Unsurprisingly, informal peace talks “to determine whether common ground exists for [a] lasting solution to the Cyprus problem” fell short earlier this month. The UN-led 5+1 conference, attended by the leaders of Northern and Southern Cyprus as well as the foreign ministers of the “guarantors” of Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, resulted in nothing more than a loose commitment to reconvene in two to three months. While the inability of the parties to reach a consensus on the decades-old frozen conflict was largely expected, the fact that this diplomatic exercise occurred at all provides a glimmer of hope that the peace process will persist. “[T]ensions on the ground have progressively increased” since the collapse of the last round of talks in Crans-Montana in 2017, and since 2020 alone the obstacles to achieving a resolution have continued to mount: Northern Cypriot perspectives on the parameters of peace have shifted, sensitivities have been disregarded, and geopolitical rivalries have complicated divisions. Nonetheless, Cypriots on both sides of the island continued to organize throughout the year, showing that grassroots activism endures and points those willing to listen in the direction of the ever elusive “common ground”.
A Two-State Solution in Cyprus?
The meetings were dogged with low expectations from the outset, as the sought-after room for consensus between the north and south narrowed in step with Turkey and Northern Cyprus’s proposal for a two-state solution. For newly elected President of Northern Cyprus Ersin Tatar, efforts to achieve a reunified bizonal, bicommunal federation (BBF) have failed time and time again, therefore necessitating the need for a “new story” that emphasizes two sovereign states existing on an equal international footing. Indeed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for the parties to “be creative” in this month’s talks, but in the end, outright abandonment of the goal of reunification remained unacceptable for Greece, Southern Cyprus, and the Secretary-General himself. Up until this point, the BBF had been endorsed as the final objective for all involved parties and constituted the foundations for past peace talks. With this in mind, it became difficult – if not impossible – to bridge the gap between a Southern Cyprus that preferred to pick up where they left off in Crans-Montana and a Northern Cyprus that wanted to start from scratch.
While the two-state solution is being packaged as something “new”, it could be argued that the island of Cyprus has been operating in this manner since its partition. However, considering Northern Cyprus’s lack of international recognition and its economic and travel embargo, the extent to which it is truly independent of Turkey is questionable; it uses the Turkish Lira as its currency, hosts thousands of Turkish soldiers, and even imports most of its fresh water from the Turkish mainland via pipeline. Obviously, this reliance grants Turkey a high degree of influence in Northern Cypriot affairs, especially in the recent presidential election that brought Tatar to power.
Opening old Wounds
Within this context, Turkey and Northern Cyprus’s decision to open the beachfront of the abandoned city of Varosha in the runup to Northern Cyprus’s presidential elections has been seen as a political calculation intended to rally Turkish nationalist voters in the north of the island. Reopening deep wounds and inciting feelings of trauma, the decision was met with international condemnation and led to demonstrations on both sides of the island. While Greek Cypriots voiced outrage at the unilateral decision to reopen the area, Turkish Cypriots focused much of their ire on what they saw as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s interference in the political affairs of the island.
Over the past year, hopes that the outbreak of COVID-19 could present an opportunity to strengthen bicommunal cooperation and coordination remained unfulfilled. Exchange and contact between the two communities suffered a major blow when border crossings between the north and south were closed in March 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Once again, protests ensued on both sides of the island. While the crossings are now gradually reopening, different restrictions are still being applied by both sides, causing some to question when and how a full “normalization” of the crossings will proceed. Furthermore, the ease by which the measures were enacted has been regarded as evidence of the fragility and unsustainability of the status quo. The crossings, opened in 2003, are invaluable in terms of facilitating intercommunal contact, trust and confidence-building, and commerce, and their closures and restrictions have placed a heavy burden on the lives of “workers, families, students, small shop owners, freelance artists, and couples.” Taken in combination with the inequitable vaccine rollout in the north and south of the island, COVID-19 has come to serve as a prime example of the diminishing scope of cooperation between the two sides, as well as the shared sense of discontent with the reemergence of old divisions.
Regional Rivalries Complicating, not Constituting, Conflict
The events of the last year have not occurred in a vacuum. Efforts at Cypriot reunification – or further division – are deeply intertwined with the interests of regional actors, particularly the EU, Greece, and Turkey. Cyprus once again found itself at the center of rising tensions between these parties in the context of disagreements surrounding offshore hydrocarbon exploration and maritime delimitation. The crystallization of Eastern Mediterranean energy cooperatives that exclude Turkey and Northern Cyprus only exacerbate hostilities on and off the island. However, for researcher and analyst Zenonas Tziarras, “energy is complicating developments but not by itself driving them”. As for the EU, its role as an “honest broker” diminished with Cyprus’s accession, but many still claim that it can exercise its financial leverage to illicit a more conciliatory approach from Turkey.
The failure of this month’s talks was largely expected. “Common ground” between the interested parties is sparse, and 2020 has seen the divide deepen. But on the island itself, one need look no further than the popular demonstrations against the unilateral decisions of political leaders to see that the journey for a resolution is far from over. So long as division in Cyprus persists, groups on both sides of the island will continue to mobilize and voice their demands for peace and reconciliation. In order for future talks to have any chance of success, these voices need to be heard. External actors have long occupied the driver’s seat in structured negotiations, but in the end a resolution to the conflict must come from and answer to Cypriots themselves.
This article was written by HasNa Program Associate John Dykes