Reunification in Cyprus: a New Deal is Feasible, so long as the Guarantors Permit it

Cyprus’ scission may no longer be sanguine, but it is profoundly entrenched. The jagged wire segregating Nicosia into south and north, into Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot, is but the visual token of 43 years of partition that has prevented the return of refugees, impeded the country’s economic development, and stymied the EU’s synergy with NATO. Europe’s last divided country, has been unable to break its impasse, in spite of periodic unification attempts since 1974. The last time negotiations fell through, Cypriots had to wait another 13 years before the emergence of new talks in January 2017. In light of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades’ suggestion, in November, of a process of shuttle diplomacy to the United Nations (UN), grounds for optimism are surfacing, yet again. The recent meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, in early December, was expected to act as a first step towards such precursory conversation (although the resumption of any negotiations would have to occur after Cyprus’ presidential elections and a Turkish Cypriot vote for deputies in January 2018). At the heart of the Cyprus problem is the issue of security guarantees: solve the contention over the presence of Turkish troops in northern Cyprus, and a settlement is within grasp. For any such agreement to be enforceable however, Cyprus’ three guarantors- Turkey, Greece, and Britain- need to sign off on it. Thus far, Mr. Erdogan has persisted that Turkey must stay. More so than on the two Cypriot sides therefore, the fate of Cyprus depends largely on Turkey.

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Europe’s last divided country: a history of pain  

The island was dichotomized after Turkey invaded Cyprus’ northern third in 1974, following a Greek nationalist coup aimed at enosis (union with Greece). Thenceforward, Cyprus has been ethnically divided into the Greek Cypriot republic in the south (a member of the EU and the UN), and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (the sovereignty of which is only recognized by Turkey). The origins of the conflict are manifold, comprising Cold War realpolitik, regional scrambling between Greece and Turkey, and even go back to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, and British colonialism. Even though checkpoints along the militarized buffer zone facilitate travel between south and north, the two populations barely maintain any contact (half of Greek Cypriot students have never visited the north). Irrevocable differences in July 2017, led to the rejection of a UN-sponsored deal that would have seen the island united under a two-zone federal system, with a weak central government administering two autonomous communities.

The deal-breaker

As long as the schism over security guarantees persists, a unified Cyprus will forever remain a mere potentiality. Under the current status quo, Turkey maintains 43,000 troops in northern Cyprus for the protection of its Turkish Cypriot minority (one-fifth of the island’s 1.1 million citizens), and the republic’s 1960 constitution, provides the right of military intervention in Cyprus to Greece, Turkey, and Britain so as guarantee Cyprus standing. The two Cypriot sides, conflict over the necessity (and morality) of Turkey’s presence in the region and its right to intervene militarily.  

For the Turkish Cypriots, Turkish troops are the safety valve preventing the cross-community fighting of the 1960s from ever being repeated. For the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish military constitutes an abuse of civil liberties. Beyond its moral depravity, Cypriots argue that such a presence is also unwarranted: a unified Cyprus would maintain EU membership (a privilege that is, at present, reserved for the south) and share in the protection that this membership is guaranteed to confer, thereby rendering the Turkish troops superfluous. The Greek Cypriots are equally obstinate in their denial of outside power intervention and perhaps not unreasonably so, given that it was under that exact semblance of threat that Turkey invaded the island, back in 1974. A clearance of all security guarantees is therefore the Cypriot government’s priority, and anything short of it has thus far not found a conciliatory negotiator in Cyprus. Last time round, the Turkish Cypriots compromised by offering a substantial reduction of Turkish troops, but saw their offer rejected by the Greek side.

The Turkish factor

Mr. Anastiasiades’ looming February election in 2018 may have been responsible for his intransigence on security guarantees back in July. If that holds true, there is hope that the future President of Cyprus (whoever that may be) will be keener on finding middle ground. After all, the two sides’ leaders have sought their own power-sharing arrangement (quelling, though not eliminating, fears that power-sharing constitutes the insurmountable obstacle to reconciliation), and are both steadfast on foregoing a settlement that voters are unlikely to accept. It seems reasonable to suggest that, were it only up to Mr. Akinci and Mr. Anastasiades, a settlement might have been reached by now. Cyprus however, has long been a victim in the service of bigger power interests.

Turkey’s concessions are imperative to Cypriot peace, but unlikely. Even though Britain and Greece are willing to relinquish their right to intervene, Turkey has insisted that its forces are still needed to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. In January 2017, Mr. Erdogan claimed that Turkish troops would “forever” remain in Cyprus, and given his recent consolidation of power, following the unsuccessful coup attempt in 2016, he now finds himself in an even stronger negotiating position. Even if Turkish Cypriots become accepting of the idea of a multinational police force, to replace the rights of intervention framework (or a variation of such a scheme), it is doubtful that Turkey will budge.

Yet, reunification stands to benefit everyone, including Turkey itself. An agreement would ameliorate the strained EU-Turkey relationship, removing one impediment to Turkey’s EU membership. It would also allow for the construction of a pipeline carrying natural gas to Turkey through Cyprus, a pipeline that Cyprus currently threatens to block if the island remains divided. At the very least, peace in Cyprus would prevent Turkey from being excluded from a pipeline project through the Greek Cypriot side regardless of whether the supplier is Israel (with which Turkey has rekindled relations) or Egypt, a more probable exporter, as of lately. Finally, Turkey’s recognition of an independent Cyprus would improve collaboration between NATO (of which, Greece and Turkey are both members) and the EU. 

Mr. Anastasiades and Mr. Akinci, are both hopeful that the resumption of deliberations will lay the groundwork for a lasting settlement; third party stakeholders too, such as France are ready to mediate negotiations. For any talks to be stemmed with success however, two necessary conditions must hold: adequate preparation before their resumption, and the determination of a specific end period, at which point a decision will be taken; otherwise, the process will suffer from inefficiencies and a lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the Cypriot public, which is already growing complacent with the divided status quo. It is largely the older Cypriots, those who remember the violence of the past, that are most prone towards striking a deal, and such individuals are becoming increasingly scarcer. If Cyprus is to be reunified, time (and a concurring Turkey) is of the essence.