Things are looking up
Things are looking up
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Things are looking up

The development of a conflict: from political lows through compromise to today's negotiations. Never were hopes for a reunification of the island as high as they are now. Will Cyprus soon be a single international entity with constituent states of equal status?

This month's start of full-fledged talks on Cyprus are the best chance yet to reunite the Mediterranean island. Yet Europe has been slow to seize the opportunity, not realizing how much hopes for a settlement have risen -- or seeing the EU's vital interest in a positive result.

Some cynicism is not surprising. Many initiatives have failed to stop the deepening divisions of Cyprus since independence from Britain in 1960. Low points were the Greek Cypriot actions that helped drive the Turkish Cypriot community, which makes up 20 per cent of the population, 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 invasion that year, which reversed the coup and ended in the occupation of 37 per cent of the island.

Time for compromise

But there is now real hope of a fresh start, and much of it has to do with Europe. It was the promise of EU membership that persuaded Turkey to switch to its pro-settlement, "one step ahead" policy in 2004. The Turkish Cypriots elected a pro-compromise leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, and wholeheartedly supported the UN's Annan Plan of that year. Talat and Turkey have stuck to this position, despite bitterness at the Greek Cypriots' overwhelming rejection of the EU-backed UN plan, and disappointment at the EU's careless acceptance of a divided island into the union. 
Now the Greek Cypriots have changed too, made confident by EU membership and also fearing that hard-line policies were pushing the island towards partition. In a presidential election in February, two-thirds of the Greek electorate voted for candidates who advocated a compromise solution. Since then the winner of the election, Demetris Christofias, has prepared Greek Cypriots for compromise and challenged anti-Turkish Cypriot taboos.

Constituent states of equal status

The result has been remarkable progress. On 21 March, Christofias and Talat, who share left-wing politics and a long friendship, formed 13 preparatory working groups and technical committees. On 3 April, they opened a new crossing between the front lines in the heart of the capital, Nicosia. In a joint statement outlining an agreed goal for the negotiations on 23 May, the Greek Cypriot side won a commitment to a "Federal Government" with a "single international personality." The Turkish Cypriot side won commitment to two Constituent States, "of equal status." On 3 September, the two sides began open-ended, full-fledged talks.

Good economic prospects

The external omens are good, with no elections in the region for more than a year. In Turkey, the ruling party of religious-minded conservatives and key factions in the secular-military establishment still support their 2004 compromise offer to withdraw almost all of the 30,000 Turkish troops. Over the past decade Greece has shown Greek Cypriots one way ahead with their own profitable move from confrontation with Turkey to normalization. Indeed, studies show that increased trade, tourism and investment from a settlement will add a minimum ten percentage points of income for all Cypriots within seven years.

Clever diplomacy called for

The United Nations has developed a sophisticated mediating role. Unlike in the 1999-2004 period, when a strong UN lead that forged compromises alienated the Greek Cypriots, the UN is mostly acting as a facilitator this time. Nevertheless, the outline of a likely solution worked out in the decades-old UN body of work has been known for many years. The problem has always been for the leaderships to persuade public opinion to accept the painful compromises. They are now trying to do this.
The negotiations will still be tough. Clever diplomacy will be needed to frame the transition of the existing two Cypriot administrations - one internationally recognized and one not - into a new federation with equality. Turkey, Cyprus and the EU will all need to be satisfied on the question of security guarantees. Compensation for large tracts of Greek Cypriot property in the new Turkish Cypriot constituent state will be expensive and difficult to organize.

Failure would mean new friction

The EU, which has most to gain from a settlement, can do much to help. It must prepare major financial support, as the EU did for Northern Ireland, or Germany did for its own reunification. The EU, however, is limited by the fact that Greek Cypriots are already full members. Individual EU states would be unwise to watch from the sidelines, or hide behind Greek Cypriot objections just to slow down Turkey's progress on EU membership negotiations. If these Cyprus talks fail, all in Europe will pay a price in renewed tensions between the EU and NATO, years of friction between the EU and Turkey, a deepening of the Christian-Muslim divide and possible new military tensions on the EU's southeastern edge.

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