This article addresses the question of why achieving a peace settlement for Cyprus has proven so difficult since the partition of the island in 1974, and explores prospects for ending Europe’s longest frozen conflict in the near future. Contrary to the common perspective that a window of opportunity has recently been opened by moderate Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders, this article proposes that their recent actions may not be sufficient to reunite the island. Enthusiasm is likely to be tempered by political reality and the complex dynamics affecting the conflict. Furthermore, reunification could inadvertently open a Pandora’s box. In order to avoid adverse consequences, the question of what happens if a peace settlement breaks down needs to be addressed at the current stage of negotiations.
2017 marks the 43rd year of the formal division of Cyprus between the southern Republic of Cyprus and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. After more than four decades of unfruitful negotiations, a ‘historic breakthrough’ was expected during UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva last January. The window of opportunity for reunification was opened last year by the Greek Cypriot leader, President Nicos Anastasiades, and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci – both described as political moderates – who appeared determined to end Europe’s longest frozen conflict. However, despite some progress in negotiations, due to the lack of consensus on key issues that have hindered the reaching of an agreement in decades gone by, the talks which were meant to go down in history may be just another hopeless effort.
The conflict dates back to the mid-1950s, when animosities between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities began taking shape. It was then that the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston, EOKA) started rebelling against British rule, under which the island had remained from the late 19th Century (British rule ended in 1960). In 1974, in response to a coup organised by EOKA – seeking unification with Greece and supported by the military junta in Athens – Turkey sent troops to the north of the country. This led to the partition of the island. Since then, Cyprus has remained divided between the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is only recognised by Turkey, and the southern Republic of Cyprus, which is member of the EU and the UN. The Republic of Cyprus is mainly inhabited by Greek Cypriots, who make up two thirds of the island’s whole population. The two parts are separated by a buffer zone – the so-called ‘green line’ – patrolled by UN troops. Since partition, the island has found itself in a state of negative peace, a term coined by Johan Galtung, the founding father of peace and conflict studies, referring to the absence of violence, as opposed to positive peace which goes beyond the lack of direct violence and includes a harmonious and just society.
Following last year’s negotiations between the Cypriot leaders, Akinci and Anastasiades met on 9 January 2017 in Geneva, together with the UN special advisor to Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, and representatives of major Cypriot parties, in order to give the peace efforts a decisive push. Later on, the talks were joined by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the foreign ministers of Turkey, Greece, and the UK, which as Cyprus’ guarantor powers, are key players in the game. After two weeks of negotiations, hope of resolving the intractable conflict faded when it became clear that differences on key issues – most notably security guarantees, territorial adjustments, property rights, and the form of governance of a united Cyprus – might be hard to surmount.
The crucial, yet most difficult, issues to agree on are security guarantees. Referring to the postcolonial Treaty of Guarantee from 1960 – which reserves the right for the three guarantor powers of Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom to intervene in the island’s political and military affairs in order to restore the status quo – Turkey insists on keeping more than 30,000 troops, who have been there since 1974, in the northern part of the island. Greek Cypriots however, do not see any room for negotiation on this issue and demand the unconditional removal of Turkish troops. Turkey’s firm insistence on maintaining a military presence on the island, which it sees as bound to the need to protect its citizens, leaves Turkish Cypriot leadership little room for manoeuver in making concessions to Greek Cypriots.
Another issue on which there is no real agreement concerns the form of governance of a united Cyprus. While both sides share the idea of a ‘bizonal, bicommunal federation’, they have different visions of what it would actually look like. Equal power-sharing may be difficult to accept for Greek Cypriots, who constitute more than two-thirds of the island’s population.
Another issue in the dispute is territorial boundaries, i.e., the amount of land to be controlled by each side. Currently, Turkish Cypriot territory stretches over numerous areas that before the partition of the island were almost entirely inhabited by Greek Cypriots. The return of these areas would mean the Turkish side would lose almost 10% of the 37% of the island it now controls. The maps of territorial boundaries exchanged by both sides in Geneva differ with regard to the future administration of crucial areas.
Since the partition of the island, resolving the conflict has been high on the agenda of the UN. Similarly, the EU has acted as a mediator in the conflict since the time of the southern part of Cyprus‘ EU accession process. Progress resulting from its contribution to negotiations has so far been elusive. Its role as a mediator has been met with mistrust, most notably by the Turkish Cypriot side that in contrast to its neighbour, does not possess EU membership. Furthermore, the eligibility of the EU as a negotiator is heavily questioned in light of its failure to achieve a peace settlement prior to Cyprus’ accession to the EU in 2004. Today, a number of experts argue that by abandoning the condition of resolving the conflict before allowing Cyprus to become a member, the EU missed its opportunity to provide real incentives for reunification.
Given the lack of consensus on the terms of a settlement, it seems that the peace talks have reached a deadlock. Nevertheless, despite the lack of clear progress in January, both sides agreed to continue talks by way of expert-level discussions in the form of a working group. According to the Greek prime minister, a high-level conference could be held in the second half of March, with the participation of the foreign ministers of the guarantor powers, the President of the Republic of Cyprus, and the Turkish Cypriot leader.
While the determination of both Cypriot leaders to reach a resolution has been hailed as a historic opportunity, the strength of Turkish and Greek voices with regard to the terms of a future united Cyprus leaves no illusions that Greek and Turkish Cypriots are the only protagonists in the dispute. For the time being, reaching a deal in the near future may not be in the interest of Turkey or Greece, as both are currently focused on their respective domestic affairs. While Greece is dealing with its struggling economy, Turkey is faced with a number of challenges, most notably the domestic situation since the attempted coup, and its fights against the Kurdish PKK within Turkey and other groups across its Syrian border. More importantly, opening the path to reunification may be met on both sides with resistance from nationalist groups, whose support is needed by both the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ultimately, without Turkey and Greece finding common ground on key issues in future of a united Cyprus, no progress will be achieved.
Still, with much attention on the role of external powers in the negotiation process, the actual conflict parties, i.e., the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, should not be overlooked. In fact, reaching consensus at the political level is only one element of overall success. In order to be implemented, any agreement would have to be put to a referendum by both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. The last referendum, held in 2004 to determine acceptance of the so-called Annan Plan, was rejected by the majority of Greek Cypriots. The mistrust of both communities towards each another, diverging expectations, and differing interpretations of the root causes of the conflict remain a hurdle on the way towards a peace settlement. Negotiations at the political level must therefore be accompanied by efforts at the societal level, which aim to improve intercommunal relations.
Notwithstanding the positive implications of reunification for the whole of Cyprus, both in political and economic terms, reunification itself might not be a panacea for all of the problems that plague the idyllic Mediterranean island. It is neither a guarantor of harmonious coexistence between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, nor does it ensure domestic stability and peaceful power-sharing under a united political leadership. It is even possible that reunification could open a Pandora’s box and add to the complexity of Cyprus’ domestic situation. It remains unclear how the relationship between the two sides would develop in a united Cyprus. Other issues concern the political equality of each community, and the alignment of the northern part of the island’s legal infrastructure with EU legislation when the entire island becomes a member of the EU, as well as how Cyprus’ reunification would affect Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU. In order to avoid any potential adverse consequences of a settlement designed to bring peace, important questions with regard to a post-settlement situation must be addressed throughout the negotiation process.
The future of the birthplace of the ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, remains unknown. In light of the staggering challenge of negotiations, and other issues adding to the complexity of the situation that I have outlined above, prospects for a peace settlement seem rather gloomy. Goodwill and efforts from the communities’ respective leaders to move forwards could once again be dashed by political reality, and reunification may not be achieved any time soon. Perhaps the time for the ‘historical breakthrough’ envisioned by the UN Secretary General António Guterres is not right now. Nevertheless, the lack of clear progress must not lead to resignation. History has shown – and this is best exemplified by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan – that when sparked by a miscalculation or a particular incident, a frozen conflict can quickly and unwittingly turn into a hot one. Therefore, talks must continue and be supported both by actors involved in negotiations at the political level, as well as by efforts at the societal level, at least in order to avoid a deterioration or possible escalation in the conflict.