Mustafa Akinci, president of Northern Cyprus. Wikimedia/public domain.The mood is full of hope on the island of Cyprus: for the first time since the failed 2004 Annan Plan there seems to be genuine enthusiasm for a comprehensive settlement to the decades long Cyprus problem.
A mix of favourable international and domestic developments seem to be laying the ground for a lasting solution in Cyprus. Significantly, after the election of pro-settlement Mustafa Akinci to the presidency in the north, momentum has been steadily building with a new emphasis on pursuing confidence building measures (CBM) alongside negotiations between the two communities being translated into a number of solid developments.
With Akinci barely beginning his term in office, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades presented the first CBM package. This included ground maps for 28 minefields laid down by retreating Greek Cypriot forces in 1974, the granting of management to Evkaf of the various religious Muslim sites located in the south and the hiring of Turkish speaking professionals at citizens service centres in Nicosia to help Turkish Cypriots pursue business activities in the south. Akinci responded by eliminating the need for visitors entering the north to fill in a visa slip. There has also been willingness by Akinci to discuss the opening of the ghost town of Varosha as a CBM, which has been under Turkish military occupation since 1974. These retaliatory offerings culminated in the leaders agreeing on a further 5 concrete steps signifying their mutual commitment to the peace process.
There is a reason why, after so long, a solution seems within grasp: unlike previous negotiations, this time the talks are leader-led and homegrown. It must be made clear that the simple signing of an agreement or a 'yes' vote in a referendum will not magically solve the intractable Cyprus problem. A lasting and workable 'solution' must come through a process of social reconciliation enabling the two communities to form a common purpose and a shared vision. The political leaderships, civil society and the island’s inhabitants as a whole must each do their part in laying the foundations for a United Federal Cyprus. In other words, a comprehensive settlement must be politically accountable and the people must bear the ultimate responsibility for the type of settlement they create.
Only by addressing the root causes of the Cyprus problem can there be a successful solution. The London-Zurich Agreements, which led to the establishment of the failed Republic of Cyprus (ROC), were constructed by the political elite of the two communities along with the representatives of Turkey, Greece and the UK. Thus, the resulting constitution lacked the political legitimacy necessary for a workable solution. Similarly, the Annan plan failed because the inhabitants of the island were not meaningfully involved in the process. In fact, remaining gaps in the negotiations between the two teams were filled in by the United Nations. How are the people, who have had no say in the construction of solution, expected to make whatever settlement functional and durable?
Anastastiades and Akinci appear to be the two leaders who are finally beginning to understand the importance of this question. At an event organised by the Turkish and Greek Cypriot chambers of commerce, the two leaders outlined their common vision for a united future. By highlighting the aim of ensuring the prosperity of all Cypriots, the leaders are setting out a future that Cypriots have a very strong stake in. Understanding the necessity to build a new type of economy, not reliant on financial assistance from Turkey or the EU, is a factor catalysing the peace process. According to Anastasiades, a settlement could lead to a doubling of the entire island’s GDP in 20 years time.
More importantly, this vision is not exclusive to the political elite. Bi-communal contacts at the grassroots level are also shaping the future direction of the process. The Cyprus Academic Dialogue and University of Kent co-organised an event in Ankara, where academics, politicians and civil society members involved in the Cyprus problem shared their views on overcoming the difficulties regarding a settlement. Also, a bi-communal panel, including eminent scholars and practitioners from both sides, debated whether a Truth Commission would hinder or benefit the reunification efforts.
The Turkish and Greek Cypriot chambers of commerce have introduced a joint internship programme named ‘Leading by Example’ for Greek and Turkish Cypriot university graduates currently unemployed. In support of the leaders announcement for the opening of new border crossings, members of Greek Cypriot Famagusta, our City and Turkish Cypriot Famagusta Initiative gathered on both sides of the Dherynia crossing to voice their demand for the opening of the border-point. Shopkeepers from both sides got together to set up a committee for business cooperation between them. Moreover, high-level religious leaders have met up in recent days to share their prayers for dialogue, peace and unity.
Whilst political developments within Cyprus are promising, what can be said of the political environment across the Eastern Mediterranean sea? Although the rejectionist opposition parties in the Greek Cypriot south portray Turkey as the main obstacle to a settlement, nothing could be further from the truth. It would be naïve to assume that Turkey wants a solution at all costs, but Turkey’s behaviour over the last 13 years, with regards to its policy on Cyprus, firmly puts it in the pro-settlement camp. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Republic has drastically changed its Cyprus policy and demonstrated this by giving its strong backing to the failed Annan Plan in 2004.
From Turkey's perspective, solving the Cyprus problem would clear a massive obstacle in the way of its EU membership; Cyprus has blocked 8 negotiating chapters since 2006, which have effectively frozen Turkey's chances of entering the EU. An eventual deal would also signal an end to the heavy burden of financial aid Turkey channels into northern Cyprus each year to prop up its internationally isolated and unsustainable economy.
With the June 7th parliamentary elections in Turkey unable to produce a simple majority, the trajectory of Turkish politics will remain uncertain for the short-term at least as parties attempt to negotiate a workable coalition government. On the other hand, with Greece almost entirely consumed by its bail-out conditions, the government there will be incapable of concentrating on much else for the foreseeable future. These circumstances present the two leaders in Cyprus a fantastic window of opportunity to race ahead with negotiations free of unnecessary interference from Ankara or Athens.
In an article I wrote last year, I stressed that the discoveries of Hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean must act as a catalyst for a solution. And it appears, at least on the surface, that this is precisely what is happening. Although at first the hydrocarbons seemed to be getting in the way of a settlement; Anastasiades broke off talks with the Turkish Cypriots after a Turkish seismic vessel entered the Greek Cypriot controlled ROC's designated licensing blocks. The necessity of utilising the discoveries as an impetus for a settlement seems to have dawned on the previously uncompromising Greek Cypriot government. Anastasiades announced in January that the hydrocarbons issue could be discussed at the tail-end of negotiations. With the election of Akinci, it is now becoming the norm for both leaders to stress the peace potential of the resources.
The stakes are high: any profitable exploitation of the natural gas reserves of Cyprus lie through a pipeline to Turkey. Although there has been much hype and discussion about selling the gas to Egypt, the inherent instability in the country renders that option practically unfeasible. On the other hand, an LNG terminal doesn't make financial sense.
The most viable option is a pipeline connecting Cyprus, Turkey and Israel. With Israel also having significant amounts of natural gas to export, an underwater pipeline that runs to mainland Turkey and on to the European market is particularly desirable for the EU, given its willingness to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and create an Energy Union. For this scenario to work, it is crucial for there to be a comprehensive settlement.
Consequently, the strategic interests of the Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots, Turkey, Israel, the EU, the US and energy companies have begun to converge, increasing the likelihood of success at the negotiation table.
It is clear that both at the domestic level and the international level conditions are becoming ripe for a lasting solution to the decades long impasse. However, despite announced progress on issues such as property, territory, and governance the next few months are bound to be met with significant obstacles. The thorny issue of guarantees is one such barrier, and one that goes to the root of the conflict. Under the 1960 constitution, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom are legally the guarantors of independence for the Republic of Cyprus. It is this legal clause that Turkey sights as its pretext for its military intervention in Cyprus in 1974.
For the Turkish Cypriots, if Turkey had not used its right of Guarantee in 1974, they would have been massacred at the hands of the Greek Cypriot enotists. For the Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, Turkey's right of guarantee looms over them like a dark cloud threatening to condemn them once again to the type of immense suffering they went through in 1974. Because both communities look at the issue from a perspective of security and survival, their positions regarding the matter are deemed a red-line. In short, the Turkish Cypriots want Turkey to guarantee their security, while the Greek Cypriots do not want Turkey to have a guarantee right, ironically, to guarantee their own survival.
To surpass this hurdle, what is required is a move away from the hard-positions of the parties towards an understanding of the underlying interests that make up these positions. Because the interests that construct these positions are first and foremost to do with security and survival, the guarantees issue could be overcome with gradual, but concrete steps that meet these interests.
Coupled with a measured removal of Turkish troops from Cyprus, the right of guarantee from Turkey could be linked to Turkey's ascension to the EU, where Turkey would be able to guarantee the rights and security of the Turkish Cypriots from within the EU. This would, at the same time, act as a pull factor for the EU to speed up the ascension process for Turkey, while providing for the Greek Cypriots a concrete process for the abolishment of Turkey's guarantee rights. This would, however, require that EU give Turkey the necessary incentives to really plough through with its ascension requirements. In the event of non-ascension, Turkey could be integrated into the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy in which it could also have a formal say in any issue directly linked to the security of Turkish Cypriots.
Another potential roadblock in the way of solving the Cyprus problem is the referendum issue. By pinning an entire process on the requirement for a simultaneous 'yes' vote, the risks of failure are immense and potentially final. A repeat of the 2004 referendum result would effectively translate into the permanent partition of the island. But this scenario can be avoided. As mentioned above, the Cyprus problem will not inherently be solved simply by achieving two 'yes' votes. The 'day after', so to speak, is important too for the durability of any form of agreement. Thus, any agreement package must be owned and cultivated by the potential 'yes' voters.
Fortunately, this is the direction the peace talks are heading towards. In the spirit of the negotiations, with the process moving away from the simple signing of an agreement, the risk of a 'no' vote in the referendum could be overcome by holding a mandate referendum. In his article on openDemocracy, Neophytos Loizides argues that by engaging the public early on in the consultation process, future negotiations effectively gain the legitimacy of the people.
Mandate referenda work by asking the public to endorse the guiding principles of a process rather than having a vote on a final agreement. This transforms the ownership of a particular process to the public at large, thereby blessing the future direction and priorities of the negotiations.
It does not take a political scientist to see that the ongoing talks will hit formidable challenges. The spirit of the negotiations are, however, shifting away from the zero-sum approach that marred previous settlement attempts. With hydrocarbons finally being discussed by both leaders as a peace-catalysing factor, a shared vision for an independent, strong economy is arising. Difficult roadblocks, such as the guarantees issue, can be overcome with innovative arrangements. Furthermore, the international dynamic is also promising, giving the leaders the necessary space and support that they desperately need. With Cypriots beginning to take ownership of the process, a truly workable future is on the horizon.