On 11 February 2014, Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu – respectively the leaders of Cyprus’s Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities – restarted UN-facilitated talks on finding a Cyprus settlement.
What’s new in these talks?
The talks’ goal, a bizonal, bicommunal federation for Cyprus, is not new; the UN-facilitated parameters are much the same; and many of those involved in the talks are veteran negotiators. The process now started is in large part an attempt to revive the round of talks held between 2008-12, itself the fifth major round over nearly four decades.
There are, however, three new aspects that have excited some diplomatic hopes. The first is that the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, who was elected Republic of Cyprus president a year ago, has made clear that he is seeking a light federal structure for any new republic, with constituent entities controlling their own borders and citizens having no contact with the central federation government in their daily lives. This is a more realistic approach than that of his predecessors and is more likely to lead to a settlement with the Turkish Cypriots, who are keen to keep as much power in their constituent entity as possible.
The second novelty is that the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot chief negotiators will soon visit Ankara and Athens respectively. Especially on the Greek Cypriot-Ankara axis, a lack of trust, and an inability to see that the other side really does want a deal, has long held back progress. Crisis Group has pushed strongly for the opening of this channel of communication since our briefing Cyprus: Six Steps Towards a Settlement.
The third new aspect is that the United States has taken a leading role in pressing for this round of talks to start. U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus John Koenig played an unusually prominent role in passing messages; agreement by both sides on a joint declaration to restart talks was achieved after a rare visit to the island by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland; and Vice-President Joseph Biden telephoned President Anastasiades to congratulate him on the new round of talks.
What’s behind the new American interest?
One reason is the increasingly active world of eastern Mediterranean energy politics. An American company, Noble Energy, is the main operator working to extract natural gas from deposits discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the past decade. The most commercial deposits have so far been found in Israeli waters, but there is significant potential in offshore Cyprus too (see our report Aphrodite’s Gift: Can Cypriot Gas Power a New Dialogue?).
The cheapest, quickest, most secure and most profitable way to get this gas to market is probably by pipeline to Turkey. But such a pipeline would have to pass through Cyprus’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and a senior Greek Cypriot official tells us there is no chance Nicosia will allow that to happen before a Cyprus settlement is arrived at or, at the least, before there is a very good prospect of one. And if a Cyprus settlement doesn’t materialize quickly, energy experts say the Israeli developers will choose a more expensive, but more certain, alternative export method, such as a floating terminal that freezes and liquefies the gas to load into tankers.
The U.S. is interested in supporting Israel as its ally appears to seek an insurance policy against Middle East turbulence by building a stronger line to the European Union through closer ties with Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. A gas pipeline linking three or four of these countries would be one way of reinforcing such a strategy. Israeli ideas are summarized in our blog here. U.S. mediation since March 2013 is also now close to resolving the crisis of confidence between Israel and Turkey. The trouble started when Ankara objected to an Israeli assault on Gaza in early 2009 that killed 1,430 Palestinians; tensions peaked when Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American on the ship Mavi Marmara as it tried to bring aid to Gaza as part of an international fleet in 2010.
Why did this round of Cyprus talks take so long to get going?
The talks were first expected in October, but were held up when the Greek Cypriot side said it wanted a strong joint communiqué from a first meeting of leaders that would set the goals of the talks.
Specifically, the Greek Cypriots wanted a firm statement on a single sovereignty and a single international identity for the future federal state. Although Turkish Cypriots had already agreed to this in previous talks, in the event of a firm statement on single sovereignty they then wanted to add their own language underlining demands for political equality and strong residual powers held by the constituent states.
These talks about talks at last resulted in the joint communiqué that launched the current round. The communiqué reflects the language of both sides but breaks little new ground. Indeed, it is actually a step backwards in that it makes no reference to the 75 pages of convergences distributed to the two sides by UN facilitators after the 2008-12 round of talks (here), nor to the long-negotiated Annan Plan of 2004, which was the closest the two sides came to reunification but is rejected by Greek Cypriot politicians.
Is there a chance of new confidence-building measures?
The chances of this seem slim, although a striking confidence-building measure could radically change the atmosphere. Both the Cypriot leaders’ communiqué and a statement welcoming the new talks by EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso (here) stressed the desire to see something of this sort.
For now such calls constitute mainly an attempt to excite public interest. In mid-2013, Greek Cypriots refloated an old proposal that Turkey hand back the ghost resort of Varosha to its original owners, most of whom are Greek Cypriots. There were hints that, in return, they might free up some of Turkey’s EU negotiation chapters, allow Turkish Cypriots the right to send exports-tax free directly to the EU, and partially legalize the Turkish Cypriot airport (known as Ercan or Timbiou). Turkish officials viewed the offer as inadequate and nothing materialized. Historically, negotiations on confidence-building measures have almost always got knotted up in the larger Cyprus problem and failed to occur. The few that work are mostly done unilaterally and tend to normalize the situation on the ground.
The most obvious confidence-building measure would be for Turkey simply to extend its EU Customs Union to the Greek Cypriots, a measure that was already fully negotiated back in 2005 and is known as the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Agreement. It has been blocked for political reasons in Ankara, partly as a sanction against Greek Cypriots but also because Turkey lost interest in actively pursuing EU membership.
Ratifying the Additional Protocol would be a leap forward on several tracks: it would normalize trade with Greek Cypriots, helping their economy, which was shattered in 2013 by a financial-sector meltdown, and changing their perceptions of Turkey; it would clear the principal obstacle to opening 14 of Turkey’s 35 negotiating chapters with the EU; it would almost certainly result in Turkish Cypriots’ winning tax-free “direct trade” with the EU; and it would greatly improve the atmosphere of the Cyprus settlement talks.
Has Turkey shown much sign of wanting to do this?
Not yet. But, after years of neglecting Cyprus and its EU accession process, Turkey has now announced that 2014 will be a ‘Year of Europe’. In January, Prime Minister Erdoğan visited Brussels for the first time in five years and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, played a crucial part in pushing forward the beginning of this new round of Cyprus talks. Such moves may partly be to shore up domestic popularity after a bumpy year, but they are steps in a positive direction.
Turkey should also undertake sustained outreach to Greek Cypriots. This was successful in 2010, when Prime Minister Erdoğan did invite to Istanbul a group of former Greek Cypriot officials, journalists and civil society activists. At the meeting, they were wowed by his repeated assurances that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. This visibly began to neutralize one of the most important drivers of the Cyprus dispute: institutionalized Greek Cypriot fear of the intentions of their far bigger and more powerful neighbour.
How high are hopes that this round of talks will reach a breakthrough?
Cynicism is rife among ordinary Cypriots. This is partly due to the four-month delay in starting the talks over what were widely seen as pedantic details, partly due to the disappointment of high hopes ahead of the 2008-12 talks, and partly due to the failure of the 2004 Annan Plan, which was accepted by 65 per cent of Turkish Cypriots and most of the international community but rejected by 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots. Most people think it will take a miracle of some kind to reach a settlement anytime soon.
What’s the price of failure?
While all sides would benefit from a settlement – any settlement – failure to make the politically painful compromises necessary to reach an outcome quickly will deepen the de facto partition of the island. Indeed, the level of disconnection between the two communities already looks almost irreversible. Lack of a settlement will leave Greek Cypriots isolated and poorer on the far eastern tip of the EU; Turkish Cypriots will remain stranded with little way to escape integration into Turkey; and NATO-member Turkey will be burdened with, at best, a frozen EU accession process and the steady drain on its resources of propping up the Turkish-Cypriot administration. Myriad regional benefits will also likely stay remote: the EU and NATO will remain unable to share assets; eastern Mediterranean natural gas will remain cut off from its most lucrative market in Turkey; and Greece and Turkey will be unlikely to solve their expensive maritime-boundaries dispute in the Aegean.
The Mediterranean island of Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960, but the constitutional arrangements between Greek Cypriots (then 80 per cent of the population) and Turkish Cypriots (18 per cent) broke down in 1963-64. Turkish Cypriots left the government and hundreds of people were killed in inter-communal violence. UN peacekeepers were deployed, but many Turkish Cypriots remained in ghettos. In 1974, a coup inspired by the military regime in Athens sought to annex Cyprus to Greece. Turkey, citing a legal right as a guarantor power, invaded the country and reversed the coup. But some 30,000 Turkish troops remained, occupying the northern 37 per cent of the island. The Greek Cypriots kept control of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004, while the Turkish Cypriots’ self-declared “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” is only recognized by Turkey. Despite the major international stresses caused by the Cyprus problem, nobody has been killed in the frozen conflict since 1996, and only 10 people since 1974. Censuses on both sides show about 1.1 million people now live on the island, 840,000 in the Greek Cypriot south and 265,000 civilians in the Turkish Cypriot north.