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Cyprus talks keep failing – maybe it’s time to try something a little different

Negotiations on settling the international dispute over Cyprus have hit a wall – yet again. For months, the latest round of reunification talks have been touted as a real chance to finally seal a deal, even though people close to the discussions repeatedly reported that very little had been agreed.

In January, a high-level conference in Geneva engaged Greece, Turkey and the UK as guarantor powers, but those discussions lasted less than a day because there was so little on which to build. The Cypriot leaders returned to the island with the promise to continue their efforts, but there has been a palpable deflation of public interest.

When the Republic of Cyprus parliament recently passed a proposal by neo-Nazi party ELAM to commemorate in schools the 1950 Greek Cypriot plebiscite for union with Greece, the Turkish Cypriot reaction was swift and uniformly negative. It was little surprise that tensions erupted at the negotiating table, with each side claiming the other walked away. Those Cypriots who had clung to hope even after Geneva are lamenting on social media that the “hardliners” have won, as the two sides are pushed farther apart by extreme positions in their own communities.

The irony is that until this disagreement, the two current Cypriot leaders had been lauded in local and international media as the most willing to compromise for years. They seemed to be the leaders most committed to peace.

All or nothing means nothing

I warned more than a year ago against believing Mustafa Akıncı’s election as Turkish Cypriot leader represented a done deal for reunification. What Akıncı and Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades discovered at the negotiating table is what so many before them have learned: that “all or nothing” solutions tend to produce nothing.

Over the years, the United Nations and world leaders have spent countless hours and untold amounts of money coaxing and advising Cypriot leaders, believing the only solution to the Cyprus division would be a comprehensive one. They’ve shuttled the Cypriots to retreats in Switzerland, and made flying visits to the island to show support. And in all these talks, great attention has been paid to the goodwill – or otherwise – of the leaders. The idea seems to be that if they can merrily eat and drink together, a plan will magically materialise that will comprehensively resolve all the problems of security, guarantees, territory, property and political equality.

The UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, between the two Cypriot leaders. EPA

For a couple of decades, Cypriots have been told that each round of negotiations is “the last chance”. This time it may very well be true. At least, it may very well be the last chance for a comprehensive solution, but that does not mean it has to be the last chance for a negotiated settlement.

It’s time to abandon the fetish of the comprehensive solution – an idea that has acquired almost mystical qualities as the one and only way to resolve the Cyprus divide. Instead, it is time to think about how to negotiate a step-by-step solution, one that will give a roadmap for a peace that is transformative and sustainable.

A dated vision

The fixation on a comprehensive solution perhaps made sense when the ceasefire line dividing the island was closed and Cypriots from each side were unable to encounter each other on the island. But the easing of movement restrictions in 2003 produced transformations that were political, social – even psychological. People began to interact and learn, or relearn, each others’ languages. A bi-communal civil society initiative brought together families of missing people to demand information about their loved ones. A bi-communal heritage committee has restored churches and mosques on both sides of the island. Maronite Cypriots began to return to their villages in the north. These transformations, while slow, have shifted the ground of the conflict, even as the format envisioned for resolving it has remained the same.

It is time to learn from this momentum of transformation and to envision concrete steps that can be taken tomorrow, and the next day, to further transform the island and lead it closer to peace.

A crumbling resort in Varosha. EPA

The opening of the closed city of Varosha in the north of the island and the creation of institutions that support political and economic cooperation and interdependence are two such steps. Acceleration of mechanisms to return or compensate people for the loss of their property would be another. Some may be unilateral steps, such as opening closed Maronite villages in the island’s north to allow resettlement. Others may be negotiated steps, such as exchanging information about and immediately compensating the owners of those properties that have been irrevocably developed or expropriated for public works, such as airports and hospitals. Indeed, there is much to be done, step by step, in ways that allow Cypriots to control the incremental changes that are already transforming their lives.

Until now, anything that is not a comprehensive solution has been seen as a “confidence-building measure” – an ad-hoc attempt to create an environment for peace. But these steps don’t have to be ad-hoc. They may be an integral part of a step-by-step plan with the larger goal of integrating the two sides of the island and creating forms of social and economic interdependence that will make political unification inevitable.

It is time to move beyond the fetish of the comprehensive solution and negotiate concrete steps that will transform Cyprus in ways that will sustain the hope we are now in danger of losing.

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