Report 201 / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Cyprus: Reunification or Partition ?

Three decades of efforts to reunify Cyprus are about to end, leaving a stark choice ahead between a hostile, de facto partition of the island and a collaborative federation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities living in two constituent states.

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Executive Summary

Three decades of efforts to reunify Cyprus are about to end, leaving a stark choice ahead between a hostile, de facto partition of the island and a collaborative federation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities living in two constituent states. Most actors agree that the window of opportunity for this bicommunal, bizonal settlement will close by April 2010, the date of the next Turkish Cypriot elections, when the pro-settlement leader risks losing his office to a more hardline candidate. If no accord is reached by then, it will be the fourth major set of UN-facilitated peace talks to fail, and there is a widespread feeling that if the current like-minded, pro-solution Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders cannot compromise on a federal solution, nobody can. To avoid the heavy costs this would entail for all concerned, the two leaders should stand shoulder to shoulder to overcome domestic cynicism and complete the talks, Turkey and Greece must break taboos preventing full communication with both sides on the island, and European Union (EU) states must rapidly engage in support of the process to avoid the potential for future instability if they complacently accept continuation of the dispute.

A real chance still exists in 2009-2010 to end the division in Cyprus in conformity with the long-established negotiating parameters of a federal reunification. The current Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders share more common ground than any of their predecessors and have gone some distance over the past year toward a comprehensive settlement. But failure will mean an indefinite partition of the island, leading to more strains in EU-Turkey relations, new frictions in the east Mediterranean, less EU-NATO cooperation, acceleration of the centrifugal forces scattering the Turkish Cypriots and new risks to the prosperity and security of Greek Cypriots.

Many Cypriots expect that de facto partition would be a benign continuation of the status quo. New dynamics already in play following the Greek Cypriots’ 2004 entry into the EU as the Republic of Cyprus show this to be false. Greek Cypriots have become the most visible technical obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession process and have eagerly used all the levers available to them to pursue what they see as their national interest and need for justice. Ankara’s frustrations are contributing to frictions over offshore oil exploration rights, including in waters disputed with Greece, that have brought opposing gunboats into close proximity. Today’s stronger, more prosperous Turkey is more ready than in the past to defy the EU and risk irreversible damage to the relationship over what it also sees as issues of national interest and justice. This faultline will be tested again in discussions leading up to December’s EU summit, in which the heads of state and government (the European Council) must decide what to do about Turkey’s failure to implement its signed obligation to open its ports to Greek Cypriot air and sea traffic.

In the absence of a Cyprus settlement, both communities on the island and Turkey will experience slower economic progress, greater defence spending and reduced international credibility. The paradox is that rarely before have there been Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot and Turkish leaders so ready to compromise. A major source of misunderstanding, however, is that Ankara and Greek Cypriot officials cannot agree grounds to talk directly. They are thus unable to believe, trust or understand each other’s genuine ambition to settle the dispute. Overcoming four decades of hostility, denigration in the media and absence of real mutual knowledge will be hard in the few remaining months, but all sides should try to bridge the gap. If a strong government emerges from the 4 October elections in Greece, it will be uniquely well placed to bring all the relevant parties together, and it should quickly do so.

There are rays of hope. Polls show that most Cypriots want the talks to succeed, even if they are sceptical about that happening. Negotiations over the past year have gone relatively well. After the victory of pro-compromise Demetris Christofias in the February 2008 Greek Cypriot presidential election, he and his likeminded Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, have worked through the issues in more than 40 meetings. A second round of full negotiations began well on 10 September 2009. Christofias and Talat must do much more, however, to reflect the positive energy of their meetings in their public statements and to build a joint strategy for success in a referendum on a settlement document that needs to be held in early 2010.

The two sides should indicate willingness to bargain across issues in the talks that seem insoluble on their own. These include the multi-billion euro issue of compensation for or restitution of Greek Cypriot properties, involving perhaps three quarters of the territory of the Turkish Cypriot north; the future of immigrants from Turkey, probably soon a majority of residents of the Turkish Cypriot zone; the Turkish Cypriot wish, backed by Turkey, for a continued Turkish military guarantee; and the question of how much of the 37 per cent of the island now in Turkish hands will pass to the Greek Cypriots.

Outside powers arguably have half the keys to a Cyprus solution in their hands. EU member states in particular should do more to make a solution possible by pro-actively reassuring Turkey that its accession perspective remains open, firmly encouraging Christofias and Talat and talking up the clear advantages of settlement. They should do much more to impress on the Cypriots and regional players that complacency and cynicism must be set aside and that the hard work to prepare public opinion and workable compromises must start now. Neither Christofias or Talat has any desire to walk away from the negotiating table. The danger is that they will simply run out of time.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 30 September 2009

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