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Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality
Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Setting the Stage

Turkey has been converging formally with the European Union and its predecessors since it signed an association agreement in 1963, the same year the dispute between Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Turkey and Greece over Cyprus became both a cause and symptom of ups and downs in the EU-Turkey relationship. On the Mediterranean island, armed conflict has been minimal since the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern third, and Turkey and Greece have smoothed over their differences since a 1999 rapprochement. But the 2004 entry of the Republic of Cyprus into the EU as a divided country imported this frozen conflict into the heart of Europe, and created an unbreakable triangle between the EU, Turkey and Cyprus.

Within this triangle, 2009 looks set to be a decisive year. Turkey, negotiating for full membership of the EU since 2005, is unable to start negotiations on at least half of the 33 candidacy “chapters” with Brussels due to freezes linked to Cyprus. Since 2007, France has blocked five others, symbolising European enlargement fatigue and reversing its former support for Turkey’s EU vocation.

These difficulties have caused a slowdown in the EU reform process in Turkey, already demotivated by a general EU failure to reward Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots for accepting the EU-approved, UN-mediated Annan Plan for a Cyprus settlement in 2004 which the Greek Cypriots rejected. Fall 2009 will cause another blow to Turkey’s EU candidacy prospects if Ankara does not normalise its relations with the Republic of Cyprus and EU member states decide to further slow down the accession process. In any event, if nothing changes, Turkey will run out of EU negotiating “chapters” to open by 2010. In short, without some clear forward movement in 2009, EU-Turkey convergence risks grinding to a halt, and with it most likely any hopes of a Cyprus settlement.

In early 2009, Turkey gave evidence of a new will to revive its flagging convergence with the European Union implementing many of the recommendations made by Crisis Group. On 31 December 2008, President Abdullah Gül signed into law a new National Programme for the Adoption of the EU Acquis, formally updating the road map for adopting the EU body of law for the first time since 2003. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appointed his close associate Egemen Bağış to become a state minister and full-time EU negotiator, taking the portfolio from the busy foreign minister.

On 10 January, he upgraded the status of Turkey’s main implementing institution for EU legislation, the EU General Secretariat, from the control of the foreign minister to the prime minister. Erdoğan then visited Brussels on 19 January, his first visit to the EU capital for four years, and pledged that 2009 would see “a leap forward in terms of reforms”. Turkey has also indicated that it may not oppose France’s return to NATO’s military structures. This follows an easing of the French president’s formerly strident tone against Turkey.

In January, the government also granted important new ethnic and religious freedoms. A full-time, state-run Kurdish-language television channel began broadcasting, and has proved popular among Turkish Kurds despite a campaign against it by some Kurdish nationalists. The government is also talking of expanding the rights of private Kurdish channels, allowing Kurdish institutes in universities, lifting bans on the letters q, w and x (used in writing Kurdish, but not Turkish) and permitting the use of Kurdish on prison visits. Erdoğan attended a breaking-the-fast dinner of the heterodox Alevi community, state television broadcast programmes dedicated to Alevi holy days and the government started work on giving Alevi prayer leaders the same rights as those enjoyed by the Sunni Muslim mainstream. Parliament started work on changing by-laws to avoid filibusters and speed the legislative reform process.

Delays in the EU reform process are partly caused by domestic polarisation between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP, or Adalet ve Kalınma Partisi), the newest conservative, religious-minded movement, and the old secular establishment (often known as Kemalists, after republican founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk). The Turkish Armed Forces, which ousted governments in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997, kicked off a new round of tensions in 2007 with a website warning to AKP. Erdoğan saw off that challenge in July 2007 with a 47 per cent win in early parliamentary election.

Then when an arms cache and apparent series of coup plots linked to serving and retired security forces personnel were uncovered after June 2008, the conflict morphed into a court case known as Ergenekon. Blunt judicial methods have resulted in some clearly unjust detentions among the current 86 defendants, who include retired generals. But at its core the case remains deadly serious. One officer committed suicide after being publicly linked to the alleged Ergenekon network and Turkey’s dirty war against Kurdish nationalists in the 1990s; his funeral was attended by the country’s five top generals.

The European reaction to all this has been muted. The EU is sceptical about Turkey’s commitment after the lack of substantial reforms in 2005-2008. In early 2009, Prime Minister Erdoğan caused another distraction with tough talk against Israel in Brussels and a walk-off from a stage in the World Economic Forum in Davos. In both places he tried to focus world condemnation on Israeli actions in Gaza, but instead European and American audiences focused on whether the forthright style in which he did it proved that he was an Islamist or that Turkey was turning away from the West. (In fact, nothing much has changed: although Erdoğan could and should have done much more to head off an anti-Semitic streak in anti-Israel protests in Turkey, Erdoğan has long criticised Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, advocates inclusion of Hamas in peace talks and has never touched Ankara’s relatively strong security relationship with Tel Aviv). Erdoğan’s eye was doubtless partly on Turkey’s 29 March local elections, and one poll showed his popularity rating soared 19 points after his Davos demarche.

A strong AKP showing in the March election might embolden Erdoğan to pursue Turkey’s EU reform agenda, which might then trigger some encouragement from the EU and give Erdoğan a freer hand to make bold moves on Cyprus. This will become salient when the current bicommunal negotiations reach a critical juncture involving matters like the 1960 guarantee arrangements involving Turkey and Turkish troop withdrawals.

After five months of full-fledged negotiations, talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are moving consistently ahead. The leaders concluded an initial discussion on governance and power sharing, and started working on property in February. Some areas of agreement have emerged; and the two leaders have retained a long-standing personal friendship and engagement. The two sides still have several months left before there is real pressure to conclude the talks after what is likely to be intensive give and take sessions on outstanding points of disagreement.

One new complication is that the Turkish Cypriots have brought forward parliamentary elections to 19 April from February 2010. (Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat faces separate elections in April 2010). The current coalition government is led by Talat’s former party, the pro-settlement Republican Society Party (CTP). Polls show that the nationalist National Unity Party (UBP) is now in the lead, reflecting disillusionment with the slow progress of reunification talks. If the UBP wins Talat may be under pressure to make fewer concessions to a fully federal settlement.

Report 229 / Europe & Central Asia

Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality

To avoid another failed effort at federal reunification in the new round of Cyprus negotiations, all sides should break old taboos and discuss all possible options, including independence for Turkish Cypriots within the European Union.

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Executive Summary

Talks have begun – yet again – on a settlement for divided Cyprus. To avoid another failed effort at a federation, new ideas are needed. The basic blockage is that Greek and Turkish Cypriots have separate lives, languages and infrastructure and fear a unified new administration would be more threatening than the peaceful status quo. In debate and new backstage diplomacy, they and the international community should test a route to a different unity, including through giving Turkish Cypriots full independence and EU membership. Thinking outside the box may persuade the sides they prefer a federation, not least because the smaller Turkish Cypriot state would be so weak. But a realistic new approach could also be the best way to take advantage of Turkey’s new political will for a settlement, Greek Cypriots’ need for a dignified escape from economic trouble and Turkish Cypriots’ wish to be both in the EU and in charge of their own affairs.

Legitimising Turkish Cypriot self-determination has been taboo outside the Turkish Cypriot entity and its backers in Turkey. The Greek Cypriot majority that took exclusive control of the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus in 1964 remains utterly opposed in public to formal partition. Its position is backed by UN Security Council resolutions and Cyprus’s network of allies, notably the EU, especially because of Turkey’s 1974 invasion and the subsequent physical separation of the communities. Yet, in five rounds of mainly UN-facilitated negotiations over four decades, the sides have been unable to agree to reunify Cyprus according to the official parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Thousands of meetings in dozens of formats have resulted only in a glacial, incomplete normalisation of the de facto partition between the Greek Cypriot majority in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north.

Officials involved in the fresh round of talks since February 2014 say they are aiming for the lightest federation yet imagined. The chief Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators have visited Ankara and Athens, opening an important new line of communication. But ill omens abound. Talks on just the opening statement dragged on for five months. Public scepticism is high. Suggested confidence-building measures, rarely achieved through negotiation anyway, have fallen flat. Natural gas discoveries south of the island are still minor and have done more to distract the sides than to unify them. Turkey and Greece, the outside powers with the greatest ability to help reach a deal, support the talks in principle, but their leaders have done little of the public diplomacy outreach that might make them likelier to succeed.

The status quo has proved durable and peaceful and is constantly improving. Nobody has been killed on the Green Line dividing the island since 1996. The main day-to-day problem is not so much the division of the island, but the non-negotiated status of the de facto partition. In private, business leaders on both sides and diplomats on all sides appear increasingly interested in a new framework for discussion. Turkish Cypriots voted in 2010 for a leader who openly favours maximum independence for their community. Some Greek Cypriots are privately ready to consider this option, although anger at the injustices of the Turkish invasion and strong nationalist rhetoric still rule the public sphere.

This report argues that the parties should informally consider the option of mutually agreed independence for the Turkish Cypriots within the EU. The feasibility of such an option depends on EU membership procedures that in this case would depend on the voluntary agreement of the Greek Cypriots, whose state is already a member, so has veto rights over a new candidate. To win that voluntary agreement, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots would have to offer much: to return long-occupied territory like the ghost beach resort near Famagusta; pull back all or almost all of Turkey’s occupation troops; give up the international guarantees that accompanied the island’s independence in 1960; offer guaranteed compensation within an overall deal on property that both sides still own in each other’s territory; drop demands for derogations from EU law that would block post-settlement Greek Cypriot property purchases in any future Turkish Cypriot state; and acknowledge full Greek Cypriot control of territorial waters south of the island that have proven natural gas deposits.

The existing Republic of Cyprus and a new Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus side by side in the EU might provide much of what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots actually want. There would be no federal government with cumbersome ethnic quotas that might anyway be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights. The prickly issue of the two thirds of north Cypriot properties owned by Greek Cypriots would become clearer and easier to resolve. If independent, the Turkish Cypriot entity would probably be willing to place its own limits on new Turkish “settlers” from the mainland. Turkey and Turkish Cypriots would likely have a defence arrangement, as is possible within the EU. And with a Cyprus settlement, the path of Turkey’s own EU accession process would be open again.

Without a settlement, the frictions of the non-negotiated partition will simply continue. Turkey’s EU relationship will stay blocked and the EU and NATO will remain unable to cooperate formally, due to diplomatic duelling between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey, respectively members in only one of those organisations. Turkish Cypriots will live on in unjustified isolation. And Greek Cypriots will suffer a deeper economic depression, longer deprivation of property rights, costly obstacles in the way of natural gas development, diminishing leverage over Turkey and, perhaps worst of all, indefinite uncertainty.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 14 March 2014