Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Report 190 / Europe & Central Asia

Cyprus: Reversing the Drift to Partition

One more major effort, strongly encouraged by the UN and European Union (EU), should be made in 2008 to resolve the long-running dispute between ethnic Greeks and Turks on Cyprus and achieve a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island.

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Executive Summary

One more major effort, strongly encouraged by the UN and European Union (EU), should be made in 2008 to resolve the long-running dispute between ethnic Greeks and Turks on Cyprus and achieve a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island. All sides have much to gain from such a settlement. For the Greek Cypriots, it would end lingering insecurity, give them access to the Turkish economy, the most dynamic in the region, and increase their service industry’s value as an eastern Mediterranean hub. For Turkish Cypriots, it will mean being able to enjoy the benefits of EU citizenship of which they are presently largely deprived. For the EU, the unresolved Cyprus problem now hampers its functioning on issues as diverse as cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan and Chinese shoe imports. And for Turkey a settlement would overcome a major obstacle to its convergence with the EU.

If such an effort fails, the alternative is likely to be partition. Movement toward this has accelerated since 2004, when the UN’s Annan Plan, in an ironic reversal of long-held positions, was accepted by the Turkish Cypriots but collapsed due to Greek Cypriot rejection, and the Greek Cypriot government entered the EU as the sole representative of the divided island. While there has been almost no bloodshed since the Turkish invasion of 1974 and violent conflict remains highly unlikely, the events of 2004 have rendered obsolete the comfortable belief that the relatively tranquil status quo can be preserved indefinitely.

If no settlement is found, the process referred to locally as “Taiwanisation” will inevitably speed up, consolidating partition. All sides need to focus much more sharply than they have to date on the downsides of this. Greek Cypriots will experience growing international toleration of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, loss of significant land that would have been returned by the north in any settlement, permanent stationing of Turkish troops, acceleration of a Turkish Cypriot building boom on Greek-owned properties, and the arrival on the island of more Turkish settlers. Turkish Cypriots will experience slower development; a tougher struggle against criminal elements taking advantage of their isolation; and indefinite suspension of many of their rights as EU citizens. Turkey will face a troubled atmosphere in a wide range of its dealings with the EU and in NATO, making it much harder for its leaders to pursue additional economic, legal and administrative reforms.

Any comprehensive reunification settlement will need to be based on the bizonal and bicommunal principles that have been long understood by the parties and are at the heart of past UN mediation efforts. Both sides can live with at least two thirds of the 9,500-page UN Annan plan, and solutions can readily be envisaged to the outstanding matters in dispute if only, as ever, the political will can be summoned to engage in serious negotiations. That will require a fresh start: since March 2006, when Crisis Group first reported on Cyprus, it has become apparent that the initially promising process based on the 8 July 2006 Agreement between the leaders of the island’s two communities is wholly stalemated.

The period following the Greek Cypriots’ February 2008 presidential election may offer both communities an opportunity to reestablish their will to engage in meaningful negotiations. While there is understandable scepticism now in many quarters as to whether any likely outcome of that election will be conducive to such negotiations, it is important that this issue not be pre-judged. In the weeks ahead maximum efforts should be made, internally and externally, to focus on the substantive matters at stake – the disadvantages of an accelerated move to partition and the advantages of a comprehensive reunification settlement – and the process by which negotiations might be advanced. This report is written in that spirit.

The ideal outcome would be for the leaders of both sides, as soon as possible after the election, to meet and signal to the UN a real commitment to restart talks, backing this up with unilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs). The UN should then send a mission to establish a framework for subsequent face-to-face talks between the leaders. At that point Turkey should unilaterally open its seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, followed quickly by action from the Greek Cypriots to remove the obstacles they have created to EU direct trade with the Turkish Cypriots. Difficult as they no doubt will be to achieve, such measures, taken together, would create an atmosphere in which negotiations would have a realistic chance of succeeding.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 10 January 2008

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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