The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really
The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Fresh Thinking Needed on Cyprus
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really

When he witnessed the deadly conflict unfolding between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 1955, novelist Lawrence Durrell noted how unreal the bloodshed seemed against the background of the island's idyllic beauty. Between bouts of violence, he said, the land was "covered by the deceptive mask of a perfect spring, smothered in wild flowers and rejoicing in those long hours of perfect calm which persuaded all but the satraps that the nightmare had faded."

The killings and more than half a century have passed, but the self-deception long remained. Now the Greek Cypriot electorate - which on Sunday ousted incumbent President Tassos Papadopoulos in favor of candidates more realistic about how to find a settlement between the two sides of the divided island - has woken up to the way Cyprus's tranquility masked a recent unraveling of the predictable, if awkward, status quo. A February 24 run-off election will decide whether the new search for a solution will be under the pro-European leadership of former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides, who narrowly led the poll, or Dimitris Christofias, leader of the nominally Communist party AKEL.

For three decades after Turkey's invasion in 1974, stalemate ruled. Turkish troops occupied the northern third of the island, guarding the Turkish Cypriot community, about 20 percent of the total population. Ankara would not pull out unless the Turkish Cypriots got a federated state in a new bi-zonal Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots wouldn't offer their Turkish neighbors more than minority rights in the Greek Cypriots' own unitary state. The standoff held back the Cypriots economically and hobbled Turkey's integration with the West. Yet the buffer zone is normally so quiet that United Nations peacekeepers there can afford to write nature studies about the flora and fauna that has multiplied in this overgrown no man's land.

Between 2002 and 2004, there was a heady moment of hope. The Turkish Cypriot side unilaterally opened border crossings, triggering a nostalgic rush of bi-communal visits. Turkey agreed to the UN-mediated Annan plan to withdraw its troops, backed by the United States, the European Union and, in a 2004 referendum, by 65 percent of the Turkish Cypriot voters. But this hope was extinguished when 76 percent of Greek Cypriots, urged on by Papadopoulos, voted no.

Even though Papadopoulos broke a promise to back the plan, the EU then allowed the Greek Cypriot government to join the EU as the island's sole representative. Since then, the status quo has been falling apart. Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are deteriorating and putting the island on course for indefinite partition. Official contacts have all but ceased, and bi-communal meetings have dried up.

Turkey refuses, against its best interests, to honor its EU obligation to open its seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. A $380 million EU aid program to Turkish Cypriots is stumbling over Nicosia's refusal to acknowledge Turkish Cypriot institutions created after the 1974 invasion. Ill-will on both sides means intra-island trade is minimal. EU-sanctioned Turkish Cypriot exports through Greek Cypriot ports amounted to one shipment of aluminum scrap last year. In 2006, it totaled one shipment of Turkish Delight - or "Cyprus Delight" in EU parlance.

And while until now the conflict had few implications for the outside world, there is now a big new loser: the European Union. The EU effectively imported the Cyprus problem into its inner councils, clouding its foreign, security and trade policy. Nicosia is the principal holdout against a European consensus to support an independent Kosovo, fearing that it would be a precedent for Turkish Cypriot secession. In 2006, Greek Cypriots wielded the swing vote on EU import tariffs on Chinese shoes. Nicosia backed the protectionists apparently because of their support in the Cyprus dispute. In 2005, Greek Cypriots held up EU talks with countries in the Caucasus for six months because of a single charter flight between Azerbaijan and the Turkish Cypriot airport in north Cyprus.

At every turn, Greek Cypriots have used their EU membership to punish Turkey, notably by trying to torpedo Ankara's accession talks. The Turks, in turn, have used their membership in NATO to retaliate by blocking Cypriot and EU cooperation with the group, even in Afghanistan. Turkey is also blocking Cypriot accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and even the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

But it is not just the EU that needs to reverse the dynamics of partition in Cyprus. Turkey has to strike a deal that will ultimately ensure the withdrawal of its troops if it is to resume its stalled enlargement talks with the EU. For the Turkish Cypriots in the north, a comprehensive settlement is the only realistic way to get their full rights as EU citizens and save themselves from dependence on Turkey. It's also their best bet to rid themselves of criminal elements taking advantage of the territory's unrecognized status to launder money and smuggle illegal immigrants into the EU.

For the Greek Cypriots, a settlement is the only way to win the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island, recover at least some territory on the other side of the border for former refugees, and discourage the influx of Turkish immigrants into the north which threatens the island's demographic balance.

The Greek part of Cyprus south of Nicosia boasts shiny office buildings and showy restaurants, but all is not well. A tourism sector aimed at cheap holidays for Britons is sagging. Cyprus's membership in the EU and the euro zone means that making money off a free-wheeling offshore banking system is no longer an option. Lying 70 kilometers from the Turkish coast and 4,650 kilometers from Brussels, Greek Cypriots need normalization with Turkey if their service industries are to become an East Mediterranean hub.

All the countries in its neighborhood, even Greece, are pursuing policies of detente and cooperation with Turkey, the region's biggest and most dynamic economy. Syria, once the standard-bearer for Greek Cypriots against Turkey in the Arab and Islamic worlds, reopened a ferry route to the Turkish Cypriot port of Famagusta in October.

Cooperation instead of conflict with Turkey would provide large benefits. Greek Cypriot hoteliers could, like the Greek island of Rhodes, be filling empty rooms with newly well-off Turkish tourists. Turkey's ban on Greek Cypriot vessels has helped push the Greek Cypriot merchant fleet from fourth down to 11th in the world. Ending a sense of being a gated community in the wrong neighborhood will persuade more well-qualified young Cypriots to stay home rather than seek opportunities elsewhere.

Greek Cypriots should realize that Turkish Cypriots are growing stronger in the world and will not give up and join a unitary Greek Cypriot state. Similarly, Turks should understand that the only way to persuade Greek Cypriots to settle will be through normalization and persuasion, not threats, as when Ankara hinted at a military escalation during a 2007 oil-prospecting dispute. Once the Greek Cypriot presidential elections this month are out of the way, all sides should appeal to the UN to return to mediate a comprehensive settlement. This time, it may really be the last chance.

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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