The Cyprus Problem – Intractable or insoluble?

Hopes of settling the Cyprus problem are starting to look unrealistic

Eastern MedEUROPEAN UNION countries loudly criticise Russia for creating frozen conflicts in Georgia, Moldova and, now, Ukraine. Yet they are quieter about their own case of Cyprus, an EU member with an unrecognised Turkish-Cypriot north. This frozen conflict is older: over 50 years have passed since clashes broke out between Turkish- and Greek-Cypriots, 40 since Turkey invaded and grabbed northern Cyprus and ten since the Annan plan for unification that Turkish-Cypriots accepted but Greek-Cypriots rejected. [Nonetheless South Cyprus became member of the EU in 2004]

Bitter experience recommends scepticism about talks on Cyprus. Even so, a sixth round is under way. In February the two sides agreed to work for a bizonal, bicommunal federation “with political equality”. A new UN envoy, Espen Barth Eide, a former Norwegian foreign minister, arrived in September. The (Greek-Cypriot) president, Nicos Anastasiades, who backed the Annan plan, is eager for a deal. He knows well the cost of not having one: from the garden of his presidential palace North Cyprus flagin Nicosia (“Europe’s last divided city”) he can see the Turkish-Cypriot flag emblazoned on the Pentadaktylos [Besparmak] mountains.

Two newer developments ought to spur the negotiators on. One is the economic woes that last year made [South] Cyprus the fifth euro-zone member to need a bail-out. Mr Anastasiades assured a recent Economist conference in Nicosia that the economy was on the mend and growth would resume in 2015. Yet the gains from a settlement should still appeal. In May a study for the PRIO Cyprus Centre, a research institute, co-written by Fiona Mullen of Sapienta Economics, a consultancy, suggested that annual growth could be 2.8 percentage points higher for 20 years, adding €12,000 ($15,000) to average incomes. And that is before the second development: rising optimism about offshore gas reserves in the east Mediterranean.

Barbaros ship_3Yet the gas has now become just another obstacle: Mr Anastasiades says it is making a deal harder to reach. A Turkish exploration vessel, Barbaros, has intruded into Cypriot waters [the so called Exclusive Economic Zone] , ostensibly to help secure the interests of Turkish-Cypriots. In response, Mr Anastasiades has suspended the bilateral talks. Mr Eide, who calls himself a realistic optimist, says he can restart them. But Cypriot plans to exploit the gas without a pipeline to Turkey will still seem provocative. Unhelpfully, Turkey’s own EU membership talks are in the doldrums.

Many observers doubt if a federal solution would ever work. Ergun Olgen, the chief negotiator for the Turkish-Cypriot president, Dervis Eroglu, calls federations extremely tricky, especially when the components are unbalanced (Greek-Cypriots make up some 80% of the population). The system at independence in 1960 fell apart three years later. Mr Eide talks of a slippery slope of mutual recrimination, adding that, although he finds lots of agreement on the future, there is none on the present.

Αεροδρόμιο Λευκωσίας//Lefkosia Airport
Anastasiades – Eide – Eroglu

Is there an alternative? It is striking how many Cyprus-watchers are looking for one. A report by the International Crisis Group in March touted the option of two separate states within the EU. Most essays in a new book* are sceptical about a settlement, and several suggest a far looser federation or even partition. Mr Eide says that, although a federation is the best outcome, no solution at all is the worst, meaning that something else may have to be tried. Partition would reopen the border, return more property and land (including the ghost resort of Varosha, next to Famagusta) to the Greek-Cypriots and stop the Turkish-Cypriots’ international isolation. If the latest talks fail, its time may yet come.

*“Resolving Cyprus: New Approaches to Conflict Resolution”.

Edited by James Ker-Lindsay (I.B. Tauris)

Source: The Economist