The forthcoming presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus, the role of Turkey and the views of the Turkish Cypriot community, the financial crisis, and the new geostrategic situation in the region are all significant issues in terms of settling the Cyprus question, said Sotos Zackheos, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cyprus.
“I don’t represent any official view, but I’ve been dealing with the Cyprus problem throughout my career,” Zackheos said.
He said the three frontrunner candidates in the presidential election – Nicos Anastasiades, Giorgios Lillikas and Stavros Malas – all believed that the discovery of natural gas in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone would change the balance of power by strengthening the Greek-Cypriots’ hand in the negotiations. Anastasiades backs the appointment of a negotiator reporting to the President and the Council of Leaders of the Cypriot Parties, and believes the EU should be represented in the UN talks by a European Council-appointed person, Zackheos said. Moreover, he wants a single Cyprus state with a single sovereignty, international personality and citizenship, and wants any proposals made in the last round of negotiations which are in disharmony with European principles – regarding property, the rotating presidency, and the remaining in Cyprus of around 50,000 Turkish settlers – to be withdrawn, the former Foreign Ministry official added. Stavros Malas wants a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with a strong central state, Zackheos said.
Giorgios Lillikas is against bi-zonality – which he believes deprives Greek Cypriots of freedom of movement and settlement throughout the island – but he recognizes bi-communality, Zackheos added.
Lillikas advocates putting pressure on Turkey to abandon its intransigent positions, he said. Zackheos said Turkey backed a two-state solution, in violation of UN agreements, and added that the North relied on financial support from Ankara. He said that Greek Cypriots were worried about Turkey’s problematic relations with its neighbors and its treatment of its Kurdish minority, and claimed that most of Turkey’s neighbors believed that Ankara had no desire to look for common ground and would rather always seek to impose its own views and interests on others.
Zackheos argued that Turkey’s interests would better be advanced by genuinely engaging in attempts to settle the Cyprus issue. “But I don’t believe that Turkey is in the mood for such a compromise, and I don’t see any sense of modesty in Turkish foreign policy. Turkey can’t hope to join the EU on its own terms while continuing its EU-bashing and without a solution to the Cyprus issue,” he declared. He said many analysts did not believe that Turkish EU accession would realistically be possible for a least a decade, and predicted that amid high unemployment in the EU, not many countries would want to be “flooded by Turks”.
Turkish leaders want to proceed “very soon” to an international conference on the Cyprus problem before agreement has been reached on outstanding internal issues, Zackheos said. Their strategy is obvious – to force the failure of the talks and thereby solidify recognition of a two-state solution, he claimed. He said he was not convinced that Turkey was really interested in unifying the island. He claimed that Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu had not shown any real interest in participating in meaningful settlement negotiations and accused him of backing formats that contradicted the agreed basis of the UN negotiations.
The discovery of huge reserves of natural gas in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone will enhance its regional role and bring prosperity for many decades, Zackheos predicted. “The smart thing for Turkey would be to cooperate [with efforts to settle the Cyprus issue] for the benefit of both countries,” he said.
“I hope Turkey will choose the road to reason,” he said, rather than squandering the business opportunities linked to gas discoveries. Natural resources will be under the jurisdiction of the new federal government in the event of a settlement, “so all Cypriot citizens will benefit,” he said. He said that Turkey depended on imports of oil and gas from unpredictable sources like Iran and Iraq in order to satisfy its energy needs, arguing that the normalization of its relations with the Republic of Cyprus would bring significant gains in terms of a stable future energy supply.
Zackheos stressed that any settlement of the Cyprus issue would have to be put to the Greek Cypriots in a referendum, and warned that they would reject any “unacceptable” settlement. For a new UN effort to succeed, Turkey must abandon its “maximalist” positions, which would in turn advance its own EU accession hopes. If any future settlement is to pass a referendum, then the negotiations must be based on sound principles rather than vague concepts, he concluded.
“I’m a bit disappointed by my colleague’s report of the visions of the Cypriot presidential election candidates, because by continuing to push maximalist positions, we may end up with another 45 years of peace negotiations,” said Kudret Özersay, Professor of International Law and Political Science at the Eastern Mediterranean University.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said there were two preconditions of any successful settlement of the Cyprus question: both communities must deem the status quo to be unacceptable, and international actors must be motivated to change the status quo too. “Even in the absence of a comprehensive settlement, the Greek Cypriot community has been allowed to join the European Union, hold the EU Presidency, and conclude maritime delimitation agreements,” said Özersay, adding that given these realities, it was no surprise that they were in no hurry to change the status quo. He said two recent developments may help to make a success of any fresh negotiation process: first, the number of Greek Cypriots travelling to Turkey via Ercan airport was increasing despite the Greek Cypriot authorities having described it as an illegal airport, and second, the volume of Turkish products exported to the Greek Cypriot side via Greece had increased fivefold between 2011 and 2012.
The most feasible option for transporting Cypriot gas deposits to Europe would be via Turkey, argued Özersay, adding that international actors were increasingly stressing that the Turkish Cypriots must be co-owners of the island’s natural resources. The twin collapse of the Greek Cypriot economy and the administrative system of the North has led to calls from both sides for their domestic systems to change, he pointed out. “This may trigger a renewed effort to solve the Cyprus problem too,” he said.
Özersay argued that with citizens in both communities preoccupied with domestic and economic problems, leaders may find themselves with more leeway at the negotiating table. In the past, leaders have been put under pressure by their respective communities not to make concessions, so the relative lack of interest among the general public at the moment may allow the politicians to show more flexibility, he said.
He said that for the past eight years, two parallel processes had been poisoning each other: while talks between negotiators from both communities were on-going, representatives were also travelling around the world drumming up support for their own entrenched positions. As a consequence of this “poisoning”, data were abused during the property talks, while the convergence agreement on natural resources was being used by the Greek Cypriot community as an excuse not to cooperate on new gas discoveries until a comprehensive settlement had been found, Özersay said. “We need two parallel processes to feed, rather than poison, each other,” he said, calling for talks on wider cooperation in the East Mediterranean region in terms of energy, trade and tourism (Process 1) to be held separately from the settlement talks (Process 2), to prevent them from poisoning the process.
The East Mediterranean talks must involve both Cypriot communities, Greece, Turkey, the EU and businesspeople from all these areas, he said. Özersay said that when the leaders of the two communities meet, the presumption among the general public is that they will not produce any major breakthroughs – and no-one wants to invest in the presumption of no resolution. Why not change that presumption by delivering other benefits in the meantime, regardless of the absence of a comprehensive settlement, he argued.
He called for both parties to agree the conditions under which a new settlement process could begin, complaining that at present, both sides were using the existing UN parameters to criticize one another and to score points internationally. “We must allow the parties to discuss with one another outside the box, according to the principle that a settlement is agreed and negotiated by both sides,” said Özersay, concluding that it was not helpful to focus on labels like ‘confederation’ or ‘loose federation’.
“It’s not the complexity of the Cyprus problem – it’s the infinity of it. The current situation of trying to find a solution between both communities has continued for 50 years,” said James Ker-Lindsay, Senior Research Fellow on the Politics of South-East Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“It’s time for the international community to play a far more active role in finding a solution. It has a lot at stake, so it has the right to put on pressure and demand its resolution,” Ker-Lindsay argued.
He suggested that the following issues would prove most difficult to address:
The concept of a bi-zonal or bi-communal federation had become a mantra of the settlement talks, but that concept meant a very different thing to each community.
Governance had become perhaps the most difficult issue, because when politicians meet to talk about politicians’ futures, they don’t want to write themselves out of that future.
Property and territory: these are often seen as the most problematic issues, but the legal processes that have been established in the absence of a comprehensive settlement mean that the situation is largely resolving itself – at least from a human rights point of view.
The fiscal arrangements of a united Cyprus: how would it be paid for, and what would be the degree of transfer from the Greek Cypriot side to the Turkish Cypriot side? There are concerns about the affordability of a settlement in the Republic of Cyprus, which now has economic problems of its own.
Turkey stands accused of violating international law by settling its people in Northern Cyprus, but this has now become a complex humanitarian issue: a certain number of Turkish settlers will have to stay on the island, because their children feel Turkish Cypriot.
The issue of security guarantees: Turkish Cypriots’ desire for Turkey to guarantee their security was understandable, but why would an independent member of the UN require another guarantor? Perhaps the EU could replace Turkey to assuage Turkish Cypriots’ fears for their security.
“I hope that Nicos Anastasiades wins. He is respected internationally and has a good track record. He backed the Annan Plan, but understands that we’ve moved on since then. He wants a settlement, and understands Turkish Cypriots’ concerns,“ Ker-Lindsay said. He said that Anastasiades seemed to be moving towards a loose federation, but was couching the idea into EU language about subsidiarity and the most appropriate level at which to exercise power. “Minimize the points of contact, and you’re more likely to have a smooth-running central state,” he argued.
Arguing that one of the reasons for which Greek Cypriots had turned down the Annan Plan in 2004 was fear of the unknown, Ker-Lindsay said “the less change Greek Cypriots see in their daily lives, the more likely they are to accept a settlement plan”. Sounding a note of caution, he said the economic situation in Cyprus was dire and warned that the new Cypriot president would primarily have to deal with that. Despite this major limitation, he believed there was a chance of a deal, but singled out Turkey as the biggest question mark: “does it want to hold on to Cyprus as a bargaining chip or finally divest itself of the problem?”
In the meantime, he said it would be “tremendous” to see a united Cypriot football team.
Asked who could broker a settlement of the Cyprus issue – the UN, the EU or perhaps Javier Solana – James Ker-Lindsay of the London School of Economics and Political Science said “I don’t think there’s much mileage in the idea of the EU as a broker. I don’t think it really wants to be a broker. It’s happy for the UN to do that”.
“Turkey wouldn’t really see the EU as an honest broker given that it counts Greece and Cyprus among its members. That would be the perception, whatever the EU’s true motivation would be, and perceptions matter,” Ker-Lindsay said.
Asked whether the Cyprus issue could spill over into EU-NATO relations, he said “one idea could be for NATO to provide security in the event of the total demilitarization of Cyprus”.
Kudret Özersay of the Eastern Mediterranean University said “I don’t see any role for NATO in reaching a settlement for the island of Cyprus”.
Asked whether it would be possible to “open” the ghost town of Varosha (which is currently under the control of the Turkish military) as part of a parallel process in a manner which would allow Greek and Turkish Cypriots to work together, they agreed this could be incorporated. However, they did not clarify whether this would be under Turkish Cypriot administration, Greek Cypriot administration or UN administration.