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New Hope for Peace in Cyprus
New Hope for Peace in 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

Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

New Hope for Peace in Cyprus

Originally published in The Majalla

As a new round of talks started on February 11, 2014 between Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu—respectively the leaders of Cyprus’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities—cynicism is rife among ordinary Cypriots. Most people think it will take a miracle of some kind to reach a settlement anytime soon.

This is due to a number of reasons: The four-month delay in starting the talks over what were widely seen as pedantic details, the disappointment of high hopes invested in the 2008–12 talks, and the failure of the 2004 Annan Plan, which was accepted by 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots and most of the international community but rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots.

After all, the goal of the talks, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation for Cyprus, is not new; the UN-facilitated parameters are much the same, and many of those involved in the talks are veteran negotiators. The process now started is in large part an attempt to revive the round of talks held between 2008–12, itself the fifth major round in nearly four decades.

Three new aspects have, however, excited some diplomatic hopes. The first is that Anastasiades, who was elected as president of the Republic of Cyprus a year ago, has made it clear he is seeking a light federal structure for any new republic, with constituent entities controlling their own borders and citizens having no contact with the central federation government in their daily lives. This is a more realistic approach than that of his predecessors and is more likely to lead to a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots, who are keen to keep as much power in their constituent entity as possible.

The second novelty is that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot chief negotiators will soon visit Ankara and Athens respectively, opening up a vital new channel of communication. Especially on the Greek Cypriot–Ankara axis, a lack of trust, and an inability to see that the other side really does want a deal, has long held back progress.

The third new aspect is that the United States has taken a leading role in pressing for this round of talks to start. One reason is the increasingly active world of east Mediterranean energy politics. An American company, Noble Energy, is the main operator working to extract natural gas from deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade. The most commercial deposits have so far been found in Israeli waters, but there is significant potential in offshore Cyprus too.

The cheapest, quickest, most secure and profitable way to get this gas to market is probably by pipeline to Turkey. But such a pipeline would have to pass through Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and a senior Greek Cypriot official tells us there is no chance Nicosia will allow that to happen before a Cyprus settlement is agreed, or, at the least, before there is a very good prospect of one. And if a settlement doesn’t materialize quickly, energy experts say the Israeli developers will choose a more expensive, but more certain, alternative export method, such as a floating terminal that freezes and liquefies the gas to load into tankers.

The US is interested in supporting Israel as its ally appears to seek an insurance policy against Middle East turbulence by building a stronger line to the European Union through closer ties with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. A gas pipeline linking three or four of these countries would be one way of reinforcing such a strategy. US mediation since March 2013 is also now close to resolving the crisis of confidence between Israel and Turkey.

The best confidence-building measure to help the talks along their way would be for Turkey simply to extend its EU Customs Union to the Greek Cypriots, a measure that was already fully negotiated back in 2005 and is known as the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. It has been blocked for political reasons in Ankara, partly as a sanction against Greek Cypriots but also because Turkey lost interest in actively pursuing EU membership.

Ratifying the Additional Protocol would be a leap forward on several tracks: it would normalize trade with Greek Cypriots, helping their economy, which was shattered in 2013 by a financial-sector meltdown, and change their perceptions of Turkey; it would clear the principal obstacle to opening fourteen of Turkey’s thirty-five negotiating chapters with the EU; it would almost certainly result in Turkish Cypriots winning tax-free “direct trade” with the EU; and it would greatly improve the atmosphere of the Cyprus settlement talks.

Turkey has shown no sign of doing any of this yet. But, after years of neglecting Cyprus and its EU accession process, Turkey has now announced that 2014 will be a &lsquoYear of Europe.’ In January, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Brussels for the first time in five years and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, played a crucial part in pushing forward the beginning of this new round of Cyprus talks. Such moves may partly be to shore up domestic popularity after a bumpy year, but they are steps in a positive direction.

Turkey should also undertake sustained outreach to Greek Cypriots. This was successful in 2010, when Prime Minister Erdoğan invited to Istanbul a group of former Greek Cypriot officials, journalists and civil society activists. At the meeting, they were wowed by his repeated assurances that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. This visibly began to neutralize one of the most important drivers of the Cyprus dispute: institutionalized Greek Cypriot fear of the intentions of their far bigger and more powerful neighbor.

While all sides would benefit from a settlement—any settlement—failure to make the politically painful compromises necessary to reach an outcome quickly will deepen the de facto partition of the island. Indeed, the level of disconnection between the two communities already looks almost irreversible. Lack of a settlement will leave Greek Cypriots isolated and poorer on the far eastern tip of the EU; Turkish Cypriots will remain stranded with little way to escape integration into Turkey; and NATO-member Turkey will be burdened with, at best, a frozen EU accession process and the steady drain on its resources of propping up the Turkish Cypriot administration. Myriad regional benefits will also likely stay stuck: the EU and NATO will remain unable to share assets; east Mediterranean natural gas will remain orphaned from its most lucrative market in Turkey; and Greece and Turkey will most likely fail to solve their expensive maritime-boundaries dispute in the Aegean.