The Cyprus Negotiations: What Went Wrong?

A couple walks along the fence that divides the Turkish and Greek areas of Cyprus. Nicosia, July 7, 2017 (Petros Karadjias/Associated Press)

On July 7, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres declared the end of yet another cycle of negotiations on the reunification of Cyprus, without any tangible result. This cycle formally began on February 2014, but the process now ended really started in 2008 with the initiation of “Cypriot ownership” of the negotiations. This was seen as an alternative to the previous UN-led process that had led to the 2004 referendum on reunification, which was rejected by the majority of Greek Cypriots.

The main idea behind the most recent cycle was that the UN should restrict its role to facilitation of negotiations between the willing parties of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and not assume the coordination of deadlines for action or arbitration on issues on which these parties could not agree. This provoked considerable delay as the parties often proved unwilling to negotiate, let alone proceed with the implementation of actions. It also raised the level of responsibility among the two delegations, because no side could credibly blame the UN and foreign powers of placing impositions on them.

According to the Cypriot ownership framework, the leaders were to agree on all items on the table, endorse their agreement, and support it in simultaneous referenda in their two communities. Hence they were bound to take the entirety of the credit or blame for success or failure. This allowed some progress to be made from 2008-2010, when Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and his Turkish counterpart Mehmet Ali Talat converged on a series of issues, especially constitutional amendment and power sharing arrangements.

Further progress came in 2016 when Mustafa Akıncı, a fervent supporter of reunification who had risen to leadership of the Turkish Cypriot community in 2015, revitalized the negotiations. The opportunities for exploitation of Cypriot natural gas reserves if the island could be reunified also renewed impetus.

However, it soon became evident that the UN had overestimated the significance of this progress and the willingness of leaders to move forward when it attempted to precipitate an endgame last year. In November of that year, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades’ reluctance to proceed became apparent, as did the unwillingness of the governments of Greece and Turkey to make the concessions necessary to achieve peace and also improve the climate for negotiations of their own bilateral issues.

Nevertheless, the UN and Guterres’ energetic envoy to the negotiations, Espen Barth Eide, continued his efforts and called for a new open-ended conference on Cyprus in Geneva in January, expecting Akıncı and Anastasiades—working in parallel with guarantor countries Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—to proceed with agreements on remaining issues, including the readjustment of territory.

The negotiations aimed to agree on security and implementation aspects of the reunification process through the alteration of the Treaty of Guarantees and the Treaty of Alliance between Greece and Turkey, including stipulating the presence of a 950-strong Greek military force and 650-strong Turkish force. These two agreements were signed in 1959, along with the Treaty of Establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, which attributed to Greece and Turkey, along with Britain, a role of responsibility with respect to the new “bi-communal” state, ensuring its territorial integrity, constitutional order, and security.

The alteration of treaties was the most difficult issue to resolve because it involved a reinstatement of the 1959 geopolitical balance between Greece and Turkey, taking into account the military, diplomatic, and economic consequences of the ethnic conflict and foreign interventions in Cyprus. The new military arrangement was to be the mechanism through which the peace agreement was to be realized on the ground.

Britain’s position on the arrangements was more secure because its military bases in Cyprus are located on its own sovereign territory—a part of the Treaty of Establishment that was to remain intact. It had also signaled from before the current cycle of negotiations began that it was ready to cede half of this territory and waive its status as a guarantor power, and/or agree to any alteration decided by the two Cypriot communities and Greece and Turkey toward the Treaty of Guarantees.

The fact that Greece and Turkey were directly involved in the process through their foreign ministers allowed them to at least partially subsume the Cyprus peace process within the broader frame of Greco-Turkish relations. Any agreement made concerning the security dimension needed to serve both states’ conception of their national interest while also striking a political balance that kept the united Cypriot state an equal distance from both. This political balance was to be reflected in a “bi-zonal” federal structure, based on political equality, which would not allow the more populous Greek Cypriot community to determine policy, particularly of a foreign nature, against the will of the Turkish Cypriot community.

The parties to the negotiations started out with absolute positions on the question of security guarantees and military withdrawal, which they reinforced in public statements, and this issue became more and more subjected to public opinion in Greece, Turkey, and especially among the two Cypriot communities themselves.

Anastasiades and Akıncı’s failure to obtain convergences of positions on internal dimensions such as executive power, power sharing, territory, and property issues before moving to the security and implementation stage had further negative implications. Though this was designed to increase Anastasiades’ bargaining position for implementing a rotating presidency with a reduced security role for Turkey, it blocked negotiations and sustained a negative climate in relations with Akinci and the Cypriot public. The security issue was perhaps the key factor leading to the collapse of the negotiations.

Although there is talk, primarily from the Greek Cypriot side, that nothing has finished and negotiations might soon begin again, it is most probable that several years will pass before this can take place as international interest wanes and younger generations that grew up with the de facto partition are less inclined towards reunification. If this does occur, however, it is no longer certain that the parameters of the negotiations, including the ultimate aim, will remain the same. Cyprus’ offshore gas fields have also not proven an instrument that could facilitate a compromise peace deal in Cyprus and there is, indeed, a high risk that they might prove an issue provoking further tension in the near future.

Gregoris Ioannou teaches social science at the University of Cyprus and Frederick University.