Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Briefing 61 / Europe & Central Asia

Cyprus: Six Steps toward a Settlement

With stalemate looming in the UN-sponsored Cyprus reunification negotiations, parties to the dispute need to take dramatic, unilateral steps to break the decades-long distrust that is suffocating them.

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I. Overview

With the Cyprus reunification negotiations under way since 2008 at an impasse, dramatic steps are needed. As the stalemate continues, the costs for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Turkey and the European Union (EU) are growing. Neither Greek Cypriots nor Turkish Cypriots can fulfil their potential on an island whose future is divided, uncertain, militarised and facing new economic difficulties. Turkey’s EU candidacy and EU-NATO cooperation, are at risk. Specifically, in order to unblock the situations on the island and in Brussels, the sides should take confidence-building steps in 2011 – unilaterally if necessary – to build trust and satisfy their counterparts’ main demands without prejudicing the outcome of a comprehensive settlement.

Interim measures are necessary now, because the UN-facilitated talks look set for another non-productive year. No one wants to incur the stigma of breaking off the talks, so they are likely to stumble on, but a 26 January meeting between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of the two communities failed to signal any new convergence. Ban was asked by the Security Council to submit an update on the process by the end of February, following an already critical November 2010 appraisal. Progress on a comprehensive deal is likely to be held up by Greek Cypriot parliamentary elections in May and Turkish general elections in June. Cyprus talks, ongoing for decades, typically recess during the summer.

Time is making it ever harder to reunify the island, divided politically since Greek Cypriots seized control of the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and militarily since a Turkish invasion in 1974 created a Turkish Cypriot zone on its northern third. After nearly four decades, the sides remain far apart even on the meaning of the talks’ agreed goal, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. While there has long been peace, and relative freedom to interact since 2003, trade and visits between the two communities across the Green Line are decreasing.

Lack of a settlement damages everyone’s interests and keeps frustrations high. More than 200,000 Cypriots are still internally displaced persons (IDPs), and Turkish troops remain in overwhelming force. Few outside the military command in Ankara know if there are 21,000 soldiers, as Turkey says, or 43,000, as Greek Cypriots claim – a dispute that is one indication among many of the distrust and lack of information. The Turkish Cypriots are cut off from the EU, without the means to trade or travel there directly, though they are EU citizens. The Greek Cypriots have used their membership since 2004 to help bring the EU-Turkey relationship to a standstill, blocking half of the chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations.

Crisis Group has detailed in four reports since 2006 how the interests of the 1.1 million Cypriots and outside parties would be best met with a comprehensive political settlement. This remains the ideal, but as it is unrealistic in the coming months, the sides should move ahead with unilateral steps such as the following, each of which could build confidence and help establish an environment more conducive to an overall agreement:

  • Turkey should open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot sea and air traffic, meeting its signed 2005 obligation to implement the Additional Protocol to its EU Customs Union, and also permit Greek Cypriot aircraft to transit its airspace.
  • Greek Cypriots should allow the port of Famagusta to handle Cypriot (including Turkish Cypriot) trade with the EU, under Turkish Cypriot management and EU supervision; end their practice of blocking Turkey’s EU negotiating chapters; and, in the event of trade beginning with Turkey after it implements the Additional Protocol, open up the Green Line to the passage of Turkish goods so that Turkish Cypriots can also benefit.
  • Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots should hand back property in the Turkish-military controlled ghost resort of Varosha to its Greek Cypriot owners, subject to a UN interim regime that oversees reconstruction.
  • Greek Cypriots should allow charter flights to Ercan Airport in the Turkish Cypriot zone, monitored by the EU.
  • Turkey, Greece, the UK and the two Cypriot communities should put in place a mechanism to verify troop numbers on the island. Similarly, the Turkish Cypriot leadership should organise with Greek Cypriots a census to determine the exact population of the island and the legal status of its inhabitants.
  • Greek Cypriots should cooperate with Turkish Cypriot administrative entities, pending a political settlement. Turkish officials should meet with Greek Cypriot officials, and Turkish Cypriots should be supportive.
  • The European Commission, supported by the EU Presidency, should continue to serve as an honest broker to secure agreement on interim steps. Leaders of EU member states should avoid partisan statements at a time when UN talks continue and no one party is being clearly obstructive.

These steps are in the interest of all and should be taken unilaterally by the party with the power to do so, not reserved for or made dependent upon negotiated agreements and reciprocity. Some are familiar but have failed because they were bundled into top-heavy negotiated packages, with each side conditioning its one step on two by its counterpart. Package deals in the Cyprus context have little chance. As recently as the last quarter of 2010, the European Commission and the Belgian EU Presidency tried to facilitate agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey on a phased opening of sea and airports. This effort should continue under the Hungarian Presidency. It is unilateral gestures that have worked in the past, like the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot decision in 2003 to open part of the front lines so Cypriots could cross freely, and the Greek Cypriot decisions since 2004 to offer individual Turkish Cypriots living in the north some citizenship rights, including free health care in 2003 and EU passports since 2004.

The steps proposed would address known needs of the two communities and, far from undermining any party’s goals, clear the way for successful negotiations. They would not prejudice the ultimate outcome of talks, or the vexed issue of status, but would help build trust whose absence is a principal reason for three and a half decades of stalemate. In some cases they would fulfil pledges, like Turkey’s obligation to open sea and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, the EU’s promise of direct trade for Turkish Cypriots and Turkey’s past agreement to return Varosha properties before a settlement.

If the status quo continues, Greek Cypriots will find that their rejection of the EU-backed UN peace plan in 2004 has led to deepening partition; Turkish Cypriots that their choice of a hardline nationalist as president in April 2010 makes their territory little more than a backwater of Turkey; Ankara that its failure to come to terms with the Greek Cypriots will freeze its EU accession, hurting its reform agenda, prosperity and regional attractiveness; and Greece that it is condemned to high defence budgets and indefinite tensions with Turkey over Aegean Sea demarcation. Finally, the EU will find its soft power diminished by lack of a healthy relationship with its most significant Muslim partner and that Cyprus will remain an awkward symbol of inability to solve the political and military division even of a member state.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 22 February 2011

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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