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Are the Cyprus reunification talks doomed to fail again?

Cypriots’ hopes of a peaceful future for their island once again rest on UN-brokered talks in Switzerland. But even as the first words are uttered, those hopes already look under threat.

The island gained its independence from Britain in 1960, but has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded and seized the north in response to a coup designed to reunite Cyprus with Greece. Segregating Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, much bitterness and bloodshed ensued.

The UN has been a peacekeeping presence on Cyprus for more than half a century, but 43 years after the war, its patience is running out. And with more pressing global situations to attend, it has signalled it will end its peacekeeping mission if these talks fail.

Many have argued that a solution to the enduring Cyprus issue can only emerge from the island itself, not from other countries with vested interests. UN envoy Espen Barth Eide is keen to stress that the talks “have been Cypriot-owned, are Cypriot-owned, and can only be Cypriot-owned”. This language emerged a decade ago when two leftist leaders, Mehmet Ali Talat and Nikos Christofias, came to dominate politics on both sides of the dividing green line between the Turkish and Greek communities.

This Cypriot-owned process aspires to counter the failed 2004 UN intervention, since which “Cypriot-led, Cypriot-owned” has become the guiding principle of the negotiations.

Divide and rule

Cyprus is often described as the epitome of ethnic conflict and a classic deadlock of nationalisms. But these accounts tend to ignore the history of peaceful co-existence of peoples on the island, along with the critical role of imperialism.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, with Turkish Cypriots to the north and Greek Cypriots to the south. Shutterstock

The divide-and-rule policies of British imperialism have been instrumental in institutionalising and exacerbating Cyprus’s competing nationalisms. Scholars who attribute the stalemate to individuals or clashing nationalistic aspirations often rush to raise hopes on the occasions leaders appear committed to reach a solution.

Even when Christofias and Talat were elected (Talat in 2005, and Christofias in 2008) with firm and common commitments to an anti-nationalist cause, no successful settlement was reached. This illustrates that the deadlock is not simply a product of competing nationalisms or lack of will to reach a comprehensive solution; rather, it is a product of the imperialist framework set up in 1960, which continues to invite foreign powers to intervene in Cypriot affairs.

Old-school imperialism

This can be considered a direct legacy from the colonial era and the 1960 settlements. The 1960 constitution granted the Republic of Cyprus a flawed independence. It was based on ethnic division, conferring on three foreign powers – Britain, Greece and Turkey – the right to meddle in Cypriot affairs in pursuit of their own interests.

The old-school imperial Treaty of Guarantee (1960) provided for these three “guarantor powers” to consult in order to guarantee “the independence, territorial integrity and security of the Republic of Cyprus”. It seems inconceivable that a member of the EU and UN can have its own sovereignty jeopardised by legally allowing foreign countries to intervene in internal affairs, but that’s where Cyprus finds itself.

While Greek Cypriots consider the abolition of the treaty a prerequisite for any solution, the majority of the Turkish Cypriot community wishes to remain under the protection of the Turkish Republic. This genuine mistrust, which stems from the 1970s attacks on Turkish Cypriots by a guerrilla group, the National Organisation of Cypriot Struggle (EOKA-B), is a major hurdle for reunification.

For several decades, the UN process has aimed at creating a bi-zonal, bi-communal federal state based on political equality. However, many criticise the irony of proposing a reunification of the island based upon a plan for segregation.

Renewed commitment

The renewed Cyprus talks in Switzerland are the culmination of initiatives taken by the island’s two leaders, Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, based on months of bilateral negotiations.

Nicos Anastasiades, President of the Republic of Cyprus. Shutterstock

Both leaders were elected with a mandate to pursue a solution for Cyprus. They appear genuinely committed and have taken full control of the process, meeting nearly every week for the latter part of 2016. These talks have resulted in the current UN-facilitated process in Crans-Montana, and are now seeking a comprehensive settlement.

For more than 40 years, negotiations for reunification have mainly revolved around five issues: territories and the Turkish settlers, property, rights and freedoms, governance, and security. All sides’ positions on these issues have long been entrenched and polarised.

During the latest round of talks, it appears that significant progress in three out of the five issues has been made; the dealbreakers are the issues of governance and security.

Security matters

Concerns over governance and power-sharing issues are often framed as problems of viability, or as a risk of effectively allowing Turkey to join the EU. This warning of “back-door EU entry” is often framed in Islamophobic language.

Mustafa Akinci, President of the Turkish Cypriots. PA, CC BY-SA

But however difficult and unpopular a compromise might be, this won’t be the issue to destroy the deal. That would be security. Turkey maintains a garrison of around 30,000 troops in the northern third of Cyprus, while Greece has about 1,000 soldiers in the Republic of Cyprus. The ratio of 30,000 troops to the civilian population of the north makes it one of the most militarised areas in the world.

Turkey’s well-established position is that withdrawal is out of the question, since its troops act as a stabilising force. On the other side, Greece presses for the “the full withdrawal of Turkish occupation forces and the termination of the anachronistic system of guarantees of 1960 as an integral part of an agreed, viable and comprehensive solution of the Cyprus problem”.

None of the parties wants to see the process suspended. But the chances of reaching an agreement approved via referendum in both north and south are slim. The appetite for referenda has greatly shrunk thanks to recent “defeats” across the EU that routed leaders from power.

The fact remains that a system where three guarantor powers are involved in a sovereign state’s independence is a narrow and confining one. For a sovereign country like Cyprus, these hangover arrangements from the past could pose a serious barrier to a more peaceful, reunited future.

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