Progress has been made on ending one of the longest standing conflicts on Europe’s eastern frontier. Unlike the stalemates ranging from eastern Ukraine, to Crimea, to northern Georgia and Syria, the 41 year partition of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean appears to be a place where Europe’s embattled diplomats might be able to achieve success in 2016.
Negotiations between the island’s two communities, the Greek and the Turkish, have taken place throughout the latter part of 2015, brokered by the UN and receiving vocal support from European foreign ministries.
Mustafa Akinci, president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (the unrecognised mini-state declared in 1974) and Nicos Anastasiades, President of the Republic of Cyprus released a joint statement:
“Keeping in mind that a just and lasting settlement in Cyprus will be an example for the broader region, the leaders express their sincere hope that 2016 will bring peace, security and prosperity in Cyprus and beyond,” (1)
Further meetings will take place in January 2016 and both leaders appear committed to working towards bringing an end to the partition of the island, which has been in force since the Turkish invasion in 1974.
The invasion brought about the forced removals of up to 200,000 Greek Cypriots from the occupied north of the island, and up to 60,000 Turkish Cypriots were expelled from the Greek-dominated south. The conflict, which left many thousand dead, continues to trigger emotive reactions from both sides of the UN-manned buffer zone and the January meetings of Akinci and Anastasiades are expected to attempt to find a compromise to the outstanding issues including the fate of the missing persons of both ethnicities after the conflict, the destruction of cultural heritage and the appropriation of property after the expulsion
A previous effort to bring about an end to the division, the so-called Annan Plan (after the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan) was rejected in 2004 after being put to the respective groups in a referendum. Although the Turkish Cypriots voted in favour, the Plan was comprehensively rejected by the Greek Cypriots with only 24% voting in favour. Any 2016 agreement would also have to be put to the respective communities, and as yet it is unknown whether the appetite of the island’s peoples matches that of their leaders.
At a time when conflict has rocked almost every country bordering the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus offers a glimmer of hope that peace can be found, albeit in a situation dramatically less violent then its neighbours across the sea.
The reason 2016 is shaping up to be a landmark year for Cyprus has been put down to the stars being ‘uniquely aligned’ according to the Turkish Cypriot foreign minister.(2) For the first time both communities have leaders who have campaigned on a peace slogan, representing the domestic political will for a resolution.
Economically, Cyprus has limped through the recession; its credit rating was downgraded to junk status due to the exposure of its banks to the Greek crisis. Like Greece, Cyprus called upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to save it from defaulting on debts. It is hoped that unification would revitalise the island’s divided economy, in particular the tourism sector, which has suffered badly during the economic crisis.
The discovery of natural gas in Cypriot territorial waters has also strengthened the resolve of the island’s leaders. Unification would end Turkey’s refusal to recognise the government of Cyprus (Ankara only recognises the Turkish state in the north of the island, which is unrecognised by any other country) and open up a lucrative customer for the gas, with Turkey looking to ease dependence on Russian energy supplies.
Much will depend on Turkey’s willingness to take part in such a deal, though the timing seems favourable to such support. The Turkish government suffered both pride and international standing in its annus horribilis of 2015: two bitter elections, a flare up of conflict with the ethnic Kurds in the south-west, a spate of suicide bombings across the country and a growing confrontation with Russia regarding the downed Russian jet in December. It is likely that Turkey would see securing an agreement in Cyprus as a way in which to reclaim some international prestige and on off-loading the economically draining Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is almost completely reliant on handouts from Ankara to function.
Given the terror and bloodshed across the region, politicians and citizens alike must take this chance to restore a little bit of faith in the diplomatic process.