Keeping the Cyprus Talks on Track
Keeping the Cyprus Talks on Track
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Keeping the Cyprus Talks on Track

The Turkish Cypriots’ Sunday election of veteran nationalist Derviş Eroğlu as their new president is a challenge to those who hope for a speedy settlement for Cyprus. Only time will tell how much of a setback this will be, but all sides should remember that the passage of time has only made the reunification of Cyprus more difficult.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the future course of the  talks on a peace deal. Eroğlu, 72, is attached to the self-declared Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which he helped shape for most of his political life under the aegis of retired hardliner Rauf Denktash. His campaign speeches stressed his commitment to “two separate sovereign peoples in separate areas”, sounding little like the bicommunal bizonal federation that the current negotiations aim for, and his election manifesto is suspicious of both the EU and U.S.

In the short term, Eroğlu and the Turkish Cypriot nationalist camp have made clear that they will take a tougher stand overall, believing that the Greek Cypriots have been insincere and foot dragging. As Eroğlu put it, “too much playing hard to get makes a lover lose interest” (Milliyet, 20 April). Before the election he told interviewers that he wants to revisit everything discussed in the peace talks (Phileleftheros, 11 April) and he opposes former president Mehmet Ali Talat’s key concession of cross-voting between the two communities (Anatolian Agency, 24 March). He has said that “years” of new negotiations may be required and he hints at hopes that an impatient world will eventually recognize an independent Turkish Cypriot state (Hürriyet, 15 April).

Eroğlu won decisively in the first round with 50.4 per cent of the vote. Talat could only rally 42 per cent support with his promise to continue his five-year struggle to reunify the island through compromise. Evidently, he could not show enough concrete results that could benefit the lives of common citizens. Nevertheless, there are some grounds to  hope that understandings built up in more than 70 rounds of talks between Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Talat may not yet be lost.

President Christofias remains in place, vowing that he will not run for re-election in 2013 unless he has solved the Cyprus problem. Shortly after the election results were announced on 18 April, Eroğlu said talks would continue in late May “because I want peace more than those who say that I don’t … I seek a solution based on the realities of the island and a solution that all of us can live with.” Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who pays Eroğlu’s government’s bills and keeps Turkish troops on the north of the island, has underlined his determination that the talks will go on as before and that they should conclude this year. Eroğlu, aware that he has to tone down his nationalist aspirations as long as Ankara maintains a pro-solution stance, says he will negotiate “in harmony with Turkey”. Turkish officials say Eroğlu’s hardline statements during the campaign were exaggerated to win the election, and are not the only guide to how things will play out. As one Turkish official put it: “the talks will go on from where they left off.”

Since the new talks will face a much steeper climb to a settlement, the two Cypriot sides will need far more engagement from the outside world than has been evident in the past several years. All the parties involved must overcome the inertia of the Cyprus problem – in which all players have felt that any cost of failure will always be paid later, if at all – and realize that they still have the same interest in success that they have had since 2004.

There is also no point in pre-assigning blame, as President Christofias did by having his spokesman condemn Eroğlu’s election as an “unfavourable development” and sending letters as “preventive measures” to EU leaders, the UN Secretary General and permanent members of the Security Council the day afterwards – before he had even met his new counterpart to test his promise to keep the talks going.

The truth is that everyone is at fault in the current situation on Cyprus: the UK for its late colonial divide-and-rule policy; Greek Cypriots for their seizure of political control of the Republic of Cyprus in 1963-64 and their rejection of the UN- and EU-backed reunification plan in 2004; Greece for triggering a coup to annex Cyprus in 1974; Turkey for its 1974 invasion and past encouragement of Turkish immigration to the island; Turkish Cypriots for intransigent policies between 1974 and 2003; and the European Union for allowing Cyprus to join as a divided island in 2004 and then failing to keep its promise of direct trade with the EU for Turkish Cypriots.

Instead of restarting the blame game, now is the time to pause and to think hard about what happened over the past two years. New ideas are needed, and a new consensus must be found. Some things already look clear.

  • A principal problem in the 2008-2010 talks was that, despite wide areas of understanding between Christofias and Talat, there was no  trust between Greek Cypriots and Turkey, who have no known channel of communication. Neither believed the other was sincerely seeking a compromise settlement, even though this was clearly the case for those who spoke directly to them. A way to begin to overcome this would be an international conference to initiate a process that includes the four main (albeit asymmetrical) parties to the history of the Cyprus dispute, Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Turkey and Greece. This could be led by the UN, and include representation from the EU. It should focus on addressing difficult issues such as security, implementation and guarantees.
  • The European Parliament should follow the lead of the European Commission and start work to fulfil the EU’s post-2004 promise of direct trade for the Turkish Cypriots. Passing a regulation in support of direct trade has a chance of triggering a virtuous circle in which Turkey would then fulfil its existing obligation to open its ports and airports to Cypriot traffic, and the European Union would then lift the Cyprus-related blocks on eight of Turkey’s EU negotiating chapters.
  • Some believe that the election of a nationalist like Eroğlu sends the ball into Turkey’s court. However, singling Ankara out for moral or other pressure would not be fair. The present Turkish government opened the front lines in Cyprus in 2003, supported the Annan Plan in 2004, encouraged Talat in his efforts to find a compromise thereafter and reached out directly to Greek Cypriot civil society this year. Any pressure should also be applied to the Greek Cypriot side, which was often slow to respond to Talat’s pleas for more speed and commitment over the past two years of talks.
  • Individually, many members of the modern Greek Cypriot elite understand the economic, social and political benefits of a settlement and normalization with Turkey. Collectively, Greek Cypriots remain locked in a defensive, traumatized shell of a national policy that is terrified of their 100 times bigger Turkish neighbour to the north. The Greek Cypriot leadership should find a way of mobilizing its community behind the known benefits of a solution. Turkish leaders should continue the recent personal outreach and statements that have begun to replace Greek Cypriot fear with a new basis for trust.

These steps are only a start but necessary to avoid stagnation in the talks, which would lead to ever-deeper entrenchment of the existing de facto partition. If that happens, everyone loses: the Greek Cypriots will suffer Turkish troops on the island indefinitely, lose the hope of winning back territory and see compensation for property made much harder; the Turkish Cypriot zone will be absorbed further into Turkey and its original inhabitants will scatter even farther; Turkey will see its EU process freeze up completely; Greece will suffer continued indefinite, expensive tensions in the Aegean; and Europe will lose any chance of normalizing EU-NATO relations.

Rescuing what can be salvaged from the past two years of talks as quickly as possible is of vital importance. If the current fourth major UN-mediateed effort since 1977 to reunify Cyprus on the same principles ends up going nowhere, it is hard to imagine a fifth one gathering any momentum. Christofias and Talat were only trying to achieve what should have been settled in the much more propitious circumstances in 2004. Sunday’s election results show that disillusionment and resentment among Turkish Cypriots is a problem. Cynicism in both communities is high and is unlikely to change without increased commitment from Turkey, Greece, the EU, other international actors like the US — and some signs of success from the UN-led process itself.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.