Political Deadlock No Excuse for Cyprus Peace Delay
Political Deadlock No Excuse for Cyprus Peace Delay
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 10 minutes

Political Deadlock No Excuse for Cyprus Peace Delay

Turkey's domestic problems should not be an excuse for not engaging with the Cyprus peace process -- especially at a time when Greek Cypriots are moving toward supporting a compromise solution to the Cyprus problem, according to Hugh Pope, a senior analyst based in İstanbul for the International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent conflict resolution and prevention organization.

"I do believe that something just might happen. I am not cynical and do believe that the two sides can change as long as everyone realizes that they can't just stand by and watch in the old bored manner -- the situation today is fundamentally different from before 2004 because of Cyprus' EU membership and has high costs all round if there is failure," said Pope, the principal author of the second Cyprus policy report for the ICG this year.

If talks fail, there will be real problems between Turkey and the EU because Cyprus is already using bilateral issues to block Turkey’s EU accession: “That will get worse. Turkey will try to take revenge on the EU through NATO. Tensions will rise.”

Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat and Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias had a landmark meeting in March, ending up with an agreement to start preparatory talks to pave the way for reunification of the divided island. They are expected to meet tomorrow to review progress and hopefully set a date for direct talks.

For Monday Talk, Pope noted that the window of opportunity is small and could start to close in late 2009 as preparations begin for Turkish Cypriot parliamentary and presidential elections in February and April 2010 respectively.

Pope highlighted the change in the Greek Cypriot position from that of 2004, when they overwhelmingly rejected the so-called Annan plan -- a United Nations-mediated, European Union-approved plan for a new Cyprus federation and a Turkish troop pullout.

What changes have you recently observed in Greek Cyprus that you had not seen before?

I lived in Cyprus, on the Greek side, for a year between 1986 and 1987. One of my daughters was born there. I never used to talk about the Cyprus problem with ether side because it was too emotional. People were too wounded and too angry. I have gone back to Cyprus over the years, but nothing much seemed to change. However, in October when I went there, I met about 50 Greek Cypriots and not one of them hit me over the head with the Cyprus problem. Even the most supposedly nationalist people, after half an hour of explaining the nationalist point of view, would start asking me questions about Turkey that implied a new interest. Greek Cypriots don’t know very much about Turkey and they are usually frightened of Turkey. That was a big change and gave us a hint, when we were writing the first report in January, that there was a possibility of change and that the Greek Cypriots were reconsidering their position. Normally, we would not do two reports one after the other on the same subject. But we think there is a real chance; that we should try and help the process and alert everyone to the fact that something is really happening here. A lot of people worry about Turkey’s relations with the European Union, but no one sees the connection with Cyprus.

What is the connection? Please elaborate.

Cyprus has always been a critical wedge between Turkey and Europe. If everyone can solve Cyprus, a lot of problems between Turkey and the EU can be solved. It’s a psychological thing and historical, too. An academic we quote in the report says Cyprus has been a “well of poison” for Turkey. And if you look back to what happened in 1955, the riots [and destruction of the Orthodox Greek minority’s property] in İstanbul, they were linked to Cyprus. That was one of the deepest wounds suffered by İstanbul since World War II. The expulsion of Greeks in 1964 was also linked to what was happening in Cyprus. Many of the problems we are dealing with in the Greek Orthodox minority here have been linked to Cyprus. The problems that we had between the EU and Turkey in the ‘80s and ‘90s were linked to Cyprus, because Greece usually justified them on the basis of the Cyprus problem. And today it is again Cyprus that has pushed Turkey off the EU rails. Turkey took a risk in agreeing to the Annan plan in 2004 but felt that it got no reward when the Greek Cypriots rejected it and the EU admitted Cyprus anyway. As a result, in 2005, when the EU demanded that Turkey implement the additional protocol to the customs union on Cyprus (to open its seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic) Turkey failed to implement it. This led to the closure of eight chapters of [Turkey’s EU accession] negotiations.

Why do you think the Greek Cypriots are more interested in a solution now than before?

I have a theory about that. From Turkey’s point of view, the Greek Cypriots looked very strong. They seemed to have all the legitimacy, with the world on their side and not on the Turkish side. But actually the Greek Cypriots were very frightened and felt insecure. They knew all these words from the outside world would never get them back what they wanted, which was a reunification on the island on their terms. They also believed there could be no compromise from a position of weakness and so they never truly committed to negotiations. When they joined the EU -- and that was a crazy decision by the EU, to admit a divided country -- the Greek Cypriot attitude fundamentally changed. They feel secure with the EU behind them. They thought, “Turkey may have a big army, but now we have the EU.” A second change is the departure of [former Greek Cypriot leader] Tassos Papadopoulos. People tend to forget that he ran a regime of fear and squashed any talk of compromise.

What would have happened if someone had supported the Annan plan when Papadopoulos was in office?

If you opposed Papadopoulos -- especially on the Annan plan -- you could have expected harassment in courts, vilification in the media and maybe even have your telephone bugged. If you were someone campaigning for the Annan plan, you were scared. Papadopoulos swayed public opinion. He said it was not a good plan. But in the four years after 2004, Greek Cypriots saw that none of Papadopoulos’ promises came true. The Turkish Cypriot side was becoming slightly stronger, not weaker.

Were there economic factors?

Yes. Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, even Palestine and especially Syria used to be big friends of the Greek Cypriots. Indeed, for decades Syria was the Greek Cypriot torchbearer against Turkey in the Arab world. All this has changed. In October, Syrians even opened a ferry line to North Cyprus. Papadopoulos couldn’t explain how the Greek Cypriots lost their position in Syria. The fact is Turkey is the biggest and the most dynamic economy in the region, so everyone is turning toward it. Cyprus is doing okay, it’s pretty rich. But its tourist industry is sagging. If Cyprus is going to be a regional center for financial services, it cannot do it without having access to Turkey. Businessmen could see that but could not advocate normalization with Turkey because of Papadopoulos, because Greek Cypriot politics are very local, everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Finally, they saw that without compromise with Turkey, there will be no troop withdrawal or long-term security. So putting all these reasons together, that’s why the Greek Cypriots have changed. And Turkey should really take them seriously.

Don’t you think this has come at a bad time for Turkey because the government is distracted by domestic political problems?

The political struggle in Ankara that came out in the open in April last year is not new and probably behind the scenes for much longer. Ankara is very distracted, but İstanbul isn’t. Turkey is used to crises. Turkey lives with crises. This doesn’t mean Turkey can’t change policy to support its interests. Despite worries about public opinion, in the past year Turkey implemented a fundamental change in its Iraq policy. It has agreed with the United States about its fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and has also agreed to have a relationship with northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), major policy changes. Turkey can achieve this with Cyprus too.

Does Foreign Ministry support for a solution to the Cyprus problem mean that the bureaucratic elite is not against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) position on solving the Cyprus issue?

New polls are showing that most Turks do support the goal of EU membership, and I think the Foreign Ministry has a constructive position on Cyprus to support that goal. We know that the AK Party is a well-organized political party and that it is represented in the government and it has done a lot on the Cyprus issue and the EU. But don’t forget that there are other numerous groups of people in Turkey. Let’s call them pro-European secularists who don’t necessarily like the AK Party’s conservative stance but have no political representation in Ankara right now. None of us know how the EU-Turkey relationship is going to end up. But the process of convergence is important for both sides and most people in Turkey have seen benefits from it.

How about the military?

The Turkish military could have blocked the Cyprus talks, but it hasn’t. In effect, it agreed to withdraw from Cyprus under the 2004 agreement, the Annan plan. When a crossing opened on Ledra Street earlier this year, it required and got the cooperation of the military. I don’t think the military is going to stand in the way just for the sake of standing in the way. [Turkish Chief of General Staff] Gen. Yaşar Büyükanıt went to the island shortly after the March 21 Christofias-Talat meeting. He supported the opening of negotiations but underlined that the army needs to be convinced of the safety of Turkish Cypriots. In my opinion, solving Cyprus is much more strategically important for Turkey than having a few thousand troops on the island.

Turkey’s EU membership process has stalled in large part because of continued disputes over Cyprus. But now there is a closure case against the governing party in Turkey and EU officials have clearly indicated the membership process could be stopped if the party is closed. Don’t you think this political situation poses a bigger threat to the EU-Turkey relations than Cyprus?

It could be, we don’t know yet, nobody knows. But we do know about Cyprus. Cyprus can be solved and it could be a trump card in saving the EU process, too. Greek Cypriots need to be given indications from Turkey that Turkey is sincere. Turkey is sincere but they can’t see it. The same applies for Turkey, which needs to see signals from the Greek Cypriots. Talat and Christofias trust each other and seem to have things worked out already. Their problem is not so much between each other; their problem is at home with nationalists.

As you have already indicated in the report, rising nationalism in Turkey is a worry. Do you believe that it can be overcome in the Cyprus case?

Nationalism is a problem but good leadership can solve it and institutions can also solve it. The National Security Council (MGK) had a very important meeting on April 28 and clearly indicated that they want to leave the way open for a Cyprus solution. They could have cut it off, but they didn’t.

You recommend that the UN secretary-general appoint a special advisor soon. Do you see that happening? Is there a name?

Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer is one name that has come up to be the next top UN envoy of the secretary-general for Cyprus. We don’t know whether he will be appointed yet but we need to have at least an announcement that full talks will start on Sept. 1. Christofias and his people say they need time to get the Greek Cypriots used to the idea that there is going to be a compromise. Christofias has already broken a lot of taboos. To keep the momentum going, we need announcements in July of the date of the new talks and more confidence-building measures to keep the good news flowing, to build up people’s belief in the process.

And lastly, what would you say about how Turkey is perceived in Europe these days as more judiciary and military interference in the Turkish political system has come out into the open?

It’s spoiling Turkey’s image, of course. [EU Commissioner for Enlargement] Olli Rehn talked of a sense of disbelief. Turkey seemed to have defeated its demons and decided to be in the EU process but suddenly this happens. People don’t understand it. When you don’t understand something, you withdraw. It’s really unfortunate because it leaves Turkey alone. I think there should be an EU law that one EU leader should visit Turkey every month just to give a big hug to everybody and say, “It’s OK, you’re in the big picture.” For Turkey, Europe is Plan A, B and C. There are a number of Plan Ds lying around there -- Central Asia, the Middle East, Russia -- but they are optional extras. They are not on the main menu. The Europeans should realize that they can’t live easily without Turkey either. Turkey is part of the European architecture. The Europeans have to find a way of dealing with Turkey respectfully and decently, but they are avoiding that issue because they do not see -- or do not want to see -- all the things that bind Turkey with Europe.

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