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Thursday, May 01, 2003


Winds of Change in Cyprus

Analysts of the Cyprus issue have had a busy spring. On March 10, 2003, the fiasco at The Hague put an indefinite hold on the most intensive effort ever exerted by the United Nations to solve the problem, on the basis of the detailed plan for a comprehensive settlement submitted by its secretary general, Kofi Annan, last November. Soon thereafter, however, the Greek Cypriots (at least) had a lot to be happy about. On April 16, 2003, newly elected president Tassos Papadopoulos signed Cyprus’s European Union accession treaty in Athens, and the island is set to become a member by May 2004.

April 23 may prove to be another historic date. Following Rauf Denktash’s shock move to partially lift restrictions on free movement on the island, an estimated 120,000 Greek and Turkish Cypriots have crossed the Green Line that has firmly divided the island for 29 years. Whereas most politicians, both Greek and Turkish Cypriot, appeared to be stunned, with the Greek Cypriots quick to stress that Denktash’s move was “illegal” and by no means constituted a solution — or the solution — to the Cyprus problem, ordinary people were euphoric. A few reporters followed some to their villages, and there were tears and hugs, handfuls of wild flowers, and mementos from their homes. Ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots express warm feelings toward each other; Turkish Cypriots are walking along Ledra Street in Nicosia or along Larnaca’s seafront, and Greek Cypriot television stations are reporting live from Kyrenia harbor. What is happening in Cyprus? Is the wall really breaking down? Whereas it might be premature to rush to any firm conclusions, the Cyprus conflict seems to have entered a new phase. As George Papandreou, Greece’s foreign minister, put it, commenting on the opening of the Green Line: “There is a new dynamic on the island…a dynamic of a solution.”

Few would doubt that the new atmosphere is largely the result of Cyprus’s accession to the European Union. Regrettably, and entirely as a result of the Turkish side’s intransigence, the EU accession treaty was signed with the division of Cyprus still unresolved; if that does not change by May 2004, the application of EU laws and regulations in the occupied part of Cyprus will be suspended indefinitely. It seems, however, that Rauf Denktash, who for decades maintained that the two sides could not live together and did whatever he could to prevent contact between them, decided (with his son Serdar Denktash’s active participation) to take the initiative and open the “border.” The younger Denktash’s daily statements include a markedly new rhetoric: Cypriots can perhaps begin solving the Cyprus problem on their own, without outside interference — albeit gradually. Opening up the Green Line is a first step, an experiment of sorts, which will prove whether or not the two sides can live together. Still, regardless of what the Turkish Cypriot leadership thinks, the Cyprus issue will not magically disappear simply because Mr. Denktash has decided to allow limited movement. More important, Kofi Annan’s plan is still on the negotiating table.

According to the 450-page proposal, the Cyprus issue will be resolved by establishing a bicommunal and bizonal federation: an idea that has been officially accepted by both sides since the so-called High Level Agreements of 1977 and 1979. The Annan plan, characterized by the UN Security Council as “a carefully balanced and fair proposal,” was the culmination of more than three years of intensive diplomatic efforts on the part of the UN, in close cooperation both with the US and EU. The plan — which was revised twice, on December 10, 2002, and February 26, 2003 — calls for a new Cypriot state with “a single sovereignty, international personality and citizenship…comprising two politically equal communities.” The towns of Famagusta and Morphou, along with a number of villages now occupied by the Turkish army, would come under the control of the Greek Cypriot component of the new “Cyprus United Republic,” and about 90,000 Greek Cypriot refugees would gradually return to their homes. About 40,000 Turkish Cypriots would be displaced, and a considerable number of Turkish settlers would remain on the island. According to the plan, which was inspired by the Swiss experience, there will be a presidential council with four Greek Cypriot and two Turkish Cypriot members and a rotating presidency. There will also be an upper house with equal representation and a lower house with 33 Greek Cypriot and 12 Turkish Cypriot representatives (along with one each for the Armenian, Latin, and Maronite communities of the island). As Alvaro De Soto, the UN’s special envoy, has put it repeatedly, the idea is for the two sides “to come together and still be separate.”

Whereas the Greek Cypriot side accepted the plan as a basis for negotiation (if only halfheartedly), Mr. Denktash rejected it, insisting that its proposals for land swaps and population movements were unacceptable. Notwithstanding that tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots demonstrated in the streets demanding its immediate acceptance, and the new Turkish government also initially expressed its support, Mr. Denktash denounced the plan as “a crime against humanity” and was able (once again, I might add) to impose his own intransigent positions on everyone else. The plan also called for separate referenda, putting the proposal directly to the two ethnic communities if their respective leaderships were not willing to sign on, which also seemed to put off Mr. Denktash — since, among other reasons, he felt his people could not fully comprehend the plan’s details and implications. The UN effort thus collapsed at The Hague. Given that the plan had aimed at a settlement before the signing of the EU accession treaty, The Hague — like Copenhagen in December 2002 and numerous other occasions when the Cyprus issue was close to being resolved — seemed like another lost opportunity.

In his report to the Security Council amid the international crisis over the war in Iraq, Kofi Annan clearly put the blame for failure to reach agreement on the Turkish Cypriot side and Mr. Denktash in particular. UN Security Council Resolution 1475 stated its “regrets that…due to the negative approach of the Turkish Cypriot leader…it was not possible to reach agreement to put the plan to simultaneous referenda.” At the same time, however, and despite commending President Papadopoulos for accepting to submit the plan to a popular referendum, Kofi Annan appeared to be critical of the Greek Cypriot side as well, primarily for not realizing that the choice was not between this specific UN plan and a better one, but between the UN plan and no solution at all.

It still seems that the Annan plan is the only way forward, with May 2004, when Cyprus will officially join the EU, now considered to be the new deadline. If the island joins the EU without a solution, the current division is bound to become even more entrenched — and both communities will pay a heavy price: Greeks will not recover any occupied lands, while Turks will continue in their political isolation and economic misery. There is still room for optimism, however. Let us not forget that by the end of 2004, the EU will decide on Turkey’s path to accession. The EU has made it abundantly clear that Turkey cannot expect to join unless, among other requirements, it pressures the Turkish Cypriots into compromise on the Cyprus issue. In fact, both sides will have to come to terms with the hard work that a new Cyprus will require since compromise will dig up issues from the past — such as territory, compensation for those who were forced to leave their homes, independence from motherlands, and the painful recognition of past mistakes — and will mean formulating the thorny details of future nation-building. All of these activities are expected to take place while Cyprus maintains a healthy economy and aligns its institutions with Europe.

Luckily for Cypriots, the international community has consistently appeared determined to settle the dispute, and the Annan plan certainly seems like the best opportunity for a settlement in years. The UN, EU, US, Greece, and even the new Turkish government support it, and the prospect of Cyprus’s entry into the EU in 2004 puts pressure on both communities to finally iron out their differences. Still, the history of the Cyprus problem has rightfully been described as one of missed opportunities, and few seemed surprised that The Hague joined the heap of previous failures, with the two communities continuing to live separately, as they have for decades.

The development of a climate of mutual trust between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a sine qua non for any settlement; it is, to put it differently, a necessary although not sufficient condition in itself for resolving the Cyprus issue. Bicommunal efforts supported by the UN, the US, and various European countries during the past three decades have aimed at building trust among Cypriots and developing a common Cypriot identity. There have been many conflict-resolution workshops, usually organized in the buffer zone or abroad, but participation has usually been limited to upper-middle-class professionals and intellectuals, who have often been accused of being unpatriotic and even treasonous. The fact is that without a climate of mutual trust, however, the functional coexistence of the two communities within the framework of a bicommunal state and common homeland remains a hopeless task. Notwithstanding Mr. Denktash’s real motives, therefore, opening up the Green Line may indeed prove to be the dynamic that will create the necessary mutual trust to move the entire process forward.

Caesar V. Mavratsas is a sociologist and assistant professor in the department of social and political science at the University of Cyprus.
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