On 7 July, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that talks seeking to unify the island of Cyprus, partitioned since 1974, had once again failed.
In what had been billed “last chance” negotiations after decades of disagreement, the leaders of the Turkish and Greek Cypriot factions sat down together in Switzerland to break bread and attempt to find a solution to the standoff. Negotiations were overseen by representatives from Britain – the island’s colonial hegemon from formal annexation in 1914 until independence in 1960 – Turkey and Greece.
Talks broke down over the issue of security, with both sides maintaining an intransigent stance on the issue of Turkish troops being stationed on the island. The permanent partition of Cyprus is now a real possibility.
A long time coming
Unifying Cyprus has proved a challenge for over half a century. Following independence, Greece and Turkey continued to meddle in Cyprus’ internal affairs, enflaming tensions between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. After years of infighting, an Athens-backed coup was launched in 1974 with the aim of installing a government that sought enosis (union) with Greece. This caused alarm in Ankara and precipitated the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus three days later. The success of this incursion left the Turkish Cypriots, who comprised 18% of the island’s population, in control of 36% of the island’s territory. It also saw around 165,000 Greek Cypriot refugees flee from the north whilst 45,000 Turkish Cypriots left the south.
The island was partitioned with UN troops brought in to patrol a 180km-long corridor separating the populations. The buffer zone passes through the capital, Nicosia, and includes the city’s airport, now desolate and closed to civilian air traffic.
For many years the two communities were almost completely closed off from one another, and despite many diplomatic entreaties, little progress has been made towards reunification. The Annan Plan of 2004 came closest. It gained the support of the Turkish Cypriots and widespread international backing – including from the governments of Greece, Turkey and the European Union. However, Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected the deal, believing that it favoured Turkey.
Then, in 2015, for the first time, leaders dedicated to uniting Cyprus were elected in both the Greek and Turkish parts of the island. The initial optimism that these elections caused quickly gave way to a more sanguine mood as negotiations began. Talks broke down completely in January of this year, with the key question of security, and specifically the necessity of having 35,000 Turkish troops stationed on the island, seemingly the major sticking point.
Talks break down
Although labelled by both the EU and the UN as the “last chance” for a solution to the “Cyprus Problem”, July’s rekindling of talks saw very little concrete progress made. While the Turkish Cypriots were the most eager for a deal to be struck – the making of which would allow them not only to be rid of a crippling export-ban imposed upon them by the EU, but also the prospect of joining the EU itself – many observers stated that they took a back seat in the talks, with Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Foreign Minister of Turkey-proper, doing much of the talking.
Çavuşoğlu blamed the Greek Cypriots for their stubborn ‘zero-tolerance’ stance towards Turkish troops on the island. They argue that there is no place for foreign soliders occupying a part of an independent state, purporting to be ‘defending’ this independence. For their part, Turkish Cypriots view the Turkish military as their only guarantee against Greek Cypriots stripping them of their political rights, as they did in 1963.
Many Greek Cypriots suggest that the biggest barrier to successful talks was the Turkish government. Few believe that Turkey had any interest in seeing a unified Cyprus, and particularly sought to maintain its 35,000 troops on the island for as long as possible.
For Turkey, Cyprus occupies a key territorial position. Ozay Mehmet, Professor of Modern Turkish Studies at Carleton University, told Jericho that he believes the island is utterly vital to Turkish strategic thinking.
“Cyprus controls Turkish territorial waters into [the Eastern] Mediterranean, which is rich in hydrocarbons. [Furthermore,] Turkey does not want a Greek encirclement [as is the case in the Aegean]. This is strategically more significant for Ankara than EU membership, of dubious benefit now after Brexit.”
Does this mean that we are indeed witnessing the permanent partition of Cyprus?
The editor of the Cyprus Mail, Jean Christou, thinks not. “I don’t see any Greek Cypriot president ever agreeing to a negotiated partition,” he tells Jericho, “if there is partition in a legal sense, I believe it would be a gradual process on the part of the international community.”
The breakdown of these latest talks is by no means a disaster – British and Russian tourism will continue to buttress economic growth in Cyprus – but it is a depressing conclusion for those interested in conflict resolution globally. The Cypriot case is far less complex and tense than other territorial disputes, such as Israel and Palestine or Jammu and Kashmir. If Cyprus issue cannot be solved, despite the relatively good will that now exists between the two communities, prospects of finding solutions to similar disputes look slim.