Last week the Financial Times published a fantastic article about recent progress made in the reunification of Cyprus. The author of the article, Tony Barber, speaks optimistically about the discussions between Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot president of Cyprus, and Mustafa Akinci, leader of the Turkish Cypriots. While Mr. Barber is absolutely correct in his hope for unification of this ethnically divided island, we cannot forget the crucial work done by NGOs in Cyprus that has enabled progress. For nearly 20 years, HasNa has worked tirelessly in Cyprus to unify the divided population. Programs like the Cyprus Friendship Program, which pairs Turkish and Greek Cypriot teens to form friendships, have been critical in breaking the cycle of fear and mistrust between the two groups. The work of NGOs has aided the formal reunification efforts, and the progress made by government officials must not be viewed separately from the progress of NGOs. Rather, HasNa believes the two must be viewed together as an intertwined initiative to bring peace. Together, Cyprus will continue moving forward and a unified, prosperous island can be achieved.
Please consider supporting HasNa and its efforts in Cyprus—donating online is quick and easy at hasna.org/donate
Below is the text of the Financial Times Article titled “Crossing the Divide”.
On the Greek Cypriot side of the barbed-wire fences, walls and watchtowers that make Nicosia the world’s only divided capital stands a museum dedicated to the vision of a city without barricades and a Cyprus reunited in ethnic harmony.
“Here we encourage Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to understand their common cultural heritage,” says Rita Severis, co-founder of the Centre of Visual Arts and Research, which opened in September 2014. “We think of ourselves as a forum for reconciliation and coexistence.”
Such ideals have often fallen on stony ground in Cyprus, the east Mediterranean island which is famous as the birthplace of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty, and no less renowned as the location of one of the world’s most intractable diplomatic disputes. Now, however, after more than half a century in which Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have lived in almost complete separation while nursing bitter historical grievances, a different spirit is in the air.
Over the past eight months, this iciest of frozen conflicts has thawed to the point that some politicians and diplomats close to the negotiations think that 2016 may be the breakthrough year for Cyprus. It is not only EU, US and UN officials who express cautious enthusiasm about the latest attempts to settle the dispute, but local political leaders too.
“This is the most serious effort so far, bearing in mind the progress achieved,” says Ioannis Kasoulides, foreign minister of the Greek Cypriot-controlled, internationally recognised government of Cyprus. “A lot of people ask me, ‘How many months do you need?’ My reply is that there are still certain thorny issues. If they are resolved, we are very close. If not, we are not so close.”
There are no formal deadlines in the talks, conducted between Nicos Anastasiades, the Greek Cypriot president of Cyprus, and Mustafa Akinci, leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriot northern area. But both men want to sustain the momentum built up since they met last May, just two weeks after Mr Akinci was elected. Parliamentary polls are scheduled for May 22 in the Greek Cypriot south, and a no-holds-barred election campaign risks souring the atmosphere if the talks are not completed ahead of that vote. The two leaders, who have already met 20 times, would therefore like to wrap up the negotiations by the end of March.
They have made the most progress on how to share power in a future decentralised Cypriot state, on the nature of its legislative and judicial institutions and on the political equality of the two communities — a particularly sensitive issue in the north where Turkish Cypriots fear being overwhelmed.
There is also a broad, if incomplete understanding on how to tackle property disputes between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who lost homes and land after Turkey’s military invasion of the north of the island in 1974. Other issues, notably territorial exchanges, security guarantees and the withdrawal of Turkish troops, are to be addressed in the final stages of the talks.
A deal would represent a moment of hope in a region beset with ethnic violence, political conflict, religious extremism and social distress in Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Apart from demonstrating that political courage and painstaking diplomacy can bear fruit in apparently unpromising circumstances, it might send a signal, from an island shared between Christianity and Islam since the 16th century, that no conflict need be permanent .
“In the event of a solution, Cyprus would be a model for coexistence between Muslims and Christians,” says Mr Anastasiades.
Among the chief reasons for optimism is that he and Mr Akinci — who built credibility in both communities during a 14-year spell as mayor of the northern sector of Nicosia — are both committed to a deal and have forged a seemingly warm relationship. They were born within 15 months of each other in the 1940s in Limassol, a southern city where, Mr Anastasiades says, “people are open-hearted, open-minded and honest”.
In May they walked together across the UN buffer zone that divides Nicosia’s Old Town. In December they delivered new year’s greetings in a joint television appearance, each leader speaking in Greek and Turkish.
Such events can seem contrived. But they have a role in Cyprus, where any settlement will fail unless concerted efforts are made to bridge the gulf of ignorance, suspicion and misunderstanding that divides the two communities. A profound sense of victimhood affects each side’s attitude to the trade-offs on political status, property and territory that will inevitably form part of any settlement.
Ever since Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot political movements, religious authorities, education systems and media have fostered mistrust via mutually exclusive ethnic nationalism.
There are other, more subtle psychological barriers. For many on both sides of the border, the status quo of a divided but generally peaceful island is preferable to a leap into the unknown that might upset ingrained habits and concepts of national identity. Opinion polls reinforce this point, showing that neither community regards a bicommunal, bizonal federal state — the proposed formula for a settlement since 1977 — as its first preference for a deal. To appreciate why the existing “non-violent non-solution” may resist attempts at a more ambitious peace, it is essential to recall how violent the conflict was.
An outburst of violence in 1963-64 caused Turkish Cypriots to withdraw from the young state’s institutions and to retreat into their own enclaves for safety. Then, in July 1974, came a coup d’état in Nicosia inspired by Greece’s ruling military junta and aimed at the unification of Cyprus with Greece. This prompted Turkey to invade the island, an action followed by the flight and dispersal of entire communities and the de facto establishment of a Turkish Cypriot northern zone, including about 37 per cent of Cyprus’s territory, with the rest divided between a Greek Cypriot south and two British military bases.
Turkey keeps an occupying force in northern Cyprus of 30,000-40,000 troops, making the island one of the world’s most militarised areas. Several tens of thousands of settlers from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland also live in the north.
Yet the risk of war or communal violence on the island is very low — the last outbreak was two decades ago. Border crossings between the two zones were opened in 2003. The UN has maintained a peacekeeping presence since 1964. Younger generations of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are more interested in their job prospects and whether to emigrate to countries such as the UK, than in reunification.
The knowledge that violence is unlikely in a divided Cyprus explains why, for the most part, peace talks since the 1970s have been an elaborate ritual in which each side engages largely to parry accusations of not wanting a deal.
Kofi Annan, a former UN secretary-general, said in 1999 that as a result “the Cyprus problem has become overlain with legalistic abstractions and artificial labels which are more and more difficult to disentangle and which appear increasingly removed from the actual needs of both communities”.
Mr Annan gave his name to what was, until now, the most serious attempt at brokering peace — the Annan Plan, subjected in 2004 to an all-island referendum. Turkish Cypriots backed it by 65 to 35 per cent. Greek Cypriots rejected it by an even greater majority, not least because their then president and the head of the influential Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus advocated a No vote, and because the EU had promised to let the Greek Cypriots join the bloc even if they rejected the Annan Plan.
This time it is different. Mr Anastasiades is actively working for a solution, the Orthodox Church appears favourable to a deal and, after the collapse of their financial system in 2013 during the eurozone crisis, many Greek Cypriots are open to the economic case for reunification. Harris Georgiades, Cyprus’s finance minster, says: “Greek Cypriots stand to benefit from the ability to operate across the whole island, and because of access to the hugely important Turkish market, which is closed now but is right next door to us.”
An independent 2014 study, called “The Cyprus Peace Dividend”, estimated that after a deal all-island gross domestic product would rise to about €45bn by 2035 from €20bn in 2012.
The discovery in 2011 of hydrocarbon reserves in waters south of Cyprus is more of a double-edged sword. Occasional troubles have flared between Turkey and the Greek Cypriots over the latter’s hostility to sharing the gas bonanza with Turkish Cypriots until the island is reunited. Yet now that larger deposits have been found in Egyptian and Israeli areas of the Mediterranean, it may make sense to exploit all reserves under a regional umbrella, calming tensions between Cyprus and Turkey.
The most unpredictable factor in the Cyprus equation is the attitude of Turkey, and in particular Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its president. In 2004 Mr Erdogan, then prime minister, supported the Annan Plan, largely to persuade European governments to open formal talks on Turkey’s bid to join the EU. But times have moved on, and both EU leaders and Mr Erdogan regard Turkish membership as a remote prospect, though each side has an interest in reinvigorating the accession talks.
Erdogan’s casting vote
The most pressing question is whether Mr Erdogan, battling foreign and security policy challenges from Iraq and Syria to Russia, will deem it in Turkey’s interests to secure peace on one flank by agreeing to a Cyprus deal. It would certainly earn him credit with the US and EU. By reducing and eventually eliminating subsidies for the self-proclaimed Turkish Cypriot state it would also ease pressure on Turkey’s budget and free up troops for use elsewhere.
Broadly speaking, Mr Erdogan has adopted a hands-off approach to the talks, but he has said nothing about withdrawing all Turkey’s soldiers from northern Cyprus — a step that, in Greek Cypriot eyes, is a non-negotiable element of any deal. Moreover, some friction is evident between Mr Akinci and Mr Erdogan. Mr Akinci protested last year that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots should have “a relationship like brother and sister, not like a motherland and her child”. It is a reminder that the final word on a deal may rest more with Turkey than with the Turkish Cypriots.
Against the grand sweep of Cyprus’s history, this should come as no surprise. At various moments, including the Ottoman conquest in 1571, the British takeover in 1878 and the linkage of independence in 1960 to Greece, Turkey and the UK as guarantor powers, it has been outsiders who have determined its fate.
Now reunification requires Turkey’s support and the consent of Cyprus’s two communities. The omens appear better than ever. But as David Hannay, a British diplomat who knew the island inside out, once observed, no one ever lost money betting against a Cyprus settlement.