Sharing the island

The break-down in the latest round of talks between Greek and Turkish Cyprus has frustrated hopes about an imminent end to the decades-old conflict. However, comparison with the Irish peace process suggests that a solution could still be a generation away.

The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.
Paul Valéry

The first compromise is between me and my dream. Only those capable of compromising with their dreams can sit together to forge a compromise on behalf of their nations.
Avraham Burg

The Cyprus problem arises from the failure over more than half a century of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities to agree how the island should be governed in order to promote the welfare and development of all its inhabitants. This disagreement gives rise to significant regional complications in the eastern Mediterranean involving Greece and Turkey, the two motherlands. The Greek Cypriot community lives in the Republic of Cyprus (ROC), the internationally recognised state which controls about two-thirds of the island territory. The Turkish Cypriot community lives in the north, in what it has called since 1983 the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey. The objective of the present series of inter-communal talks, ongoing since 2015, is to establish, in accordance with UN resolutions, a federated, bi-regional and bi-communal state; this state is also intended to be bi-zonal, that is, in its own region, each community will continue to have a majority of the inhabitants, owning more than fifty per cent of its territory.

Cyprus has been a majority Greek culture for more than two thousand years. Its various conquerors, the Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Romans, no less than the Franks, Venetians, Turks and British, left characteristic footprints but the matrix remained Greek. The Turks were its masters for more than three hundred years, the Venetians and the British for eighty-two years each. At best estimate, the Turkish Cypriot proportion of the total population at present is about twenty-six per cent, or 295,000 souls, compared to 840,000 Greek Cypriots. But at least two hundred thousand settlers from the Turkish mainland have taken up residence in the north of the island since the early 1980s, and perhaps a third of these have been granted Turkish Cypriot citizenship. Their numbers, their right to reside there, their status and their inclusion in official statistics are all disputed.

Along with a painful history of occupation and division, politically motivated killings and displacement, the communities in Cyprus have also had to deal with certain stubborn facts of geography. The island is situated eight hundred kilometres from the Greek mainland and three hundred and eighty kilometres from the nearest substantial area of Greek territory at Rhodes. The Turkish mainland at Mersin, on the other hand, can be seen from the hills above Kyrenia; it is only seventy-five kilometres to the north. Athens (900 kilometres) is much further away than Ankara (530 kms). The fact that Cyprus, an “orphan realm”, has never been part of Greece, in the modern era at least, is not unconnected with this geography and its military implications. The island lies south of the Balkans and west of the Middle East; it resembles these two areas of conflict both in the multilayered intricacies of its problems and in the divisive bitterness which separates the opposing parties.

Ireland and Cyprus, two island states, opposite one another in the northwest and southeast corners of the European Union respectively, have a lot in common besides their small size and relative powerlessness. Both states achieved nominal independence following an armed struggle in the twentieth century; in both, this independence was accompanied or followed quickly by the division of what was previously a single administrative unit into two; this division was seen as an enforced partition by a majority on either island, and resented accordingly; both sets of resentments have persisted and at times have given rise to ethnic/national/political problems which seemed incapable of solution. The sense of victimhood in each community on each island is augmented by a double-minority problem; the island majority in each case constitutes a small minority in the larger local region. None of the actors therefore feel themselves empowered or entitled to be generous. Finally, both states have close but ambiguous ties to the United Kingdom, not least as a present-day migration destination.

Famagusta Cyprus,Turkish checkpoint.
Source: Wikimedia

Of the two sets of problems, those of Cyprus are undoubtedly the more complex and the more intractable. Cyprus lies across the fault-lines of Europe/Asia and Christianity/Islam. In its war of liberation, it fought not for independence but for union with Greece (Enosis). What it has achieved is independence plus partition (Taksim). Relations between the motherlands is more than just another part of the context for relations between the communities on the island; it has been on occasion decisive, and may be so again in the near future. To the ongoing types of difficulty with which Ireland is familiar, the Cypriot inter-communal talks must deal in addition with problems of rights of return, property and/or compensation, power-sharing at the federal level, territory, new settlers and the ongoing rights and responsibilities of the three guarantor powers (Britain as well as Greece and Turkey). The UN presence in Cyprus, now dating back more than fifty years, while essential, adds yet another layer of complexity.

Not untypically, compromise proposals as far back as 1957 (the Radcliffe Proposals) were rejected by the Greek Cypriots because they did not specifically envisage Enosis and by the Turkish Cypriots because they did not specifically exclude it. A whole series of compromise packages since, including the Annan Plan of 2004, have also failed to gain acceptance by one or other community. An astute Greek Cypriot ex-minister, more pragmatic than most, commented some years ago that “Our heroic ‘NO’s have cost us dear.”

After an informal meeting in early April last, an encouraging statement was issued, saying that President Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci had had an open and constructive exchange regarding the challenges and ways ahead. It is common ground that this round of talks has made unprecedented progress, that the distance between the sides has narrowed significantly and that it represents the best chance for many years, certainly since 2004, to effect a breakthrough. The talks are being driven forward by a personal rapport between Anastasiades and Akinci, (both men are from Limassol), and by what seems to be the genuine commitment of both to reaching agreement. The barriers to a successful conclusion are, however, formidable, as the meetings since April 2nd have shown.

The present talks had come to a standstill in February, when the Turkish Cypriot side withdrew from them. They took that step due to a decision of the Cypriot parliament (where only Greek Cypriots are represented) to support Cypriot schools in marking the anniversary of the Greek Cypriot support for Enosis in 1957, in a referendum organised that year by the Orthodox church. This vote by the parliamentarians constituted a move in the politics of gesture and symbolism only; while Enosis remains an aspiration of many Greek Cypriots and of the Orthodox church, still a powerful political actor on the island, it is not a live issue in the immediate context, it is incompatible with achieving agreement in the inter-communal talks, and it is formally excluded not only by earlier agreements but also by all recent UN resolutions (which also exclude Taksim). Anastasiades’s party has since taken steps to have parliament’s decision changed.

It is also the case that no full agreement has yet been reached on any one of the key issues listed above. The mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed is a reasonable one when dealing with a number of complex questions together. It is not, however, reassuring in present circumstances; any of the substantive issues remaining could cause the negotiations to founder. And the present window of opportunity is not open-ended; it may be coming to an end now, it will certainly come to an end in the autumn when campaigning is scheduled to begin for the next presidential election in the ROC, due in February next. Assembly elections in the North, which cannot displace Akinci but could weaken his position and narrow his options, are also due late this year or early in 2018. Taking these factors into consideration, optimism does not come easily.

The external regional context is the last and possibly the most decisive negative factor in the present situation. After a brief improvement in their relations, the atmosphere between the two motherlands again deteriorated sharply from August 2016. The dynamic behind this trend has been almost exclusively Turkish. The attempted coup in Istanbul in July 2016 and the seeking of political asylum in Greece by dissident army officers, judges and others was followed by rows over Greek islets in the Aegean, threats to reopen territorial questions settled by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923!), statements and counter-statements on exploration for oil and gas in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and high-voltage exchanges on Turkey’s role as guarantor in Cyprus. While none of this is new, and although in the past the two countries have managed de-escalation phases competently, the increased unpredictability of President Erdogan and the pressures on him regarding migration issues, the situation in Syria and more general EU-Turkey tensions all give rise to concern. It is noteworthy that Turkey has reverted to rhetoric about its being surrounded by enemies and Cyprus being vital to its overall security.

The following summary of the positions now reached on the separate negotiation points is based on the latest information in the public domain when this essay was being finalised:

Territory: The Greek Cypriot side will make some gains, in order to bring the territorial balance more into line with the population mix. The differences between the two sides mainly concern Morphou and Famagusta, in particular its Greek quarters, including Varosha. In the past, Akinci has favoured a co-operative approach to developing Varosha as a prime tourist destination.

Power-sharing: In general, the Turkish Cypriots favour stronger powers for the two subordinate units and a weak centre. The Greek Cypriots hold to the opposite, and also wish to preserve the status of the new federal entity as the legal successor to the present Republic of Cyprus. Other points in dispute centre on a rotating presidency, the position of vice-president, etc.

Rights of return: This is very complicated because it is intimately linked to property rights/compensation issues and to the framework for ensuring bi-zonality. While a particularly strong sense of local attachment is characteristic of both communities, it seems likely that most potential returnees will not choose (or will not choose immediately) to live as a minority in the other’s territory and that compensation will be the preferred option. Success after a settlement will therefore depend on the work of the respective compensation boards and, no doubt, as in the past, on the European courts. Fixing proper compensation levels now for properties last lived in by their legal owners in 1974 (or a decade earlier in the case of Turkish Cypriots in the South) is not in itself an easy option and leaves almost unlimited scope for differing judgements.

Bi-zonality: As above. In addition, it remains to be seen how workable the whole concept of bi-zonality, as defined in the first paragraph above, will prove to be in the medium to long term.

Settlers: On this, as on the question of the guarantees, it seems clear that Akinci has come under pressure from his own electorate, as well as from Ankara, to maintain a maximal stance. But the settlers are a source of special vexation to the Greek Cypriot side, who view their presence as the creation of new facts on the ground; and they also see the demand that settlers should be granted the “four freedoms” as an additional provocation.

Rights and responsibilities of guarantors: In theory, the compromise needed to solve the guarantee problem is obvious enough, that is, continuation of the status quo for a trial period of limited duration, along with a reduction in the numbers of the (approximately thirty thousand) Turkish troops in the North, followed at best by the withdrawal of the remaining Turkish troops, and by abolition of the relevant clauses of the Treaty of Guarantee (1960) as no longer necessary. But the use made of Article 4 of that treaty to justify the 1974 invasion, and Turkey’s pre-occupation with its regional role, together with its recent emphasis on its own security, now loom as large as the continued memory within the Turkish Cypriot community of its vulnerability in 1963-64.

In May, the atmosphere between the two sides deteriorated and an earlier optimism faded sharply. The Turkish Cypriots asked that the talks finish by June or July and that they be treated as a full partner community, not as a minority. On the Greek Cypriot side, there were complaints (again) of “suffocating timetables” and regarding mainland Turkish provocations (a Turkish vessel conducted seismic investigations close to Famagusta in the internationally recognised Cypriot EEZ). The Greek foreign minister, followed in due course by the president of Cyprus, repeated his charge that the special adviser to the UN secretary general (SASG), Espen Barth Eide, a Norwegian, was favouring the Turkish Cypriot side in the negotiations. The present SASG is the twenty-seventh since the office was set up in the early 1960s; few, if any, have proved satisfactory to both sides.

If the politics, and the underlying popular views which sustain the politics, of inter-communal North/South divisions in Cyprus seem old-fashioned to Irish people in the twenty-first century, this is largely because our nationalist traumas date back to 1916 and 1921-23; those of Cyprus date from 1958-1974. It took majority opinion in Ireland and Britain two generations, including a decade and a half of savage fratricidal conflict, to come to relatively sane and sensible approaches in relation to Northern Ireland. On an Irish timescale, agreements on balanced and realistic solutions to the problems of Cyprus could still be a number of years away; and, of course, the Good Friday agreement was only the beginning of the operational stage of a peace process which is still far from completion.

Ethnic and national sensitivities in Cyprus, and the language in which they are framed, often bear a striking resemblance to those I remember from Ireland in the late 1950s. In relation to Northern Ireland and Britain, we too then saw differences of political interest and of political opinion almost exclusively in moral and black/white terms, victim and oppressor, liberty versus tyranny. Flags, anthems, marches, commemorations and funerals were prominent. Political discourse across the divide was largely abstract, emotional, little more than shouting; within both North and South, a premium was placed on solidarity, and questioning or dissent could easily be seen as betrayal. In Ireland then, as in Cyprus today, demonisation of the other community, its leaders and allies, was very strong.

This kind of thinking, or lack of thought in each community, based on an easy acceptance of hostile ethnic stereotypes, represents a real threat to progress in the Cypriot inter-communal talks. It could also block eventual acceptance of their results. It arises from the bitterness, antagonisms and frustrations which characterise the conflict in Cyprus, reinforced by almost half a century of unremitting, mutually hostile propagandas. But as long as the talks continue, and there is hope of a successful conclusion, there is some countervailing pressure in the opposite direction, towards improving the public atmosphere, fostering a more positive public rhetoric and stressing the benefits of a settlement and the need for increased flexibility and compromise in order to achieve it.

In order to achieve those desirable outcomes, I believe that further difficult changes to existing mindsets are necessary:

In practical terms, both sides must take heed that time is not on the side of a solution. If Anastasiades and Akinci fail in the near future, the likelihood of other leaders having the necessary degree of trust in each other is remote. Therefore, it may not be possible to re-establish any talks process for a considerable time to come. Turkish Cypriots need to find practical alternatives to the continued presence of thirty thousand Turkish troops on the island and to a blanket right of intervention by Turkey as the necessary guarantee of their communal security.

As regards the past, both communities need to take a much cooler and more imaginative look at what they have chosen to remember, and, most importantly, what they have chosen to forget. Both sides have much to regret as well as to commemorate, and more public honesty in this regard can only be helpful.

As regards the future, compromise in negotiation means more than just not getting everything you want; it also implies making up your mind on what price you are prepared to pay for achieving the substance of your priority objectives. It is not yet clear that either community is prepared to pay the necessary price. And if agreement is not the end of the line, neither is its ratification in subsequent referendums; the most important lesson from the Northern Ireland example may be that peace is a process, not a once-off event, and that it has to be worked at, with inevitable ups and downs, perhaps for as long as a further generation.

Getting that far will be no easier in Cyprus than it has been in Ireland.

Published 10 July 2017
Original in English

Contributed by Dublin Review of Books © John Swift / Dublin Review of Books / Eurozine



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