Settlement Talks Perking in Cyprus (4/11)     Print Email
Saturday, 19 April 2014

By Hannah Morris, Editorial Assistant

Serious settlement talks are underway to finally resolve one of Europe’s most intractable disputes: the Cyprus Problem.

Ambassador Andreas Mavroyiannis, lead negotiator for the Greek-Cypriot community, came to Washington last week with what he called “a new story to tell,” one that just may result in a united Cyprus as a bi-zonal bi-communal federal state. The cautious optimism that permeated Mavroyiannis’ demeanor stems from his perception that after forty years of false starts, all the relevant parties – Cyprus, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), Turkey, the US, Greece, and the EU appear to be ready to search again for a settlement that has proven so elusive over the years.

The direct talks, which began mid-February, aim to take advantage of both a domestic and geopolitical “window of opportunity.” As President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, expressed in late March, the ongoing talks provide a “genuine opportunity to solve the Cyprus issue for good.”[1]

Full autonomy for an island that has been conquered or controlled by numerous great powers including Alexander the Great, the Ottoman Turks, and the British Empire would be a signal event indeed. The current dispute dates back to 1974, when, a failed Greek Cypriot coup (in efforts to unite with Greece) prompted a Turkish invasion to protect the island’s sizeable Turkish Cypriot minority community. Today, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots maintain claims to large parts of the island. Yet, while Greeks Cypriots of the Republic of Cyprus enjoy UN and the EU membership, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) on the other side of the island’s “Green Line,” remains internationally unrecognized, subsisting on economic support from Turkey and guarded by some 40,000 Turkish soldiers. The decades-long partition has fostered antagonism between the two “mother countries,” Greece and Turkey, and caused headaches for the U.S., UN, and NATO, where Turkey has been a key strategic pillar.

What has changed that makes settlement now even imaginable? Greek Cypriots experienced a painful 2013. Its distressed banking system required an EU bailout to the tune of 10 billion euro in March 2013. Since then, Cyprus has suffered under strict austerity measures, and unemployment currently hovers at 16.7%.[2] These tough economic realities have encouraged Greek Cypriots to see the benefits of a settlement, and they may be more flexible compared to earlier negotiations attempts. There is an increased political consensus that only a united Cyprus can function at its fullest potential as a state attractive to foreign direct investment and as an autonomous actor able to rightfully negotiate access to the recently discovered gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, the EU and U.S. would dearly love to bring a deal to fruition and decrease friction between NATO allies, Greece and Turkey. The U.S. also hopes that a united energy-rich Cyprus could bring together its other embittered allies, Israel and Turkey, while EU, hopes to resolve a major conflict area within its boundaries. More importantly, a united Cyprus could ultimately provide Europe with an additional, stable stream of energy – one without a Putin on the spigot. And Cyprus, then, could serve as Europe’s bridge to the Middle East as well.

Thus, the newfound energy source – 120 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves to the island’s East– has proven to be a critical component behind the negotiations. With the development of hydrocarbons, Cyprus could help provide energy security to the EU, whether through pipelines or the building of liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants on the island.

For Turkey, the incentives are less clear, although supporting the Turkish part of the island for all these years has been a long burden, and international recognition of the Turkish state seems highly unlikely. Turkey appears to have changed its previously aggressive approach and indicated its willingness to be a partner in negotiations (irrespective of its domestic politics). Prime Minister Recep Erdogan is meanwhile investing in long-term projects to protect the Turkish Cypriot community and accrue leverage as negotiations proceed. In December 2013, Turkey began the construction of a $484 million water pipeline to the water-strapped KKTC. A subsea power transmission line to the island is also planned.[3]

Moreover, Erdogan has conveyed that he will use military and economic intimidation to forestall drilling in disputed waters prior to a settlement.

Not withstanding a somewhat ambiguous Turkish posture, Turkish and Cypriot negotiators are busy at work, flying back and forth to the “mother city” capitals, and those of the U.S. and EU. Turkish Cypriot leader, Dervis Eroglu, says he hopes to have a deal and the required popular referenda in place by 2015, and Turkish Cypriot negotiators are pushing for a timetable to make it happen.[4] The current discussions are focusing on the return of the Turkish-controlled “ghost town,” Varosha in the Famagusta area, as a game-changing confidence-building measure needed to move forward. Such an agreement, however, would likely require Greek Cypriots to accept some loss of property in the territory occupied by Turks for the past 40 years.

Ambassador Mavroyiannis sounded most optimistic when discussing the lessons Cyprus learned following the failed 2004 Annan Plan and referendum, which was rejected by Greek Cypriots. This time, he noted, the Cyprus government has made purposeful efforts to build public support by working with NGOs and civil society to build conditions for peace.

Large gaps remain to be overcome between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators. This week, a spat emerged between the two sides over whether the United Nations Document on Convergences (listing points of convergence from previous negotiations) should be used as a basis for talks. [5] Finger pointing has ensued regarding the starting negotiation positions. Yet, negotiators are meeting next week, and U.S. and EU diplomats are doing everything possible to facilitate discussions on the confidence building measures necessary to move forward.