Cyprus: The Last and Best Chance for Peace
Cyprus: The Last and Best Chance for Peace
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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.


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

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