Can Europe Make It?

Bicommunal action in Cyprus: a force more powerful

At the grassroots level, bicommunal activity in the island is emerging as the critical actor in the reunification process.

Neophytos Loizides
12 March 2015
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Flickr/United Nations Development Program in Europe and CIS. Some rights reserved.In the past few months few informed pundits on the Cyprus problem would cite any positive developments at the political level; the Cypriot stalemate is deepening further each day. Yet at the grassroots level bicommunal activity in the island is emerging as the critical actor in the reunification process.

In September 2014, the Greek Cypriot side withdrew from negotiations after a Turkish frigate started seismic surveys in the Republic of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) south of the island. Surprisingly, this interruption in the Cyprus negotiations offered an opportunity for civil society leaders to seek alternatives in their attempt to resume the peace process. February 2015 has been the month of civil society engagement in Cyprus. 

Mr. Tsipras was the first Greek PM to meet with bicommunal NGOs in his inaugural visit to Cyprus while the following week President Anastasiades held a well-received press conference with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot journalists. But much of the civil society engagement receives little media or public attention. Last week the two Cypriot chambers of commerce from the communities of the island launched a successful event in London hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office while the Greek-Turkish Forum met in Athens to discuss confidence-building measures.

At the same time, the Cyprus Academic Dialogue (CAD) was co-organizing a flagship conference in Ankara, the first bicommunal event that took place in the Turkish capital after half a century of Cyprus conflict. As my home institution, the University of Kent co-sponsored this event, I witnessed firsthand three major strengths of Cyprus-based academic and civil society practitioners that could prove catalytic for the settlement.

First, civil society can take risks governments cannot afford especially during times of crisis. Organizing a bicommunal conference in Ankara was not an easy undertaking. A year’s long preparation between Nicosia and Ankara mediated by the Australian High Commission in Nicosia, the British Institute at Ankara and the University of Kent could have led to nowhere, if any of the sides withdrew. Last minute problems are not unusual after decades of conflict escalating tensions in the region.

But taking risks also pays; the event was hosted at the USAK House one of Turkey’s leading think tanks and attracted seventeen academics and NGO leaders from both communities in Cyprus. Even more impressively, on the Ankara end it included ten ambassadors, 33 officers from 24 different embassies (representing the U.S. Embassy and 15 EU member states as well as the EU Delegation in Ankara), 6 officers from Turkish state institutions (including 3 from Ministry of Foreign Affairs), 11 researchers from 9 think-tanks, 29 academics from 9 different universities and 10 reporters from 5 different media agents (including Reuters, France 24, Anadolu News Agency). It also included participants from the Turkish industrialist association and the country’s largest conglomerate Koç Holding. This is only just one example of what is happening at a smaller scale elsewhere. Such events are critical in rallying political support for change at the government level.   

Moreover, the event brought together two high profile speakers Former Prime Minister of Greece and President of Socialist International George Papandreou and former Turkish minister of Foreign Affairs and spokesman of the Turkish Parliament Hikmet Çetin. Papandreou’s prestige and leverage in Turkey is impressive. George Papandreou who played a critical role for Cypriot accession to the EU will be also a great asset for the Greek Cypriot leadership in its struggle to reunify the island. [For the live video link to the keynote addresses click here].  

But there are limits to what leaders could do without the support of their citizens especially with governments in southern Europe pre-occupied with the management of the debt crisis. In such an environment, the future of Cypriot mediations will depend largely on the signals citizens will send to their leaders; social media have now brought the peace process to the hands of every Cypriot, Greek or Turkish citizen. 

As the title here is inspired by Ackerman and Duval’s must read book, civil society action is changing the world today but to be effective it should emphasize its strengths. Cypriot academics and NGO leaders increasingly speak a shared language in bicommunal events hence they tend to be more convincing. Thinking outside the box and reframing the Cyprus question is easier for civil society leaders than governments.

Participants at the Ankara event did not speak in Greek or Turkish terms but repositioned issues in humanitarian and scholarly terms reaching out to different audiences particularly with regards to refugee, property and missing persons issues. Speaking at the same wavelength (despite disagreement on issues) makes a highly convincing case for reunification. For those observers recently suggesting partition, the best response comes from joint bicommunal action.

Finally, bicommunal groups are becoming increasing more professionalized having decades of joint work across the divide. The scholarly work presented at the Ankara conference provided tangible examples of what could work in a future settlement not only in Cyprus but other comparative cases. When negotiations restart, academics and civil society practitioners will be in a position to make available to all sides the best practices for the settlement of the Cyprus problem.

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