The latest round of peace talks aimed at resolving Cyprus’s 41-year-old frozen conflict is set to resume in the last week of August, and recent statements and actions by the island’s leaders have given hope for progress. This is despite the persistence of the same obstacles that have hampered previous attempts at reunifying the island under a federal arrangement—chief among them is a lack of meaningful dialogue with, and within, the Cypriot community itself.
Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci is considered to be one of the most conciliatory political figures in Cyprus. On this year’s anniversary of the 1974 war, for example, he stated that its main victims were the Greek Cypriots. He and Greek Cypriot leader Nikos Anastasiades also both strongly supported the peace plan proposed by then United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan in 2004.
However, the excited statements by UN, European Union, and other foreign officials that a solution is imminent are not only premature but run the risk of being counterproductive. The last time such a barrage of foreign support occurred was during the 2004 referendum, in which the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected the Annan Plan. That rejection remains a much easier proposition than submitting to the ambiguity of change is but one of the lessons of 2004 that seems to have eluded current moderators and negotiators alike.
Another challenge is that, according to recent opinion polls, most Cypriots rank their financial woes as being a more important concern than the UN’s long-standing efforts to reconcile the divided island. According to the latest Eurobarometer, Greek Cypriots ranked unemployment and the overall economic situation as among their top two concerns, while Turkish Cypriots rated cost of living, the overall economic situation, and unemployment as the main issues facing their community, while the Cyprus issue ranked fifth.
The sudden collapse in financial certainty from 2012 onward exposed the tenuous nature of the island’s prosperity, which in effect had concealed the combustions of Cyprus as a “frozen” conflict. The collapse came after three years of maneuvering and tension over gas exploration in Southern Cyprus, involving Greek, Turkish, Russian, American and Israeli interests and involvement. It once again reminded the UN—and the rest of the international community—of the capacity of the Cyprus conflict to reach beyond its narrow territorial confines.
Every new Cyprus initiative begs a series of questions: Why, despite 40 years of endless negotiations and countless proposals, has it not been resolved yet? Can the UN, and other third parties, such as the EU and the US, realistically broker peace, reconciliation and unification? Is the problem to be found in the very processes and structures of the current peace talks? Is it a problem of leadership? Do they instead reflect the psychological predicaments in which their respective communities find themselves at as a result of decades of complacency, reluctance, suspicion and insecurity, or is it a combination of both? And finally, if Akinci and Anastasiades, who are of the same generation and disposition, cannot reach an agreement, then who can? Indeed this may very well prove to be the last, best chance of reunifying the island, at least on a “bicommunal/bizonal” federated basis.
Complicated as they are, answers to these questions can be found. The most obvious place to look is in the negotiations themselves, where important differences between the two sides still prevail. However, as with previous initiatives, the biggest challenge hampering a successful settlement still lies outside the negotiations, in the political and public realms.
As far as the negotiations are concerned, the core issues that have divided the Turkish and Greek communities for four decades are: territorial adjustments; questions of property ownership and settlement; the power-sharing balance of federal governance, including the symbolism of a rotating presidency; and the question of security and guarantees.
The often entrenched positions of the two sides are complicated by Turkey’s interests, politics and presence in northern Cyprus. There has been, however, considerable recent progress, such as on the property issue, were the leaders agreed on a fundamental principle: “that the individual’s right to property is respected.” As with the Annan Plan, it is expected that implementation of this principle will be more problematic and exhausting. According to a July 27 statement from the UN Special Adviser on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, this will be regulated on a case-by-case basis, according to an agreed set of criteria and against a list of categories, between the dispossessed owners and current users. This includes compensation, exchange, and reinstatement, and will be run by an independent property commission.
Turning to the political and public spheres, Akinci and Anastasiades will be restrained by history and burdened by the weight of expectations. The problem with previous peace talks was that Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators found themselves uncomfortably positioned between the expectations of their constituencies and outsiders seeking progress.
In this context, negotiators and third parties, such as the UN and the EU, have been unable to create effective community consultations and dialogues in Cyprus, remaining instead affixed to a conventional and outdated negotiating model. Nevertheless, such dialogues are imperative as they compel both parties to reassess their respective needs, fears, and demands, articulate their situations, restate their positions, contemplate their preferred outcomes, and reflect on problem-solving as a joint venture.
What is desperately missing from Cyprus’s peace process is the capacity to explore areas of radical disagreement creatively, particularly in terms of creating a strategic link between the societal dialogue and UN-led elite negotiations. This needs to involve Turkish, Greek, and Cypriot decision- and policy-makers, scholars, politicians, business, media, religious and community leaders, and activists talking through internally constructed discussions that promise to yield substantive action plans for peace.
For example, it would explore what Turkey wants from Cyprus by establishing the missing link between Ankara and the Greek Cypriots. This could be accommodated through the links that already exist between the Turkish Cypriots and Athens. It would also seek to directly engage those disenfranchised groups from the peace process such as the settlers, refugees, and the diasporas of both the Greeks and Turkish Cypriots. This includes developing a case for dialogue between Turkish Anatolian settlers and Greek Cypriot refugees.
Such an approach needs to map out respective ways forward that encompass the difficult issues, such as governance and power-sharing, EU matters, the economy, property, territory, security and guarantees, citizenship, settlers, reopening of the trade hub Varosha and Nicosia International Airport abandoned in 1974, and the right of return for those exiled as a result of the decades-long instability.
Dr. Michális S. Michael is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and Director of the Centre for Dialogue within the Dialogue, Empathic Engagement & Peacebuilding (DEEP) network.