‘Common ground’ elusive as Cyprus rivals head to Geneva

File photo. A UN soldier opens a gate leading in the UN buffer zone, also known as the 'Green Line', in the divided capital city of Nicosia, Cyprus, 24 November 2019. [Katia Christodoulou/EPA/EFE]

Four years after their last peace talks failed, rival Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders meet in Geneva next week to explore elusive “common ground” on the divided Mediterranean island.

“We go to Geneva… steadfastly committed to resuming negotiations for reunifying Cyprus in a bi-zonal bi-communal federation,” said Nikos Christodoulides, foreign minister of the Greek Cypriot-run Republic of Cyprus, an EU member.

That is in line with UN resolutions, international and EU law.

But his counterpart in the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) — recognised only by Ankara — told AFP last month that “there is no common ground”.

“The issue is ‘one island, two states’,” Tahsin Ertugruloğlu said.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey occupied its northern third in response to a coup orchestrated by an Athens-backed junta seeking to annex the island to Greece.

On Saturday (24 April), three days before the start of the talks, Cypriots on both sides of the divide marched through the streets of the capital to demand a resolution, some brandishing placards calling for peace and reunification.

The United Nations is trying to mediate a settlement, almost six decades after it first deployed peacekeepers following intercommunal clashes in December 1963.

The UN mission’s mandate was expanded after the 1974 conflict, and to this day a buffer zone runs across the island, including through Nicosia — making the city the world’s last divided capital.

‘Changed the paradigm’

Pro-reunification Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı was ousted in polls in the north last October by hardliner Ersin Tatar, a protégé of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On Saturday, Tatar urged the international community to “acknowledge the existence” of two states in Cyprus.

“We are going to Geneva with a new vision for Cyprus, one based on the realities on the island,” he said in a statement.

“There are two peoples with distinct national identities, running their own affairs separately.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who will oversee the three-day Geneva talks starting Tuesday (27 April(, wants to “show that he has exhausted all options”, said Kemal Baykalli, a Turkish Cypriot analyst and UniteCyprusNow activist.

Guterres “needs to hear officially that the two sides will not find an agreement within the framework currently proposed”, which is based on reunification through a federation, he said.

Talks held in July 2017 in Crans-Montana in Switzerland on the basis of reunification under the roof of a federal state failed, hitting roadblocks on the withdrawal of tens of thousands of Turkish troops and Ankara’s status as a guarantor power.

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Turkey has also been invited to the talks, along with Greece and Britain, the two other guarantors of the island’s 1960 independence.

Ankara has strongly opposed the European Union’s attendance. The Cyprus Mail daily quoted a source on Sunday saying that the bloc would send only two junior officials, who would not participate directly or even formally observe.

Since the last talks floundered, several factors have added to the traditional sticking points over security guarantees, political equality, territorial adjustments and refugees’ property rights.

The term “decentralised federation” has found its way into Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades’ lexicon, something his critics call a “confederation in disguise” as sought by the Turkish Cypriots.

Giannis Ioannou, a journalist and founder of the think-tank Geopolitical Cyprus, said “Turkey has changed the paradigm,” notably by exploring for gas deposits in waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Ankara has also sparked controversy by reopening Varosha, a once glamorous seaside resort that turned into a ghost town fenced off by Turkey’s military ever since the 1974 invasion.

‘Small ship, big game’

The “Cyprus problem is now part of a broader geopolitical context” of “future relations between the EU and Turkey”, and on gas in the eastern Mediterranean, said Ioannou.

Cyprus remains “a small ship in the game of the Big Powers”, at the expense of Cypriots on both sides of the divide, said Baykalli.

“Turkey could use the discussions to win certain issues… in exchange for compromises in Cyprus,” he said.

Or it could bolster its stand within the framework of Ankara’s “blue homeland” ambitions, aimed at expanding Turkish influence.

In Cyprus, there is little optimism.

The Covid-19 crisis has brought the TRNC’s heavily Turkey-dependent economy to its knees, making it difficult to challenge the “motherland”.

In the Republic of Cyprus, corruption scandals such as the “Golden Passport” fiasco have reinforced distrust of the political class, which also stands accused of mismanaging the pandemic.

The goal in Geneva is “to open a breach… It will be an intermediate step, the parties could agree to continue discussions”, said Ioannou.

Baykalli said it would also “definitively turn the page on Crans-Montana” and could create a “new framework”.

He expressed hope at least for progress on health cooperation and a reopening of north-south crossing points, closed for the past year due to the pandemic.

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