The Cyprus Debacle

Almost 40 years after Turkey’s intervention left Cyprus divided into a Greek Cypriot South and a Turkish Cypriot North, a successful reunification recipe has yet to be found.  There have been many lost opportunities. The set of ideas produced by Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1992 came to nothing thanks to the then Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktas and a hard-line government in Ankara, while the 2004 Annan Plan failed due to the intransigent position of former Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos, who accused the UN of negotiating a Turkey-friendly settlement, which his compatriots then voted against.  While most ordinary Cypriots have almost given up hope, the international community continues to insist Cyprus can somehow be glued back together, not least because an internationally recognized independent “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is not palatable.

Today Cyprus is de facto two states.  Turkish settlers out-number Turkish Cypriots and time is running out.  The Cyprus problem continues to bring instability to the Eastern Mediterranean, creates problems in NATO-EU relations and has hobbled Turkey’s EU membership aspirations including being used by those opposed to Turkey’s accession as a skirt to hide behind.

In February in Greentree, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, gave the leaders of the two communities some 2 months to make serious progress in the current round of talks which have been underway for four years.  With the Greek Cypriots due to take up the EU’s rotating presidency on 1 July, and with Turkey (which does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus) stating it wishes to have no contact with the Greek Cypriots during their Presidency, the optimal outcome was to have a deal by then.  Unfortunately, one leader (Christofias) has little credibility amongst his own people, while the other, (Eroglu) has historically not favored the sort of deal that is presently being negotiated — a bi-zonal, bi-communal, federation.

In true Cypriot style the two sides have spent much of the time playing a game of chess, trying to check-mate each-other.  While the Greek Cypriots continue to blame Turkey (which bank rolls the Turkish Cypriots, and maintains some 40 000 troops in the North), insisting Ankara controls every move the Turkish Cypriot leadership makes, the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey say the Greek Cypriots do not want to share power with the Turkish Cypriots and are more interested in making trouble for Ankara in its EU accession talks.  The situation was further exacerbated in 2011 with the start of Greek Cypriot oil and gas exploration, which was viewed as unconducive to the talks and has resulted in increased tensions in the region.

Ban’s Special Envoy, former Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, is due to report to his boss on 19 April.  The optimal outcome would be for Downer to state that sufficient progress has been made to call an international conference to discuss external issues related to security and guarantorship which would include the participation of guarantor states, Turkey, Greece and the UK.  This conference would have paved the way for a referendum in 2013.

While there seems to have been a last ditch effort by the Turkish Cypriots, the Greek Cypriots, who have always opposed timeframes, do not seem to have made any last minute concessions.  This is not that surprising, given that for the already unpopular and increasingly isolated Christofias, who is already battling to save the Cypriot economy, such a conference would be political suicide, reducing his already remote chance of being reelected in the February 2013 Presidential elections.

While there have been calls from Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots, that at this point the UN should call it a day this is unlikely to happen.  Therefore, even though Ban has previously stated these final months as being “the end game” for the process, it will come as no surprise that it will not be the end game at all.  At a time when the UN is facing far more urgent problems elsewhere, facing up to fact that Cyprus simply cannot be glued to together in this bi-zonal, bi-communal manner is not really on their agenda.

Therefore, the most likely outcome is that during the Cypriot Presidency talks may be slowed down, reduced to what has been termed a “technical level” until after the Presidency and the (Greek) Cypriot Presidential elections.  While the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey will not like this, it is unthinkable that they will go against the recommendations of the UN.  Moreover, in these circumstances the Greek Cypriots may find themselves under greater pressure to accept a stronger UN involvement whereby Downer will have a freer hand to arbitrate, while the Turkish Cypriots may be pushed to return to positions of Eroglu’s predecessor, Mehmet Ali Talat, who was far more flexible.

It is also very possible that the “Greek Cypriot” Presidential elections will bring a change of leadership in the shape of the leader of the main opposition party, the Democratic Rally (DISY), Nicos Anastasiades.  Anastasides is currently the front-runner with around 30% support.  He also supported the UN’s 2004 Annan Plan. However, the very fact that he supported the Annan Plan will probably be used in a negative way by his competitors during the election campaign.

However, I doubt that Turkey will just sit back and allow the Greek Cypriots to enjoy their Presidency.  In fact a senior Turkish official recently said as much to me.  It seems Turkey may roll out some new initiatives during the Presidency (or even just before). Until now nothing has been disclosed other than a rumour, which is probably no more than a red-herring, that the ghost town of Varosha will be opened under Turkish Cypriot administration, thereby allowing its former Greek Cypriot residents to return.

Such an action, which has created a lot of “chatter” amongst the Greek Cypriots, would be bitter-sweet.   While Varosha’s former residents have spent the last four decades dreaming about returning, it is unlikely that many would be willing to if the town were to remain under Turkish control.  Furthermore, the costs of rebuilding infrastructure and derelict properties would run into billions.

I also doubt that Turkey would want to violate UN Security Council Resolution 550 which states Varosha may only be returned under UN Control.  Turkey wants to be seen as a serious regional player and Ankara will not want to find itself in trouble with the UN Security Council.

All in all this round of talks has so far delivered exactly what was expected of it – nothing.  Sadly, forty years on, the Cyprus problem seems no nearer to a solution.