Europe Briefing N°61 22 Feb 2011, crisisgroup
With the Cyprus reunification negotiations under way since 2008 at an impasse, dramatic steps are needed. As the stalemate continues, the costs for Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Turkey and the European Union (EU) are growing. Neither Greek Cypriots nor Turkish Cypriots can fulfil their potential on an island whose future is divided, uncertain, militarised and facing new economic difficulties. Turkey’s EU candidacy and EU-NATO cooperation, are at risk. Specifically, in order to unblock the situations on the island and in Brussels, the sides should take confidence-building steps in 2011 – unilaterally if necessary – to build trust and satisfy their counterparts’ main demands without prejudicing the outcome of a comprehensive settlement.
Interim measures are necessary now, because the UN-facilitated talks look set for another non-productive year. No one wants to incur the stigma of breaking off the talks, so they are likely to stumble on, but a 26 January meeting between Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the leaders of the two communities failed to signal any new convergence. Ban was asked by the Security Council to submit an update on the process by the end of February, following an already critical November 2010 appraisal. Progress on a comprehensive deal is likely to be held up by Greek Cypriot parliamentary elections in May and Turkish general elections in June. Cyprus talks, ongoing for decades, typically recess during the summer.
Time is making it ever harder to reunify the island, divided politically since Greek Cypriots seized control of the Republic of Cyprus in 1963 and militarily since a Turkish invasion in 1974 created a Turkish Cypriot zone on its northern third. After nearly four decades, the sides remain far apart even on the meaning of the talks’ agreed goal, a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. While there has long been peace, and relative freedom to interact since 2003, trade and visits between the two communities across the Green Line are decreasing.
Lack of a settlement damages everyone’s interests and keeps frustrations high. More than 200,000 Cypriots are still internally displaced persons (IDPs), and Turkish troops remain in overwhelming force. Few outside the military command in Ankara know if there are 21,000 soldiers, as Turkey says, or 43,000, as Greek Cypriots claim – a dispute that is one indication among many of the distrust and lack of information. The Turkish Cypriots are cut off from the EU, without the means to trade or travel there directly, though they are EU citizens. The Greek Cypriots have used their membership since 2004 to help bring the EU-Turkey relationship to a standstill, blocking half of the chapters in Turkey’s accession negotiations.
Crisis Group has detailed in four reports since 2006 how the interests of the 1.1 million Cypriots and outside parties would be best met with a comprehensive political settlement. This remains the ideal, but as it is unrealistic in the coming months, the sides should move ahead with unilateral steps such as the following, each of which could build confidence and help establish an environment more conducive to an overall agreement:
These steps are in the interest of all and should be taken unilaterally by the party with the power to do so, not reserved for or made dependent upon negotiated agreements and reciprocity. Some are familiar but have failed because they were bundled into top-heavy negotiated packages, with each side conditioning its one step on two by its counterpart. Package deals in the Cyprus context have little chance. As recently as the last quarter of 2010, the European Commission and the Belgian EU Presidency tried to facilitate agreement between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey on a phased opening of sea and airports. This effort should continue under the Hungarian Presidency. It is unilateral gestures that have worked in the past, like the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot decision in 2003 to open part of the front lines so Cypriots could cross freely, and the Greek Cypriot decisions since 2004 to offer individual Turkish Cypriots living in the north some citizenship rights, including free health care in 2003 and EU passports since 2004.
The steps proposed would address known needs of the two communities and, far from undermining any party’s goals, clear the way for successful negotiations. They would not prejudice the ultimate outcome of talks, or the vexed issue of status, but would help build trust whose absence is a principal reason for three and a half decades of stalemate. In some cases they would fulfil pledges, like Turkey’s obligation to open sea and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic, the EU’s promise of direct trade for Turkish Cypriots and Turkey’s past agreement to return Varosha properties before a settlement.
If the status quo continues, Greek Cypriots will find that their rejection of the EU-backed UN peace plan in 2004 has led to deepening partition; Turkish Cypriots that their choice of a hardline nationalist as president in April 2010 makes their territory little more than a backwater of Turkey; Ankara that its failure to come to terms with the Greek Cypriots will freeze its EU accession, hurting its reform agenda, prosperity and regional attractiveness; and Greece that it is condemned to high defence budgets and indefinite tensions with Turkey over Aegean Sea demarcation. Finally, the EU will find its soft power diminished by lack of a healthy relationship with its most significant Muslim partner and that Cyprus will remain an awkward symbol of inability to solve the political and military division even of a member state.
Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 22 February 2011