the island, need to play their part. Greece is urgently called upon to play a more constructive role in the peace process by explaining the benefits of its own normalization of relations with Turkey and its support for that country’s EU membership. And Turkey could give a tremendous boost to confidence in the peace process by announcing a symbolic withdrawal of some troops from northern Cyprus as a goodwill gesture -- a move that would also greatly assist Turkey’s convergence with Europe.

Finally, explicit international expressions of support for a settlement would help to persuade the leaders of both communities that success would bring proper recognition and reward. It would certainly help if the EU promised substantial development funds, including for resolution of property issues, once an agreement is in place.

This is the best chance in 30 years for a federal settlement in Cyprus, and it may be the last. If these talks fail, partition will probably be permanent, and, no matter how benign the environment today, geopolitics will catch up with the island over time.

Failure to resolve the Cyprus problem is a potentially serious threat to good relations between NATO, Turkey and the EU. Cypriots must seize this chance to build a healthy, reunited country that can make the most of its economic potential in the region, and play its part in world affairs with confidence and security.

Contributors

Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter
39th President of the United States (1977 to 1981)
Profile Image
Lakhdar Brahimi
Former Foreign Minister, Algeria

Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus

A new round of talks has begun in Cyprus and the key parties seem eager to reach a settlement. However, the official goal — a bizonal, bicommunal federation — has stymied negotiators for decades. It is possible that the time has come to consider a mutually agreed separation, within the European Union, of the Greek and Turkish parts of the island.

The closest the two sides have come to an agreement on federal reunification was a decade ago under the Annan Plan, named after United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. It built on decades of work and won the support of the UN, EU, United States, Turkey, and even Greece. Indeed, any federal deal will have to look pretty much like the one hammered out in those years of intense negotiations.

Yet the reality of public sentiment bit back. 76 percent of Greek Cypriots said no to this plan at referendum. As Annan wrote to the Security Council afterwards, “what was rejected was the [federal] solution itself rather than a mere blueprint.”

Today the two sides — whose infrastructure and administrative systems are almost completely separate — are, if anything, further apart. The numbers of people crossing the border have fallen, while polls show weakening support for a federal outcome. In 2004, the Turkish Cypriot side supported the Annan Plan with 65 percent of the vote. But in 2010, they firmly voted back to power a leader whose whole career has been dedicated to a two-state settlement. 

Miracles may happen — and there are many on the island who remain desperate for a settlement — but my judgment is that any federal deal will have an even tougher time succeeding now.

Fresh thinking is needed.The two sides should broaden the agenda alongside the well-worn process of UN-hosted talks between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators.

One idea that should be fully explored is what the terms might be if Greek Cypriots — the majority of the island’s population — were to offer Turkish Cypriots citizens full independence and fully support them to become members of the European Union. 

Such a deal would have to be agreed to by Greek Cypriots, voluntarily and through a referendum. This will be hard. Greek Cypriot public opinion still, in theory, absolutely rejects any partition. But even senior Greek Cypriot officials agree in private — especially around the dinner tables of business leaders seeking a way out of Cyprus’s crushing banking crisis of 2013 — that there is an increasingly urgent need for a new way forward for the economy and for society.

There is also a growing drumbeat of expert opinion urging Greek Cypriots to consider outcomes beyond the traditional federal goal, which has become so discredited that few on Cyprus are paying much attention to the new talks. International Crisis Group has just published Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality, while the U .S. Congressional Research Service concluded last year that “a ‘two-state’ solution seems to have become a more prominent part of the Turkish Cypriot/Turkey rhetoric and unless a dramatic breakthrough occurs early in the negotiations… that reality may gain more momentum.”

Polls show that key parts of what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots really want can look surprisingly similar. The Greek Cypriots have long wanted a solution securely embedded in European values and structures. That is what Turkish Cypriots say they want too: to become part of the European Union, not part of Turkey, even if they do wish that, in extremis, Turkey would protect their small community. The European part is crucial.

This can only happen with voluntary Greek Cypriot agreement, something that will have to be persuasively won by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots. They will need to offer convincing terms: withdraw all or almost all of Turkey’s 30,000 troops on the island; end the demand to continue the 1960s “guarantorship” so hated by Greek Cypriots; guarantee compensation of Greek Cypriots for the two-thirds of private property in the north that is owned by them; return the ghost resort of Varosha to its original owners; and pull back to hold 29 percent or less of the island. 

After what will necessarily be a multi-year transition, this will also produce the European solution that Greek Cypriots so often say they want. The two sides will share the same basic legal norms and regulations, the same currency, and the same visa regime. Secure and confident in their new sovereign rights, the Turkish Cypriot side will likely waive the un-European demand for “derogations,” or limits on property purchases by Greek Cypriots in the new entity. 

Nobody is completely right on Cyprus: all parties share responsibility for the frozen conflict on the island. At the end of the day, an independent Turkish Cypriot state within the EU is not rewarding one side or another. Europe will doubtless flinch at accepting a small new Turkish, Muslim state in its midst. 

But Europe helped create this situation, since Brussels breaking its own rules contributed to the clumsy 2004 accession of the disunited island to the EU. 

Moreover, at least 100,000 of the 170,000 Turkish Cypriots are already EU citizens through their Republic of Cyprus passports.

Europe will also be among those who gain from resolving a dispute that has for four decades burdened so many local and regional processes, not least the long-hamstrung relationship between the EU and NATO, and the new question of how the countries of the East Mediterranean can most quickly, profitably and safely exploit new offshore natural gas reserves. This is not partition: it is reunifying Cyprus within the EU.

Contributors

Desmond Tutu
Desmond Tutu
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter
39th President of the United States (1977 to 1981)
Profile Image
Lakhdar Brahimi
Former Foreign Minister, Algeria

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