Cyprus Peace Talks: Be Bold, but be Careful

01/10/2017 10:19 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2017
Cyprus reunification negotiations resume in Geneva
UN Good Offices, Cyprus
Cyprus reunification negotiations resume in Geneva

This week, the 19 month long negotiations to reunify Cyprus and end Turkey’s 42 year occupation of the northern part of the country enter a new phase with talks in Geneva, Switzerland. The President of the Republic of Cyprus, Nicos Anastasiades, and the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, Mustafa Akinci, will take three days to come up with a breakthrough on outstanding issues. Then on January 12, Cypriots will be joined by the three countries originally tasked with guaranteeing Cyprus’ sovereignty — Greece, Turkey and Britain — the European Union, and the P5 of the UN Security Council. Many stakeholders and experts on Cyprus call this the “best chance ever” to make good on what is now the world’s best hope for peace.

Perhaps because this round of negotiations has come back from the brink so often, perhaps because of the dearth of good news internationally, or perhaps because after 42 years so many want to see any type of solution on Cyprus, there is some sense of euphoria regarding this process and some are even calling the talks in Geneva an “end game”. It is not, and attempts to make it so will only torpedo any promise that may exist on Cyprus.


There are several “chapters” that make up the potential agreement on Cyprus. The negotiators have purportedly made unprecedented progress on matters concerning governance, power sharing, the economy, property compensation and territory. The English language media’s coverage of Cyprus has for decades been sub-par, so it isn’t much of a surprise that it now incorrectly reports that land and property are the top issues in the negotiations. Any diplomacy guided by this is bound to fail. Since the flawed 2004 Annan Plan failed to reunify Cyprus, poll after poll has shown that security is far and away the most important issue for the Cypriot electorate. Indeed, 2004 exit poll showed that 75% of those who voted against the Annan Plan listed “security” issues as their reason for voting “No”. Despite the primary importance of the security issues, they have been left to this stage. The likelihood of a final agreement on security in Geneva is slim indeed, especially with Turkey insisting on a right to “intervene” in (i.e., invade) Cyprus.

Of course, those who are seized by euphoria regarding Cyprus like to pretend that solving these security issues merely requires “will”. Unfortunately, they don’t specify whether they mean the will of Turkey to finally comply with the myriad of UN Security Council Resolutions directing it to end its occupation or the will of the Republic of Cyprus to legitimize the Turkish occupation. They also ignore polling that unequivocally shows that approving any plan to reunify Cyprus at this stage is an uphill battle. A poll commissioned by Alpha Television in Cyprus shows: that 61.9% of Cypriots do not believe that a solution is close; only 2.6% believe that the Geneva talks will result in a solution; and only 35.3% believe that if a solution is found it will work. This poll also demonstrated how definitive security matters are, with 74.6% rejecting guarantor powers being part of a reunified Cyprus and 95.6% demanding the withdrawal of Turkish troops.

There are many other serious non-Cypriot factors that make the timing of a Cyprus settlement questionable. Does Turkey’s President Erdogan – in the midst of an internal crackdown, a burgeoning economic crisis, conflict with ISIS and the Kurds – have the political ability to make the necessary contributions to the negotiations or will he continue a hardline approach to appear more powerful domestically? With the U.S. in political transition, the U.K. about to be occupied by Brexit negotiations, a new U.N. Secretary General and an E.U. in political discord, can the international community really facilitate an agreement and help implement it? Which international donors are going to step up and help a reunified Cyprus with the tens of billions that will be required to fund reunification?


Getting to peace after 42 years and in the face of all these obstacles is clearly not for the timid. But something far bolder than platitudes or “this is the last chance” declarations that have been uttered with regards to Cyprus for over a decade. There is a long way to go in Cyprus, but some measures can legitimately increase the confidence in a successful “end game”:

First, don’t rush either into an agreement or into a referendum. Worries regarding a workable deal will become reality if the parties continue sprinting towards the arbitrary deadline of late Spring/early Summer of 2017 for a referendum. The Republic of Cyprus is holding presidential elections early in 2018, and if there is an agreement before then, the required referendum should be held simultaneously to the presidential elections. All stakeholders and analysts agree that the initial implementation period after a successful referendum will be one of the most challenging steps in reunifying Cyprus, and this task should be carried out by someone with a mandate. It would be disastrous to have a referendum narrowly pass and then – perhaps because of difficulties early in implementation – to have a President elected months later who opposed the referendum result. Let’s have a debate worthy of this potentially momentous peace – an Eastern Mediterranean Federalist v.s. anti-Federalist papers debate. The people of Cyprus deserve a chance to honestly deliberate over what kind of future they want and whether the plan being presented gives them a realistic chance at that future.

In the meantime, revive serious and substantial Confidence Building Measures. The Alpha poll demonstrates that Cypriots really want a solution, they are just not confident that they are on the road to one. If this process does fall apart, honest analysts will come to lament the failure to seize on a game changing CBM offered early on by the Anastasiades government. There are several CBMs that probably could move the needle on polls. Surveys and planning studies of the ghost city of Varosha (which Greek-Cypriots would get back) and the port of Famagusta (held by Turkish Cypriots) would give the people of Cyprus some sense of the benefits that could be around the corner. A modest draw down of Turkish troops in the northern part of Cyprus and the passage of stronger hate crime legislation in the Republic of Cyprus could convince each community that their security concerns are being treated seriously. Expediting the search for 1,500 Cypriots still missing from the 1974 invasion and the intercommunal violence in the 1960s – a priority of both communities that is being held up by the Turkish military – would help start healing the wounds of the past and serve a similar role to a truth and reconciliation commission.

Finally, the international community needs to step up. Christopher Hitchens once called Cyprus a Hostage to History, and every foreign players that has been involved in Cyprus has contributed to the turmoil Cypriots still deal with. Let’s be clear, the international community is not putting such effort into Cyprus today because of a sense of justice or respect for rule of law. As Cyprus transitions from producing olive oil to producing oil and natural gas, it has also become a center for diplomacy in the region – touching on everything from Israeli-Turkish rapprochement, to the war against ISIS, to counterterrorism efforts against Hamas and Hezbollah. Getting Cyprus wrong will have serious and wide ranging consequences for the energy independence of Europe and Israel, Western security strategy in the region, and EU-Turkish relations. The international community has to start being clear about exactly how it will help implement a Cyprus deal and make it financially viable. The EU — of which Cyprus is already a member, in which many Turkish-Cypriots already hold citizenship, and membership in which Turkey seeks — is best positioned to play a unifying role and provide a common vision for the future, including on security issues.

The stakes are high in Cyprus, with the resolution of this long-standing issue potentially as history shaping as the Camp David Accords. But reunifying Cyprus requires more than political agreement and the cheerleading of the United Nations and Foreign Ministries around the world. It requires winning the hearts and minds of Cypriots. After a year of disastrous referendum results, hopefully the world will have learned an important lesson for Cyprus – it is more important to get it done right than to get it done quickly.

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