By Ezgican Özdemir
It’s been over a year since the two Cypriot presidents revived direct peace talks. With the latest attempt to bring peace and reunite this small conflict-ridden island, the leaders of two communities have this time declared that they are determined to reach a settlement by the end of 2016.
Divided for more than four decades as a result of Turkey’s invasion of the north of the island in 1974 and the self-declaration of an unrecognised but now de-facto state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, Cyprus is characterised by political impasse.
The core of the problem has never been limited to just the conflicting communities of the island however – external allegiances, ethnic ties, and strategic significance played a role from the start. As in other similar instances of attempted conflict resolution, ideological viewpoints have turned into so-called ‘red-lines’ and international politics have hijacked the talks.
The resumed peace negotiations aim to plan the political structure of a united Cyprus, with a bi-zonal, bi-communal federal system. Such ambitious plans have obvious twists and turns: sometimes derailing and at other times strengthening the talks. Critically, the talks are deeply intertwined in the geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean, increasing the need for, but decreasing the chances of, peace.
The hope is that potential re-unification would not only bring peace and stability to the island itself, but also it will be a positive strategic development for the geopolitics of the region. This would be a significant achievement given the status-quo of the last 42 years, the failure of the Annan Plan – a UN-supported scheme to unite the two states which resulted in a unsuccessful referendum in 2004 – and the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU.
From the Annan Plan to Hydrocarbons
First, let’s look at the repercussions of the failed Annan Plan and the accession of Cyprus into the European Union. The plan had strong support from the US and Britain. After a five-year negotiation process, the fifth version was presented to both Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriot minority of in a referendum in 2004. The result was not surprising – 64% of Turkish Cypriots voted for the plan, while only 25% of Greek Cypriots did.
The reasons lay in the plan itself. The Annan Plan lacked a fair resolution to problems of property, restitution, and military presence. It was drawn up in a closed process with no input from the two communities, and it favoured the long-term benefits of external powers. These were not insignificant: the Americans and the British were pushing for Turkey to be allowed into the EU for economic and strategic reasons.
The Plan failed, and the island was left divided, but the Republic of Cyprus acceded to the European Union, meaning that another political actor was now directly involved with the Cyprus Problem — the EU. Most importantly, Cyprus now had veto power in Turkey’s EU accession.
Fast forward to 2014, when then-leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu, declared a joint statement to restart the peace talks. The statement not only pointed to the urgent need for a resumption of negotiations, but also claimed that this was the last chance – there would be “no going back”.
Not long after, negotiations came to a halt with the discovery of vast natural gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean sea and Turkey’s drilling for hydrocarbons in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone in late 2014. The talks were undermined before even properly beginning.
Not long after, with the trilateral summit held in Cairo, Greece, Israel and Egypt agreed to cooperate in the field of energy concerning the hydrocarbons of the Eastern Mediterranean and grand infrastructural projects that would deliver natural gas to the European continent. The agreement was topped off with a warning to Turkey not to conduct any survey operations in Cypriots seas again. Despite the necessity of Turkish involvement in any infrastructure project for hydrocarbons, Cyprus was staunchly against participating in any pipeline agreement prior to the resolution of the Cyprus problem.
What’s important to take away from the pipeline saga is that now, not only were Turkey, Greece and Britain stakeholders of a potential settlement in Cyprus, but Israel, Egypt, and the EU were also added to the equation.
A Regional Dilemma
With Mustafa Akıncı’s election as the new president of the de-facto TRNC, the peace talks finally resumed with his Greek counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades, in May 2015. Having commenced the talks with high hopes and much dedication to negotiate “a win-win solution”, the two leaders displayed a friendly, picture-perfect image in the media, shaking hands, giving bi-lingual Christmas and New Year messages to the two Cypriot communities, and openly recognising each community’s former sufferings and current needs for both material and emotional restitution.
However, once again recent global events proved that the Cyprus peace negotiations have never, and will never only be about the Turkish and Greek halves of this broken island.
The so-called refugee crisis prompted the EU to hammer out the much-criticised ‘migrant swap’ deal with Turkey. On the other side of the narrow sea, Cyprus declared it would not lift its veto of Turkish accession to the bloc – something the AKP has used the refugee crisis as a bartering chip to push for.
Moreover, Turkey’s granting of visa-free travel (in the case of the agreement of the deal) for all 28 EU countries meant Greek Cypriots would freely enter a country (Turkey) whose government has not recognised their state for decades.
It seems that whenever Cypriot leaders inch closer to an agreement – or so they think – either regional or global crises take over and the divided island becomes caught once again in deadlock. Even if the geopolitical concerns and strategic moves of world leaders were not to get in the way, Cypriot leaders have yet to discuss the most important matters of the island’s problem: land and guarantorship of Turkey, Greece and Britain in the island.
Such issues reign historical and much of the current conflict is rooted in the infamous Zurich agreement. Signed by Greece, Turkey, Britain, and the two Cypriot community leaders in 1959, the agreement stipulated that these three guarantors, Greece, Turkey and Britain, would not only assure the independence of Cyprus, but also safeguard Cyprus from unification with another state. Despite this diplomatic promise, Turkey to this day occupies the north of the island and simultaneously acts as a guarantor to the de-facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. As much as the situation seems paradoxical, the guarantorship of the island is perhaps the foremost source of impasse.
The current negotiations, which ignited long-awaited hope regarding conflict resolution, are once again on the brink of collapse, ostensibly due to the Turkish Cypriot leader, Akıncı’s, surprise attendance at the World Humanitarian Summit dinner in Istanbul on May 23rd, where Anastasiades was also invited to attend.
The Greek Cypriot leader recoiled, likely due to Akıncı’s questionable status, even presence, at such an international UN-oriented event: immediately cancelling the meeting for peace negotiations to be held in Nicosia later that week and rejecting his scheduled appearance at Turkish President Erdoğan’s dinner. Stirring media of both the north and south, it seems that the once optimistic aura of the peace talks has taken another hit.
Such convoluted affairs cause immense uncertainty for the future of the islanders. Cyprus, with its place in the eastern Mediterranean, its ethnic, economic, and political ties to major power holders within the region, and its conflict-laden past(s), is still not a united country. Whether this is because of deep-seated mental, emotional, and material divisions or because of current geopolitical global affairs, the impasse has proved impossible to solve.