Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 15 minutes

Rethinking Cyprus

While Turkey has been distracted by the political struggle in Ankara, chances have been quietly rising for a settlement in Cyprus. The time has now come for business leaders and opinion-makers to start making sure that none of the governments involved miss this extraordinary opportunity. The situation is revolutionary: an end to the Cyprus dispute would cut Cypriots and Turks free from a burden that has held them back for five decades; create new opportunities for prosperity for all in the eastern Mediterranean; and do more than almost anything else to help relaunch Turkey's long struggle for a place in the European Union.

One of the oldest excuses for Turkish inaction - that the Greek Cypriots are not interested in a settlement - is no longer valid, if it ever was. Time, prosperity, international experience and EU membership have changed the Greek Cypriots at least as much as Turkey itself has changed in recent decades. The lack of communication between these two major parties to the Cyprus situation, and the abiding strength of old prejudices about the 'fanatical Greek' and the 'barbarous Turk', is blinding both to the fact that the current talks are the best chance yet for a settlement. It is also a chance which, if missed, is highly unlikely to return.

Some cynicism is perhaps understandable. Many initiatives have failed to stop the deepening divisions of Cyprus since independence from Britain in 1960. The low points are well known: the Greek Cypriot actions that helped drive the Turkish Cypriot community out of government and into ethnic ghettoes in 1963-64; the coup engineered on Cyprus by the junta in Athens to seize the island for Greece in 1974; and the Turkish military intervention a few days later, which reversed the coup, but ended in the indefinite Turkish occupation of 37 per cent of the island.

Peace plans have come and gone, burning the fingers of many a UN Secretary-General. There have been High-Level Agreements, an Interim Agreement, the Gobbi Initiative, the Proximity Talks, the Draft Framework Agreement, the First and Second Sets of Ideas, and finally the Annan Plan. When one side was ready, the other was not. Other delays were caused by elections, military coups in Turkey and Greece and the Cold War. A resolution of the conflict still intimately concerns five other parties: Turkey, Greece, the UK, the EU and the UN. The vital final approval of the UN Security Council of any deal means that Russia has been and will remain a player.

Another reason that nothing moved for so long was the sense of uniqueness in local bitterness. Greek Cypriots failed to appreciate the great wounds felt by Turkish Cypriots from the1963-74 period, when 400 Turkish Cypriots were killed or went missing. Likewise, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots failed to appreciate the disaster of the Turkish invasion in 1974 for the Greek Cypriots, in which 3,400 Greek Cypriots were killed or disappeared. For decades until 2003, an abiding mistrust propelled veteran leader Rauf Denktaß to keep his focus tightly on achieving a two-state solution: as he told US Under Secretary of State George Ball in 1985, "the person that will make me sign an agreement on Cyprus is not yet born." Denktaß believed, probably correctly, that the Greek Cypriot side would never meet his minimum demands for sovereignty and self-government. The Greek Cypriot side, meanwhile, kept hoping that international acceptance of its claim to legitimacy could be a lever to achieve its dream of removing Turkish troops and recovering all lost property.

In the background, however, another dynamic was building momentum: the advancing borders of the European Union. When Greece joined the European bloc in 1981, it successfully began to push the cause of its ethnic kin in Cyprus. In return for allowing Turkey to advance to a partial Customs Union with the EU in 1995, Greece secured an advantageous place in the queue for the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus-in reality, an all-Greek Cypriot state. The last of the peace plans, the Annan Plan, was the UN, EU and international community's best effort at bringing in the Greek and Turkish Cypriots into the EU together.

However, in dramatic turnabouts in 2003, the pressure of the Annan Plan brought down both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders. First to go was Glafkos Clerides, a moderate who underestimated the fallout from the fact that no Greek Cypriot leader, including himself, had ever fully explained to his public opinion that a compromise settlement would mean giving up long-cherished Greek Cypriot dreams of full restitution of all that was lost in the Turkish invasion of 1974. Next out was Rauf Denktaß, who had underestimated the longing of Turkish Cypriots to join the EU, and their support for Turkey's new commitment to support its convergence with the EU with a pledge to keep "one step ahead" in Cyprus peace-making.

Clerides' successor in 2003 was hard line nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos. He did much to undermine the Annan Plan at the negotiating table, and finally turned publicly against it just before the two communities went to a referendum. He vowed that having "received a state", he would not "hand over a community." A few brave voices in Greek Cypriot civil society who campaigned for the settlement faced harassment, court cases and vilification in the media as hirelings of the U.S. Their cars were followed and their phones tapped. The 'yes' campaign had just one month to make its case," one activist said. "We also underestimated the rejectionist camp's resources and propaganda machine. The 'no' campaign won because fear was their weapon, fear of the unknown after any solution.

Another problem was that the Greek Cypriots knew that they would be accepted into the EU whether they voted yes or no. This situation had its roots in the mid-1990s. The EU powers, irritated by the immobility of the problem, decided to change their old policy to avoid bringing a divided island into the EU. They believed this policy only handed a veto power to Denktaß and his Turkish nationalist supporters. Instead, they decided to accept the Greek position that the Greek Cypriots' Republic of Cyprus should be made a candidate, in the hope that this would put pressure on the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey to compromise as membership became imminent. This strategy worked -65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted for the plan- but too late to make a difference to the Greek Cypriots.

Feeling that they had nothing to lose, and hearing their leader denounce the Annan Plan each day, the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan with 76 per cent of the vote. The Turkish and Turkish Cypriot side then watched with disbelief as the Greek Cypriots not only entered the EU, but also managed to minimize or eliminate many of the promises made by the EU to reward the Turkish Cypriots for their 'yes' vote. This has already had negative results in spoiling the EU-Turkey relationship. If the current round of talks fails, the consequences are likely to be even worse for the EU, as will be shown below.

Nevertheless, the Greek Cypriot hardliners had only won a tactical victory. Papadopoulos's underlying idea was that Greek Cypriots only had to wait, and the offer of well-paid work, free hospital treatment, EU membership and passports would persuade the majority of Turkish Cypriots to join Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus as individuals. The next four years proved that the carrot of such temptations, along with the stick of uncompromising policies rejecting Turkish Cypriot communal rights, only made the Turkish Cypriot state stronger, richer and more accepted in the world. In short, only compromise with the Turkish Cypriots as a community could win what many Greek Cypriots sought: a Turkish troop withdrawal, compensation for property and long-term security.

That's why the February 2008 Greek Cypriot presidential election produced a major upset -and why it is a mistake to seethe 76 per cent rejection of the 2004 referendum as the Greek Cypriots' last word on a settlement. Incumbent Tassos Papadopoulos based his re-election campaign on having blocked the Annan Plan and his promise to say 'no' to any attempt to resurrect it, and was defeated. The victors of the first round won 66.8 per cent of the vote with promises of a more compromising line with the Turkish Cypriots.

The ultimate winner in the second round, AKEL leader Demetris Christofias, quickly started to reverse the previous government's hard line approach in both style and substance. The new administration admitted Greek Cypriot errors since the 1960s;accepted that 50,000 immigrants from Turkey would stay on the island; addressed Greek Cypriots on television to prepare for the compromises of a solution, like a rotating presidency; warned that not all Greek Cypriots will be able to return to their old homes; sent a senior official and a presidential wreath to the funeral of a recently exhumed Turkish Cypriot killed in the1960s; accepted a negotiated settlement to eight court cases trying to block European Commission aid programs in the north; and invited Turkish journalists to visit the south, even though they had entered the island from the Turkish Cypriot side. All these were previously taboo subjects or actions.

There are other sides of broader Greek Cypriot change. Although continuing a long-standing alliance with Papadopoulos's party DIKO, the Christofias government gave Cabinet posts only to coalition partners with weak links to the old hard line regime. The main opposition party, DISY, the runner-up in the presidential election, has repeatedly and strongly supported Christofias's efforts to reach a settlement. In September, he braved stinging opposition criticism to start modernizing Greek Cypriot schoolbooks, virtually unchanged since1950. The new text will aim to build mutual respect, to stress shared values, to talk about the suffering of Turkish Cypriots as wellas that of the Greek Cypriots, and to fulfil what one Christofias party spokesman said was "an obligation towards the new generation to give them the truth."

For sure, Christofias and his AKEL party have given contradictory signals in the past. The party helped defeat peace plans in 1978 and most recently in 2002-2004. In 2004, Christofias presided over a messy political deal that left him a partner in Papadopoulos's ruling coalition and campaigning against the Annan Plan (the AKEL slogan was an awkward "'no' to cement the 'yes'", referring to a future Cyprus compromise). As recently as June 2008, Greek Cypriot officials blocked the opening of the energy chapter in Ankara's negotiations to join the EU, contradicting the new government's claim to support Turkey's EU membership. Christofias has also shown reluctance to reverse the previous government's policies and allow visiting ministers from Europe to meet the Turkish Cypriot leader in his office in the north, which was, after all, the official residence of the former Turkish Cypriot Vice President according to the system set up for Cypriot independence in 1960.

But the Greek Cypriot vote for a president who would seek compromise is the result of a deep strategic change. Until 2004, the 750,000 Greek Cypriots long believed their position was too weak and isolated to commit fully to negotiations on a comprehensive settlement. Despite a joint defence doctrine with Greece and Greek military support, Greek Cypriots felt at a great disadvantage to a far stronger Turkish army and 75 million Turks to the north in Turkey. This is still often expressed in the fear that "even if we reach a deal, Turkey will never implement it". However, full EU membership since 2004 has done much to alleviate their sense of insecurity. The Greek Cypriots have scaled back arms purchases and training exercises. According to Jane's, the defence publication, the Greek Cypriots view the EU as a "cost-effective defence umbrella."

In an April poll, three quarters of Greek Cypriots backed Christofias' pro-solution approach. When the Ledra Street crossing opened, it was ordinary Greek Cypriots who flocked to the Turkish Cypriot side. The optimistic and carefree atmosphere was qualitatively different from the opening of the frontline crossings in 2003, when Greek Cypriots focused on visiting lost homes, family villages and religious shrines. In private, Greek Cypriot intellectuals and business people are increasingly worried that time is working against them. Without a comprehensive settlement, they realise, there will be no Turkish troop withdrawal, no recovery of land, no restoration or compensation of properties and no normalisation with Turkey. Greek Cypriot fears that the Turkish Cypriots might abandon the talks and go it alone with success. Such fears were increased by significant international recognition for Kosovo's declaration of independence on 17 February 2008. Even worse was the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 and Moscow's recognition of the "independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

There are thus many reasons for Christofias to join with Talat to start real work on a settlement. The two men have a long-established dialogue and friendship based on their left-wing parties' common anti-nationalist cause. Throughout the past six months, despite altercations in the media, they have held long private discussions after their official meetings. Talat's commitment to a compromise settlement was already proven in 2004, and now a UN mission to the island has elicited at least a declaration from Christofias that "I want to die with the assurance that new generations will not torture themselves with the Cyprus problem." Turkish Cypriots also remember Christofias's AKEL for supporting the peacemaking efforts of former Greek Cypriot President George Vasiliou, and for many actions that protected ordinary people during the 1955-1974 years of communal violence.

Christofias's and Talat's monthly meetings have built a steady momentum towards a solution. On 3 April, they agreed to re-open Ledra Street, a commercial street in the heart of Nicosia1closed since the late 1950s. On 18 April, UN-mediated preparatory talks started in six working groups and seven technical committees, involving about 100 leading politicians and activists from both communities. On 20 June, a number of confidence-building measures were announced in public health, crossings by ambulances and road safety. On 23 May, they defined the overall goal of the negotiations in language that showed real compromise: the Greek Cypriots accepted that there would be "two Constituent States" and the Turkish Cypriot side accepted that the new federal state would have a "single international personality." This was underlined on 1 July, when the two leaders agreed "in principle" that there would be one citizenship and sovereignty in this new state. The two leaders started new talks in September.

What does this mean for Turkey? First of all, this progress is a chance to achieve in 2008-2009 the Cypriot settlement that should have happened but was missed by all sides in 2004.Secondly, a successful conclusion of these talks would be a chance to set Turkey's EU convergence process back on track, outflanking Turkey-skeptic leaders like President Sarkozy of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Thirdly, normalization of relations between Turkey and the whole island of Cyprus would offer many opportunities for Turkish business, just like normalization with Greece has done since 1999. There are many other benefits: the roughly 30,000 Turkish troops on Cyprus can be redeployed for more urgent duties; Turkish foreign policy will win greater respect and freedom of action; Turkish Cypriots will become more prosperous as they gain full rights within the EU; as a community, the Turkish Cypriots will become an asset for Turkey rather than an expensive responsibility; and finally, Turkish Cypriots will be able to express Turkish concerns from the inside of the EU, for instance pushing for the early adoption of Turkish as an EU official language.

As a guarantor power in Cyprus, Turkey will have its word to say on the settlement. As former Chief of Staff Gen. Yasar Büyükanit has said, it will have to agree that the Turkish Cypriots will be safe within a well-constructed agreement. However, Turkey needs to start debating now whether Turkish hardliners are right to say that even if there were no Turkish Cypriots on Cyprus, Turkey would still need a base on the island to secure shipping lanes and threats of Greek encirclement. These hardliners compare Turkey's demand to the rights of far-away Britain, whose two big bases can make Cyprus seem like an aircraft carrier. There are however strong arguments to be made against such positions. While Turkey's military security may be improved by a base on Cyprus, it is a marginal advantage, and possibly a liability, to have an aircraft carrier permanently anchored 70km off the Turkish coastline. Turkey also needs to ask whether its best interest is served by old-fashioned hard power, or rather by the greater soft power and prestige that real convergence with the EU gives Turkey in the Middle East and the region. And if Turkey is sincere about pursuing EU membership, the argument about being "encircled" by Greece and Cyprus has no meaning.

The recent political confusion in Ankara is no excuse to miss this opportunity. Public opinion over Cyprus is not the problem some in Turkey pretend that it is: polls show a majority once again support the goal of EU membership. Most Turks now seem to approve of the Annan Plan of 2004, and have internalized the idea that the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots can safely live together within the EU. Despite worries about public opinion and domestic politics, in the past year Turkey implemented a big change in its relationship with Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government and the United States, and may be about to do the same with Armenia. Like Turkey's new success in the Middle East, these policies are not just AKP initiatives, but are the result of years of work by Turkish diplomats, businessmen and civil society organizations.

There are of course some cries of "traitor" going up on both sides. On the Greek Cypriot side, ex-president Papadopoulos is criticizing the compromises of Christofias. Similar criticism of Talat and the AKP is coming from former Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktaß and hardline retired generals in Turkey. But other retired generals privately voice support for a settlement. After all, nothing is being sold or given away: nobody may yet know the exact shape of the final agreement, but everyone knows it will be deeply rooted in the same "UN body of work" that has provided the basis for all the peace plans. After all, the outlines of a solution in Northern Ireland was known for decades; but when all sides were ready, they agreed to it.

If this year's process breaks down, however, it will likely be the last attempt at a comprehensive settlement for many years. One day, perhaps, the outside world may consider a two-state solution on the island. But nobody is going to be willing to recognize northern Cyprus as a separate state, even after 34 years of division, and all sides should count the costs of waiting indefinitely. The old comfort of an unthreatening status quo is no longer available. Now that the Greek Cypriots are full members of the EU, the stakes and risks are higher. Failure could lead to new insecurity and even military tensions between Cyprus and Turkey. For the Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile it would mean becoming completely dependent on Turkey. And for Turkey, Cyprus would become a worse problem than before: an economic cost, a diplomatic burden, and, above all, the biggest obstacle between the Turks and their ambition for a full place in the European family of nations.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all to a Cyprus solution is now inertia. The EU has not yet woken up to the opportunity and risks it faces in Cyprus. On the island, cynicism remains widespread. Polls show that fully40 per cent of the population has become so used to the status quo that they simply do not believe that a settlement will ever happen. The leaderships, supported by powerful voices from Turkey, Greece and beyond, must begin to tell the story of what a post-settlement Cyprus could look like. There is much to say: normalization with Turkey would allow Cyprus's sagging tourism industry to benefit from an influx of Turkish tourists, Cyprus could become a genuine financial and service hub in the east Mediterranean, Cypriot businesses could begin to invest in Turkey, and Turkish companies would find a rich new market. A major bi-communal survey predicted in February that, based on the huge rise in trade and investment between Greece and Turkey since 1999, a settlement would add a minimum of 10percentage points to the Cypriot economy within seven years. From being a burden and source of tension, Cyprus, with its low taxes, strategic position and relatively efficient government, would become a confident, cosmopolitan society and booming beacon of prosperity in the eastern Mediterranean. That would be good for all Cypriots, and for Turkey too.

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