Prospects For A Solution In Cyprus

July 30, 2003

Prospects For A Solution In Cyprus

 A brief visit to the northern (Turkish) parts of the divided island of Cyprus made clear once again two competing Turkish worldviews.

 A brief visit to the northern (Turkish) parts of the divided island of Cyprus made clear once again two competing Turkish worldviews. The "status quo" group does not want to lose power, is suspicious of the West's intentions and interest in the fate of the Turkish Cypriots and is desperately trying to hang on to security arguments to justify its position. The "reformists" on the other hand, realize that international relations are full of uncertainties and often unfair, and the best way forward is to integrate Turkey and the Turkish part of the island into the structures of the EU that the international recognized part of Cyprus is about to join. The second one is a much more realistic approach, but at this point it is uncertain as to which group will have the final say. 

While the "Cyprus issue" has remained unresolved since Turkey sent in troops to restore peace in 1974, the EU's decision to accept the island into membership in May 2004 created an artificial deadline for reunification. While the EU clearly prefers to admit an undivided Cyprus, it has made it clear that the Greek side will become a member regardless of a solution by that date. This clearly puts serious pressure on the Turkish side, as its negotiating hand is fairly weak.

With little time left and no better, mutually acceptable proposal on the table, the joint UN-U.S. recommendation for the Turks is that "the choice is between the Annan Plan (UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's plan) and no solution, not between the Annan Plan and a better plan," as Tom Weston, Washington's envoy to Cyprus, put it recently. From this perspective, the Annan Plan provides the necessary security guarantees and the "virgin birth" formulation gives the two sides political equality in a united Cyprus-- at the moment, the Turkish and Greek parts form the joint state, both sides will be recognized as sovereign but only exist under the umbrella of the single state.

While this formation does not satisfy the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot desire for recognition of sovereignty, the reality is that Greece is in the EU and the Greek Cypriots will be in the EU soon which means that the Turks do not have much leverage. They are also not likely to get a better deal once the Greek Cypriots are in the EU (why would the Greeks want to share power at that point?) The Greek side is already trying to run away from its obligations and would in the future most likely use its veto power against the Turks and the Turkish Cypriots' EU candidacy.

Having heard these arguments repeatedly, the Turkish Cypriot side, under President Rauf Denktas, does not believe that the EU, UN or the U.S. fully understand what is at stake for it. He is thus unwilling to enter negotiations with the Greek side based on the Annan Plan. Denktas would first like to renegotiate the plan itself. Enjoying support (though declining) from the "status quo" group in Ankara, in The Hague in March 2003, he refused to put the Annan Plan to a referendum, de facto taking away a major democratic right from his people.

Denktas then decided to start his own parallel track. With a strong nudge from Ankara, on 23 April 2003 he initiated an unprecedented set of confidence-building measures by opening up the UN buffer zone, allowing the free flow of people to commence. Encouragingly, the net result has been much more productive than either the north or the south predicted.

With several hundred thousand Turkish and Greek Cypriots having crossed into their respective "forbidden lands," myths have been shattered.  This has weakened the uncompromising positions of both sides.  Very few incidents resulted in itself a remarkable development given the mutual demonization of the peoples over the decades. Nonetheless, as the EU deadline approaches, it is almost given that the "status quo" defenders (in the north and the south) will try to provoke their societies.

In December 2003, the Turkish Cypriot side will also hold parliamentary elections, determining which of the two visions will prevail. With the opposition campaign focusing on the Annan Plan and EU entry, it is no surprise that the upcoming elections are billed as "a competition between the Turkish Cypriots (the Denktas government) and the EU (the opposition)." In this context it is also noteworthy that Turkey's National Security Council Secretary Tuncer Kilinc stated that "North Cyprus was never left alone and will never be left alone" and that he "hopes that those who care about national interests" will win.

Even if the Turkish Cypriot opposition wins the parliamentary elections, it is almost certain that once they form the government they will find themselves constrained by the "establishment," just as it happened to the ruling government party in Turkey. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan initially was in favour of the Annan Plan, but soon changed his tone, utilizing the necessity of first addressing Turkey's security concerns.  Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul confirmed this position to Washington last week during a visit.

From the Turkish perspective, security is not merely the presence of the Turkish military force on the island. The bigger concern is the protection of the Turks in the proposed "partnership," which they fear will inevitably lead to the Turkish Cypriots being pushed from the island, with Cyprus becoming a Greek island--  "just like it happened in Crete," as is often said.  A comparison is made with the condition of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace--even though these people hold EU passports, social pressure has made their lives miserable, and there is little EU attention given to their human rights. While the Turks in Western Thrace have not moved, Turkish Cypriots in similar conditions would probably leave their land for a more respectable life in  Europe, mainly the UK.

Another worry on the Turkish Cypriot side is whether the two sides have sufficiently recovered from the wounds of war. The "establishment" strongly believes that the peace since 1974 is due to the separation of the two peoples and the de facto creation of two states. They point to Bosnia and wonder whether peace would last if the peacekeepers were to leave, a legitimate question indeed.

They also point to post-Oslo developments in the Middle East. The U.S. and other great powers did not pay proper attention on the sustainability and the fairness of the proposals, and the net result was renewed bloodshed, the Turkish Cypriot leadership argues. Thus, they argue, the north cannot accept the Annan Plan as is, and no time pressure will force them to sign onto an agreement they know will end in a tragedy.  Even if one argues that these fears are unfounded and an island within the EU would not be allowed to fall back into armed conflict, this concern needs to be addressed.

For Ankara, the real deadline for Cyprus is not May but December 2004, when it expects to get a date for its own EU negotiations to start. Even if the negotiations start in early 2005, they are likely to last for several years and during this period it would be very difficult for the "status quo" group to "give up Cyprus" until Turkey's own prospects for EU membership become clear.  This group is not concerned about the Greek Cypriot veto against Turkey's membership, as it believes Turkey's strategic location will make it inevitable for the EU to eventually take it in as a member-which is, after all, how Turkey's NATO membership came about.

In the meantime, the group that is hurt most is the island's Anatolian "settlers," as the Greek side calls them.  Unlike the island's pre-1994 Turkish population (and their descendents), they are not allowed to cross to the South and will also not be able to take advantage of the Greek Cypriot EU membership. This in turn will most likely lead to growing tensions between the Turkish Cypriots and the Anatolian Turks, with Turkish Cypriots most likely departing the island.

US engagement is needed-mainly in helping the Turks and the Turkish Cypriots understand the EU's timetable and the potential implications of missing the May 2004 and then possibly the December 2004 deadlines.  A broader group of Turks and Turkish Cypriots need to engage with their American and European counterparts to discuss their legitimate concerns.  At the same time, they need to push their own leaderships to be realistic and get used to playing by the EU rules, if that is indeed the club they wish eventually to join.

Zeyno Baran is Director of International Security and Energy Programs at The Nixon Center (