PHOTO: The smiles before the disappointment in this week’s Cyprus talks in Switzerland, with Turkish Cypriot head Mustafa Akinci (left) and Greek Cypriot leader Nikos Anastasiades (right)
George Kyris of the University of Birmingham writes for EA:
For many, the decades-long conflict between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots over how they can live together is a graveyard of diplomatic effort. Sustained efforts to resolve the dispute date back to the 1950s and, after the demise of British colonialism in the island, have raised questions about power-sharing in the two communities. No solution has managed to offer long-term stability for a country split down the middle.
This could be about to change. Talks encouraged by outgoing United Nations secretary general Ban Ki Moon have sparked optimism that his successor Antonio Guterres might the first to be free of the headache that is the “Cyprus problem”.
This optimism is not unfounded if we look at who is at the helm of this effort. This new round of negotiations commenced when Mustafa Akinci was elected leader of the Turkish Cypriots last April. Akinci is by far the most pro-solution leader the Turkish Cypriots have ever had. His Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades, is also a committed moderate when it comes to the resolution of the dispute. He was leader of Democratic Rally, the only major Greek Cypriot party to have supported the Annan Plan – the 2004 UN proposal for a Cyprus federation that was eventually rejected by the Greek Cypriots in the polls.
But, while the UN praised the significant progress that was achieved recently, the latest round of talks in Switzerland’s Mont Pelerin did not produce any agreement. This has come as a huge blow to the progress of negotiations and has shattered the optimism of many Cypriots.
The blame game began at Tuesday at 1:30 am, when it became apparent that the talks failed to produce an outcome. Turkish Cypriots say that talks failed because of Greek Cypriots being maximalistic in their aims. Greek Cypriots blame Turkish Cypriots for a u-turn in their previous positions, which raised optimism for an agreement on the thorny issue of territory.
The new deadlock in negotiations only goes to show the material as well as emotional significance of the issue of land. Greek Cypriots in particular are looking for a return of some of the areas now under Turkish Cypriot control, which will allow their refugees to return to their properties.
Enter Turkey (and Greece)
But, while the UN wants the two Cypriot communities to remain “owners” of the talks, there is no question that Turkey is a major player. Turkey has always supported the Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island, first with mostly diplomatic assistance to promote their aims – for example, when the Greek Cypriots led the anti-colonial movement and tried for union with Greece.
Since the division of the island, which started in the 1960s and was finalized with the 1974 war, Turkey’s involvement has been far greater. It has essentially subsidized the unrecognized state in the north and stationed forces there. So, one of the big questions is if and how Turkey will leave the island should a federation be established. Turkish Cypriot insecurities about being a minority, rooted in years of conflict with the Greek Cypriots, leaves many in the north seeing Turkey’s military as somehow a protection. But this is anathema for the Greek Cypriots.
On the other hand, while Ankara is officially supporting the talks, it is really difficult to predict the role they could play in the crucial weeks and months ahead, given the instability in the country. Often, troubles at home have pushed the Turkish leadership to be constructive in Cyprus so as to improve their international reputation but whether this will be the case again remains unclear. After all, we are watching unprecedented events in Turkey at the moment.
Turkey’s role in Cyprus has always been linked to the country’s relation to the European Union. For years, Ankara has been relatively flexible on the Cyprus problem, the resolution of which is a condition for its EU accession. But with the process of accession practically dead – and amid calls from EU diplomats to kill it officially – Turkey might have less incentive to contribute to a resolution.
The recent European Commission annual report on Turkey’s accession progress was very critical of its domestic situation and this has reportedly made Greek Cypriots think their hand in the negotiations is strengthened. To them it is now even easier to argue that Turkey should not be a “guarantor power”, an idea that comes from the post-independence institutional set-up in bi-communal Cyprus and which is used as an argument for stationing troops there.
However, the position of Greece (the other guarantor state along with Britain) could complicate matters even more. Until recently Greece had taken a back seat in the Cyprus problem, allowing Greek Cypriots to take the lead, but Athens intervened in the Switzerland talks and reportedly reiterated their wish that Turkey commits to an end of the system of guarantees and withdraws troops from the island.
Though these aims of the Greek Cypriot side are well-known, this might be an attempt of the Syriza-led government to be more assertive in issues of foreign policy but it is unlikely to be constructive for the talks. This brings back the discussion to what divides rather than unites the two sides, after a moment where convergences over the issue of territory had raised hopes for progress in the talks.
The People Decide
Ultimately, the fate of Cyprus will be decided by its people, who will approve or reject at the ballot box any potential agreement that the leaders of the talks might secure. It is for that reason that keeping the communities in Cyprus at the heart of the process is essential, especially in the south where political forces are skeptical of a solution.
Leaders’ interpretation of what happened in Switzerland is of paramount importance for keeping the people on board the herculean effort to resolve the decades-long dispute. A blame game will only alienate Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and undermine any potential agreement. Instead, the leaders should continue to show their commitment and passion of past few months but also make sure they convince Cypriots for the need for a compromise.
The talks in Switzerland became a catalyst for mass peace demonstrations that brought two communities together. It is time for both politicians and civil society that want the reunification of Cyprus to raise their voice and intensify their efforts — even more so after the latest disappointing result.