After nearly half a century of division and countless efforts made at peace talks, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is revisiting hope for a unified Cyprus.
On Monday, November 25th, Guterres met with Mustafa Akıncı and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades at an informal dinner in Berlin nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – an irony of sorts, as Cyprus stands with the only remaining divided capital in the world. In a statement released after the meeting, Guterres shared that “Both leaders welcomed my engagement and reaffirmed to me their commitment and determination to achieve a settlement based on a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality as set out in the relevant Security Council resolutions.”
These “focused and frank” discussions are believed to have been well-received by both Akinci and Anastasiades; the latter referred to them as a “first positive step”, while the former has said that this will put a “derailed peace process back on track”. It is anticipated that these conversations will pave the way for more concrete talks in 2020 between the two presidents and the country’s guarantor powers: Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom.
A Brief History
In 1974, following years of violence, a Greek military coup intending to marry the island with Greece’s mainland led to a Turkish invasion that split the country along ethnic lines. The northern partition is governed by the Turkish Cypriot government and only legitimized by Turkey’s capital, Ankara. Meanwhile, the southern partition remains under rule of an internationally-recognised government led by Greek Cypriots.
Back in 2017, the United Nations attempted to bring Cyprus’ leaders together in Switzerland to seal a deal on reunification. Disagreements regarding power-sharing and security guarantees for the northern Turkish region led to a breakdown in discussions.
In September of 2019, Special Envoy Jane Holl Lute traveled to the island with the intention of resuming talks between the parties, but ultimately left empty-handed after six rounds of negotiations. Then, several weeks later at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, President Anastasiades stated his desire for reunification of the divided country in a speech. On September 25th, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and shared a message on behalf of Anastasiades that Cyprus was prepared to begin new negotiations.
Despite an increasingly positive outlook, leaders still appear to be unwilling to back down on certain sticking points that made peace impossible in the past. Top among these is Turkey’s drilling for natural gas off the Cypriot coast – an issue that threatens to destabilise the entire region. Anastasiades has called this “by far the most serious violation of Cyprus’ sovereign rights in a very long time” and an “unprecedented escalation of illegal action”. Meanwhile, Erdogan has responded that “[t]he legitimate rights of Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus over the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are not debatable”.
Co-governance is another important matter for both sides – Turkey considers this essential, as it will most likely allow them some decision-making power in a predominantly Greek-led federal government. But Anastasiades counters, believing that this would make Cyprus an extension of Turkey’s governing policies.
“It’s another way of controlling the whole of the new state of affairs or the entire state, which will essentially be transformed into a protectorate…You can’t accept such provisions that would turn a state into the puppet of another state, but also become the only example in the world where potentially a peace deal would collapse the next day”, said the Greek-Cypriot President.
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Why Unify Cyprus?
One reason for the sense of urgency behind these discussions perhaps lies in the Turkish Cypriot election this upcoming April. Greek Cypriot Akel party chairman Andros Kyprianou has said, “We do not know who will lead the Turkish Cypriot community come April, and one can understand that this [outcome] could pose further difficulties to efforts to solve the Cyprus issue.” So far, Akıncı and his Communal Liberation Party (TKP) are ahead in the polls, and a main running point in his campaign has been that he will succeed where others hadn’t in these peace talks. Still, concern remains as new leadership could mean a change in policy.
Unifying Cyprus would also alleviate some of the tension between Turkey and Europe, which Akinci has said could escalate to an “unwanted level if peace talks fail”. Erdogan has continued to provoke Cyprus and by extension the EU, through his exploration of hydrocarbon resources, threatening consequences to “those who refuse to learn their lesson”. He has also told reporters that “No project can be realised if Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are not involved…We will continue to defend the rights of Turkish Cypriots with the same dedication.” Erdogan has called the “irreconcilable attitudes of the Greek Cypriots” the root of the region’s problems.
Recent clashes with Greece have also strengthened Erdogan’s resolve to stay involved. In a meeting with Anastasiades in September, Greece’s Prime Minister said, “Turkey’s illegal behavior off the Republic of Cyprus continues to provoke”, indicating that Turkey’s “confrontational rhetoric also demonstrates its international isolation”. Mitsotakis also said that Greece “always stands by the side of Cyprus in its efforts for reunification and to have its rights respected”. This statement came only a few days before Turkish fighter jets entered Greek airspace throughout the Aegean.
Atlantic Council Executive Vice President Damon Wilson wrote that reunification would transform the country into “an anchor of stability”. Security throughout this region of the Eastern Mediterranean is far from strong, and goes beyond Turkish and Greek disputes; it has become an area of concern for issues including organised crime, human trafficking, and terrorism, as well as the influx of refugees. Because of limited security cooperation, the country is also vulnerable to outside threats; in 2014 an oil tanker was hijacked by Libyan rebels, and the US intervened to support the Cypriot authorities who were scrambling to respond.
Moreover, there would be enormous benefits for Turkish Cypriots, including participation in EU institutions and eventual possible involvement in the eurozone. They would serve as a link between the EU and Turkey, and would give Turkish Cypriots EU residency.
Though the urgency is certainly there, an important question remains: how likely is reunification when the issues remain the same? And, who will bend? As Cyprus’ citizens and countries around the world watch on, it seems only time will tell what awaits the island nation.