Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Report 201 / Europe & Central Asia

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

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.

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