Cyprus: dusting off the peace process

The Cypriot port of Varosha, which has been off limits since 1974. Wikimedia. Public domain.Few international journalists anticipated the 60% vote for a new and very different Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci. For Turkey, the only UN member state to recognise the state which declared independence in 1983, he is now “President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” but that did not prevent President Tayyip Erdogan from attacking him on his victory statement, which argued the relation of Turkish Cypriots to Turkey should in future be more equal. At present not only is there a large Turkish military force on Cyprus but a substantial part of the Turkish Cypriot budget is covered by Ankara.

The rest of the world expects of Mustafa Akinci and Nikos Anastasiades, President of the Republic of Cyprus and leader of the Greek Cypriots since 2013, to resolve a problem now fully 60 years old. The situation on the ground has been frozen since 1974, with one crucial change, that in 2003 it became possible for citizens of Cyprus to travel between the two regions, something which has very slowly but also noticeably improved contacts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

How realistic are Mustafa Akinci’s and Nikos Anastasiades’ chances of success? They begin with three disadvantages. 20-30% of both communities appear to be effectively opposed to the federal settlement they both support. Whereas the Greek Cypriots are now free of Greece however, the Turkish Cypriots have been left by Ankara in a limbo, a self-proclaimed independent state that is not even allowed to run its own police force and fire brigade. Finally, there is the accumulated lack of trust, flowing in part from past violence, in part from subsequent agreements that have not been honoured in practice.

The chances of success in the negotiations that recommenced on 15 May are however bolstered by several factors:

(1) To a certain extent, the EU example, as for instance Belgium. Furthermore EU law has already provided substantive benefits for Turkish Cypriots as individual citizens of the EU.

(2) The bursting of the bubble in 2012-13 has taught Greek Cypriots that their economic prosperity requires sounder foundations than real estate development and a banking sector too large for the overall economy.

(3) A combination of persuasive legal argument and Greek Cypriot influence has prevented any substantive progress in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations. Ankara has duly taken note.

(4) Turks are deeply divided as to their country’s future direction. Despite consensus that military control of the political process is no longer acceptable, there is an evident three-way tension between those attracted to the European model, those who insist on an Islamic future and those who wish to preserve an exclusive national Turkish state. Turkish Cypriots belong overwhelmingly to the first of these three groups, and their presence in the EU might well prove helpful to other Turks. Turkish Cypriots too would gain from a settlement since Ankara would no longer dictate their lives, whether on administrative or on religious issues.

(5) Most important, Mustafa Akinci and Nikos Anastasiades are both known to have worked for a settlement over many years. Charges of bad faith will not easily stick.

How can they best succeed? The first and fundamental principle is to acknowledge that any two-party negotiating process is innately difficult. Each leader is under pressure from his own internal constituencies to ask for more rather than less. Having asked for more however it then becomes far more difficult to back down. The popular atmosphere becomes heavy and dejected and mistrust increases during the bargaining process, thus creating a vicious circle leading to failure. In Cyprus international pressures add to the complexity of the negotiating process.

Fortunately both Nikos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci have proven they appreciate the nature of the problem. Nikos Anastasiades, following his two immediate predecessors, made proposals to simultaneously ensure past agreements would now be honoured and provide substantive economic benefits to both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee has agreed but Ankara effectively vetoed such proposals, and as a result negotiations have been going nowhere.

It is at this point Mustafa Akinci’s election marks a critical breakthrough. He knows the importance of working with Greek Cypriots from his experience in collaborating with his Greek Cypriot colleague, Lellos Demetriades, on sewage and town planning, when they were Mayors on their respective sides of the Nicosia Buffer Zone. The two men received a European Union medal for their collaborative achievements.

There are many possible Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) in the fields of education, of the environment, of the cultural heritage. Clearly however the proposals in Mustafa Akinci’s election platform need to be examined first.

Mustafa Akinci’s pledged to open Varosha to its approximately 40,000 Greek Cypriot citizens, displaced since 1974, through the transfer of military control of the area from the Turkish army to the UN. At the same time the nearby port of Famagusta, under Turkish Cypriot control, would be opened for direct trade under EU supervision and the airport of Ercan to flights from other countries, and not only Turkey as is the case today. The economic benefits to the Turkish Cypriot community are obvious.

In Cyprus CBMs are never simple. Such proposals would certainly address the underlying mistrust. The honouring of the 1979 Agreement signed by the then leaders of the two communities and the unanimous 1983 UNSC Resolution on Varosha would indicate to Greek Cypriots that agreements made were ultimately kept. Turkish Cypriots would appreciate the Greek Cypriots were no longer acting as their enemies, intent on inflicting economic damage. And once there was direct trade with the EU for Turkish Cypriots, Ankara could unblock her own accession negotiations with the EU by at last honouring the Protocol of Ankara under which Cyprus flag ships should be accorded equal treatment with other EU member state vessels. So everyone would gain.

But how could such CBMs be implemented without infringing the international community’s correct insistence on a single state?

Here there lie two difficulties. One is objective and therefore serious. The other is subjective and in the context of Cyprus, even more serious. The objective difficulty is that so long as Ankara clearly prefers a two-state solution, few Greek Cypriots are likely to accept the opening of Ercan except under UN control, with a boundary to the Buffer Zone, also policed by the UN, while the operation of that airport, under ICAO rules, would be in the name of the recognised government although not by it. This would not affect any of the advantages to Turkish Cypriots so it should prove possible ultimately to find a legal formula that would be acceptable to all.

The subjective problem is that there is a natural temptation to say “Why waste time on CBMs when a settlement is in prospect? Concentrate on the settlement.” This is however to misinterpret the political implications of Mustafa Akinci’s remarkable victory. He could and has altered the internal dynamic between the two communities, something already well argued by Mustafa Ongun.

As became immediately clear from the reactions in Ankara to his victory, he has not yet altered the international dynamic. This requires time and international assistance. If that time is not given, the result of settlement negotiations without CBMs will be failure, permitting Ankara to argue, as before, that any failure validates acceptance of a two-state solution. If time is given, so that negotiations for the settlement itself proceed in parallel with successful CBMs, there is a high likelihood a positive cycle will replace the vicious cycle, resulting in the highest chance to date of a federal Cyprus being established for the benefit of all its citizens.

Such a settlement would represent a revolution in international affairs, an acknowledgement that, given sufficient time, the rule of law can ultimately prevail. With a situation that resembles Cyprus in many ways currently unfolding in another European country, the international community has every interest in upholding the rule of law on the island, to the benefit of all concerned. Traditional empires were built on the principle of “Divide and Rule”: the European Union is based on the principle: “Unite and Prosper”. Hopefully the time has come for this new principle to operate in Cyprus.

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