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Cyprus: walk, don’t run

James Ker-Lindsay
22 February 2008

The defeat of Tassos Papadopoulos in the first round of the Cypriot presidential elections on 17 February 2008 came as a complete shock. Almost every poll - and there had been many - had suggested that, if not the lead candidate, the incumbent president was a certainty for the expected run-off vote on 24 February. But it was not to be. Instead, the second round will be fought between Dimitris Christofias, the leader of the Cypriot Communist Party (Akel), and Ioannis Kasoulides, an MEP and former foreign minister, who is supported by Disy, the main rightwing party. Importantly, both are seen as moderates on the issue of the political division of the island.

It is had to underplay the significance of the decision to oust Papadopoulos. When the Greek Cypriots resoundingly rejected the United Nations reunification proposals (the Annan plan) in the April 2004 referendum, a rejection led by Papadopoulos, many observers believed that they had turned their back on the very principle of a federal settlement. However, this result has shown that this is not the case. The decision to oust Papadopoulos in favour of candidates who have clearly restated their commitment to a federation appears to show that most people were instead concerned about the details of the plan on offer, rather than its underlying philosophy. In this sense, the result will have gone a long way to restoring international confidence in the Greek Cypriots, and their real desire to reach a settlement - on realistic terms.

James Ker-Lindsay is senior research fellow in European and international studies at Kingston University. Among his books is EU Accession and UN Peacemaking in Cyprus (Palgrave, 2005)The natural extension of this is to assume that this will open the way for an immediate resumption of peace talks between the two sides. While it would certainly be good to see the Greek and Turkish Cypriots re-engage in discussions as soon as possible, the international community must be careful not to be seen to put too much pressure on the new leader if he doesn't make an immediate dash for the negotiating table. For domestic reasons, the next president may have to act with a certain degree of caution. If he appears to be rushed into a settlement, and have simply accepted whatever was put on the table, it could well backfire. Many Greek Cypriots will want to be sure that their leader, while supporting a federation, will also be defending their interests. Quite apart from being seen to conduct proper negotiations, he has to be able to show that he is controlling the pace of the process.

As well as showing the international community that he is serious about a settlement, the new president will also have to build up support amongst Greek Cypriots. This will be tougher than many outside observers perhaps realise. While the majority of Greek Cypriots obviously do still favour a federation, many of their deep-seated concerns from 2004 remain. Many people will want to be sure that questions relating to security, property, refugees, settlers, the economy and the constitution are dealt with properly. In any new peace process, steps will have to be taken to address their deep-rooted and understandable worries.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Cyprus:

Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection" (22 April 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Cyprus's risky stalemate" (28 August 2007)

Costa Carras, "Cyprus in the world: beyond conflict" (5 February 2008)Likewise, efforts will have to be taken to win over the more entrenched doubters and the nationalists. Although the majority of voters in Cyprus came out in support of the two moderate candidates, Papadopoulos still received almost a third of the vote. As a result, his party has already leveraged this by supporting Christofias in the second round in return for cabinet seats, which may in turn limit the latter's room to manoeuvre should he win. But even if Kasoulides should take the presidency, he will face a substantial bloc of potential spoilers who need to be won over. Again, forcing a new leader back to the table too quickly is unlikely to ease their fears that the Greek Cypriots are being "stitched-up" once again by outside powers.

A pragmatic tide

Although there are good reasons for taking a rather cautious approach towards the resumption of negotiations, the bigger picture suggests there are other reasons to be hopeful that a settlement might now be within sight. While the rejection of the UN plan in 2004 was undoubtedly seen as a serious blow at the time, it may in fact have made reaching a settlement now that much easier. Many voters then were lured into the "no" camp by the promise that European Union membership would lead to a better solution. This has not happened. In the four years since the referendum and the island's EU accession, President Papadopoulos failed to deliver anything on the Cyprus problem. Rather than bring about a better solution, his policies have managed to alienate the Turkish Cypriots and the international community alike, irritate the European Union, hand Turkey a PR coup, and make the eventual partition of the island that much more likely. Many voters may still not be entirely enamoured with the thought of a federation, but it would appear as though many now accept that it is the only feasible option. In this sense, Dimitris Christofias's much derided decision to call for a "no' vote in 2004 in order to cement a "yes" later on might yet be vindicated.

At the same time, there is a growing recognition that international patience is now running out, and that this could have grave consequences. Although reports in the local press suggesting that the UN is seriously reconsidering its presence on the island have been denied, after forty-four years keeping the peace, and countless peacemaking initiatives, many observers increasingly believe that the time has come to pull out and leave the island to its own devices. If talks take place and fail again, it may be the case that moves will be made to recognise some form of partition - with or without UN sanction. As the declaration of Kosovo's independence (also on 17 February) has shown, there is now a greater willingness by some countries in the west to press for pragmatic solutions in cases where Security Council vetoes prevent strictly legal ones from emerging. This has not been lost on the Greek Cypriots.

Whoever wins on Sunday, the feeling is that the path is now clear for another, perhaps last, push for reunification. However, while there are certainly grounds for optimism, it will not be an easy process. The past forty years offer many examples of Cyprus's ability to confound the best efforts of many of the world's leading diplomats. If the international community is really serious about trying to achieve a settlement now, it must accept that process matters as much as substance. While it is to be hoped that the sides will agree to resume negotiations in the near future, the temptation to press the communities too hard, too fast for a resumption of talks must be resisted. The will is there. But it must be nurtured and not forced.

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