CYPRUS: One last chance
Saad S. Khan

After 30 years of division, the Mediterranean island of Cyprus is embroiled in what must be, for the foreseeable future at least, a last push for reunification.

Yet after round upon round of talks, the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots have still not hit on a solution acceptable to both sides.

Guided by the terms of a plan drawn up under the auspices of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the two sides have until March 22 to come to an agreement of their own accord. If they do not succeed, the prime backers of each – Greece and Turkey – will be invited to join the talks in an effort to hammer out a deal by March 29. If all has not been resolved by April 1, Annan will step in to fill in the blanks, with the resulting document put to a referendum on both sides of the island’s green line on April 21.

If both sides vote yes to the plan, a united Cyprus would join the EU on May 1. If not… well, that’s a vision the EU has described as “tragic.”

Any agreement on so longstanding and acrimonious a dispute will be painful for both sides, and will require momentous compromise. Indeed, the measure of how evenhanded any agreement is will lie in how equally it is begrudged by the two sides. The UN blueprint has satisfied neither side, nor their respective guarantor powers – a fact that is, in its way, a credit to the United Nations.

The 140-page UN plan proposes a United States of Cyprus, comprising the existing southern Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus and the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – a statelet currently recognized only by Turkey. The complex federal structure largely recognizes the ground realities, proposing a weak central government overseen by a six-member cabinet, appointed every five years, comprising four Greek-Cypriot and two Turkish-Cypriot ministers. Each minister will serve a 10-month term as president, while each community will have veto rights in the cabinet as well as in parliament.

A major bone of contention between the two sides has been the issue of displaced persons and the compensation due to them. The UN plan recognizes the right to return of half of the 200,000 Greek-Cypriots displaced by the Turkish invasion of 1974, and calls for the withdrawal of 100,000 mainland Turks who have settled in the north since the division of the island. Given the adverse implications for their demographic strength in a reunified Cyprus, the Turkish side is staunchly opposed to these provisions. For their part, the Greek-Cypriots are irked by the refusal of the United Nations to ask Turkey to pay compensation to displaced persons. Instead, the government of a reunited Cyprus will be mandated to pay compensation for loss of the use of property. The Greek-Cypriot press has pointed to the irony of taxpayers in effect paying damages to themselves.

One important criticism of the plan – on both sides of the divide – relates to a scenario in which both communities exercise their parliamentary veto. Under the plan, a panel comprising three foreign adjudicators, nominated by the two sides, would then intervene. Critics argue that this provision in effect places the sovereignty of the new state in the hands of three foreigners.

The real issue, however, is that this may be the last chance to bury the hatchet once and for all. For both sides, an end to hostilities is in many ways the greatest threat, so entrenched has the idea of conflict – and its attendant rhetoric – become.

And while the current president of Cyprus, the nationalist-leaning Tassos Papadopoulos, decisively won last year’s elections in the Greek south of the island, the Turkish north has given a less clear verdict on its leadership, with a fifty-fifty split between the pro-reunification Mehmet Ali Talat (who has now taken over as prime minister) and the long-serving hard-line president, Rauf Denktash. However, with Ankara’s eye firmly fixed on securing membership of the European Union, Denktash has limited room for maneuver. Moves by the ruling Justice and Development party to circumscribe the role of the military – which has tens of thousands of troops stationed in northern Cyprus – is a further indication that the tide may have turned on Denktash.

Indeed, Turkey has little to lose from accepting the UN plan – not least because a unified Cyprus entering the EU will pave the way for Turkey’s own admission to the club. First, Turkey will have shown its goodwill in resolving a vexed and longstanding dispute – and one that left it the isolated supporter of a widely condemned breakaway state. At another level, a unified Cyprus within the EU would establish Turkish as one of the union’s many official languages, an important marker in its own efforts to join. If, on the other hand, Turkey remained adamant in its opposition to any reunification plan, the accession of Cyprus – the southern, Greek controlled area – to the EU would proceed regardless, while the case for Turkey joining would be a closed, and no doubt soon to be forgotten, chapter. That probably explains why Turkey’s prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan, has rebuked Denktash time and again in recent weeks. Denktash may be right when he accuses the Greek-Cypriot side of rejecting each and every one of his proposals. But realpolitik is the name of the game; and while the Greeks can afford to be adamant, the Turks cannot.

Saad S. Khan is a writer and commentator on the politics of the Muslim world