Will Cyprus be reunified in 2016?

The Green Line in Nicosia, Cyprus. [Peter Collins/Flickr]

The Mediterranean island, divided since 1974, has hopes of reunification. The Greeks and the Turks re-opened talks in the spring of 2015, but an end to the dispute is still out of reach. Our partner La Tribune reports.

Will 2016 see the end of one of Europe’s longest-running conflicts? Last spring, the authorities sharing power in Cyprus opened the first real negotiations on reunification since 2004.

The official objective stated on both sides of the “Green Line” that cuts the island in two is to finalise an agreement in March, which will be put to a referendum in May. But this objective may be rather ambitious.

The 1974 invasion

After gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, the island was populated by a Greek majority, with a Turkish minority of about 15%. At the time, the two populations were present across the island, but cohabitation proved difficult.

In July 1974, the ailing military regime in Athens needed a victory to boost the government’s prestige, so it launched a coup d’état to unify Cyprus with Greece. But Ankara, which saw itself as the guardian of the Turkish Cypriot minority, sent in its military to stop the unification.

After a second offensive in August that year, the Turkish army occupied a third of the island and Greece’s military government collapsed. A ceasefire line, guaranteed by a buffer zone and policed by peace-keepers, has divided the country and its capital in two ever since.

The division of the island

More than 41 years later, this line still exists. In the north, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC, or KKYC in Turkish) declared independence in 1980, but was recognised only by Turkey. In the south, the Republic of Cyprus is universally recognised, except by Turkey, and became a member of the European Union in 2004 and the eurozone in 2008.

The Green Line is today open at seven points, including two in the capital Nicosia. The line can easily by crossed with a passport, and many Turkish Cypriots do so daily to work in the south. Even after the severe economic crisis of 2011 and the 2013 bailout, conditions in the Republic of Cyprus remain better than in the TRNC, where the economy depends largely on financial transfers from Ankara.

A new president in the north

On 26 April 2015, Mustafa Ak?nc? was elected president of the north, on a promise of distancing the TRNC from Ankara and developing ties with the south. The President of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, is also very open to dialogue. And with good reason.

His government has run a very severe programme of austerity measures since 2013, and he sees the north-south dialogue as a chance to save his position and return some momentum to the island’s economy.

According to several studies, reunification would bring a much-needed economic boost. One change would be to “pacify” the gas exploration fields around Cyprus, which are currently contested by Turkey. But there would also be others: apart from the boost to the Turkish region’s economy, the north has high potential as a tourist destination.

Re-opening discussions

There has been no shortage of symbolic gestures on both sides of the Green Line. Since May, the two presidents have seemed inseparable, holding joint conferences and trips. They have also shown optimism in their objective of reaching an agreement by March.

But in reality, this thawing of relations between the island’s two authorities will do little to ease the reunification process. The two presidents had accepted the opening of two new crossing points which have not yet been opened. They had also agreed on the establishment of shared telephone and electricity networks, both of which have yet to get off the mark.

And no common ground has been found for the moment on the subjects that really divide the Greeks and the Turks in Cyprus. This will be the serious challenge to overcome early this year.

The question of expropriations

The first major stumbling block for the reunification plans is the question of refugees’ property.

In 1974 the island was ethnically cleansed. The Turks from the south went north and the Greeks from the north went south. The refugees were forced to abandon their property. In this exchange, the more numerous Greeks obviously had the most to lose. Peaceful co-existence will not be possible until this highly sensitive issue is addressed.

But negotiations on this question have made little progress. Mustafa Ak?nc? believes restitutions should be limited, to avoid expulsions. Instead he would provide monetary compensation, which he estimates at between €25 and €30 billion. This is a considerable sum considering the GDP of the Republic of Cyprus is €17 billion.

But where would this money come from? Mustafa Ak?nc? has said he would call on “international solidarity”. But quite apart from the fact that this is unacceptable in the eyes of many Greek Cypriots, it would also be hard to finalise by March.

The problem of settlers

The second point of friction is the question of Turkish settlers. Over the last 41 years, many “continental” Turks have been encouraged to settle in Northern Cyprus. Mustafa Ak?nc? would like them to become naturalised Cypriot citizens. But the Greek Cypriots are unsure.

The authorities in the north hope to see the establishment of a “four to one” rule in the future organisation of the island. In other words, the Turks would officially represent 20% of the total population. But the Greek Cypriots remain suspicious, even if they accept the principle.

The institutions of a unified Cyprus

The third point to settle is the future organisation of the island. A federal state with two autonomous regions, after the Belgian model, is on the cards. But questions over how resources and powers should be shared between these entities are yet to be answered.

Where would the borders fall? The Greek Cypriots would like the “northern” town of Morphou to be returned to them, something that Mustafa Ak?nc? refuses.

The question of the seaside ghost town of Varosha is also very sensitive. This resort was built in the early 1970s but was abandoned in 1974, and has been a point of contention between the Greeks and Turks ever since.

The problem of guarantees

The final, and very sensitive point, concerns guarantees. Mustafa Ak?nc? must be aware that part of his population is very attached to its links to Ankara. So he hopes that any agreement will be guaranteed by Turkey. But this demand has raised more than a few eyebrows in the Republic of Cyprus; Nicosia has distanced itself from Athens, and no longer looks to its Hellenic cousins for protection.

Using international guarantors would be tantamount to returning to the pre-1974 situation. Yet it was in the name of such a guarantee that the Turkish military intervened in 1974. The Greek Cypriot government would prefer a broader guarantee, from the EU or the UN, for example.

So while there is plenty of good will on both sides, which is in itself a victory in this affair, none of the deep-seated problems have been settled. The key to the Cypriot problem lies in Ankara: only Turkey can unblock several of the negotiation chapters to support the process and Mustafa Ak?nc?’s concessions.

What does Ankara want?

Turkey has just been through a year of electoral upheaval. The party of President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the AKP, won an absolute majority on 1 November 2015. So the government no longer needs to employ its nationalist line on Cyprus, and has instead focussed on the state of semi-war that reigns in certain areas of Kurdistan.

The migration crisis provoked a radical change in the position of Angela Merkel, who had several chapters of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations re-opened as an incentive for the country to stem the flow of refugees. But this process will not progress as long as the stalemate over Cyprus persists. The Republic of Cyprus will veto the accession of any country that does not recognise it, so Ankara’s chances could be improved by being more flexible on the issue.

But the situation is far from simple. The AKP government is ambivalent towards the EU, which it presents as either a “Christian club” or an “objective” according to the needs of domestic politics. But the migration crisis has provided a powerful lever to increase the pressure on the EU.

After the EU-Turkey migration summit, the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto?lu announced that his country would not recognise the Cypriot government, and that he would not change his mind on this point. In other words, Ankara appears to be content with the “symbolic” re-opening of accession negotiations.

Elections in the south

There is one last obstacle to the process of re-unification: the Cypriots themselves. Elections are planned for May 2016, and some parties have decided to refuse the negotiations and concessions made to a northern power they deem illegal. Building a consensus will be difficult for President Nicos Anastasiades, whose economic policy has caused some serious rifts in the electorate. If his party loses its relative majority, the whole process could be called into question.

So while Cyprus does have a chance to bring an end to 41 years of division in 2016, there is still everything to play for.


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