By predicting likely stumbling blocks, I do not wish to be seen as a doomsayer.
On the contrary, there is nothing more than I want to see a united, peaceful and prosperous Cyprus.
The new initiative announced by the leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus to reunify their island is, indeed, very good news.
The joint statement agreed by the two Cypriot leaders, Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu is a significant step forward.
The revived negotiations will still be under the auspices of the United Nations but this time, the United States will play an important role.
The American involvement may prove to be decisive in this process.
The UN Secretary General’s Good Offices missions alone have not managed to broker an agreement in Cyprus so far. The role played by the European Union has been somewhat divisive rather than unifying since the accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union on the 1st May 2004. Far from being a catalyst for solving the Cyprus problem, the one-sided membership has aggravated it.
Active participation of the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland is one reason for increased optimism now.
The cynics among us may point to vital interests of the US in the southern Mediterranean and the Middle East. That’s precisely what the Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu said to Yusuf Kanli of the Hurriyet Daily News this week:
“The Americans are not here for either my or the Greek’s black eyebrows and eyes [a Turkish proverb, meaning affection]. Large states have interests and their interests always come before the interests of smaller states. It is unfortunate, but true. A settlement in Cyprus will have results bigger than Cyprus itself…”
If by advancing American interests, we mean trying to reduce tension in the region and laying the ground for commercially viable exploration of the natural resources around Cyprus and Israel and to reduce reliance on Russian and Iranian natural gas, that is not necessarily against Turkish or Cypriot interests.
In any case, every conflict resolution is a process where at least some of each side’s interests are addressed.
Leaving the US aside, it is in the Turkish Cypriot interest to break the impasse. Isolated for decades, they have been under immense economic and political pressure. Their reliance on Turkey has meant unwelcome intervention of successive Turkish governments in their way of life, too. The spill-over of Turkey’s “deep state” operations over the years in Cyprus left a dark legacy. In recent years, increasing Turkish religious, cultural and political influence has been causing unease. What I observed during my last visit in 2012 to Cyprus still stands:
“However almost everyone agrees that the isolation they have been subjected to for over three decades is starving their community into full submission to Turkey and for the gradual erosion of the Turkish Cypriot identity. Brain drain and migration from the island cause serious concern. It is frequently pointed out that there are more Turkish Cypriots living in London than on the island itself.
With no prospects of a better future for the new generations, the net effect of the 35 year-long embargoes have been the gradual destruction of the Turkish Cypriot way of life, while increasing the influence of first the nationalist and lately, Islamist and nationalist mainland inspired ideologies.”
As for the Greek Cypriots, their honeymoon with the EU didn’t last very long.
Last year’s financial meltdown left Cyprus with a deep recession, expected to last for at least another year. Cypriots are feeling the consequences of the crisis with a record 17 per cent unemployment, tough austerity measures and a credit squeeze.
All three other major players of Cyprus issue, the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey have their own economic problems.
In the case of Turkey, the political landscape is getting darker each day.
The Justice and Development Party government of Mr Erdogan has already lost a great deal of credibility on the international stage. Knee-deep in a corruption and sleaze scandal, surrounded by an increasingly unstable neighbourhood, it is fast moving towards a more authoritarian regime.
While none of these recent developments in Cyprus, Turkey and the region are in any way encouraging, they clearly play a role in pushing the parties to the conflict to look for a compromise.
The Greek Cypriots need to fully explore and develop natural gas reserves in disputed maritime areas if they are to rebuild their collapsed economy.
Prime Minister Erdogan and his government need a foreign policy success which will also help smooth relations with the European Union.
However, based on previous experience, these can also be the possible stumbling blocks.
In Turkey, brave decisions have always been taken when the country didn’t perceive a national security threat.
The last time a bold step concerning the EU and Cyprus were taken, it was when the PKK leader Ocalan was safely behind bars and the Kurdish movement considered being under control.
At the same time, with Kemal Dervis at the helm, the economy was on the mend. The neighbourhood was relatively peaceful. The power of the military was waning.
Right now, it is the opposite.
Cyprus has never been a cause the Turkey’s liberals fought for. It has been an issue both for the right and left wing nationalists over the years. Today, the Turkish government’s renewed flirting with the military in order to undermine its one-time ally the Gulenists throws in further uncertainties into the mixture.
If the latest initiative has anything to do with the natural gas reserves in the Mediterranean, Israel must be a part of the picture, too.
This is one area Mr Erdogan’s Islamist government is most unpredictable.
True, we have moved a long way from the days when some Turkish politicians refused to admit the Greek Cypriot journalists into their press conferences. I was a witness to a prominent Greek Cypriot journalist being evicted from an ungracious Tansu Ciller’s press conference during the EU summit of 1996 in Dublin. I also remember a Cypriot high-level official delegation arriving in Istanbul during the OSCE summit in 1999 and being followed everywhere and kept out of all Turkish hospitality events, causing me, a Turkish journalist, an acute embarrassment.
Thankfully, those shameful days are mostly behind us.
One of the most promising aspects of the latest negotiation process is the plans to have Turkish and Greek Cypriot negotiators visit Ankara and Athens.
I just hope that it will not be a repeat of the 2010 meeting of the leading Greek Cypriots meeting Mr Erdogan and being assured that he wanted to do a deal on Cyprus. I remember the discussions I had with some of them about the democratic credentials of Mr Erdogan and his government.
Even if I do not believe that there has been a “seismic shift” in Turkey, let me finish with a positive note.
President Nicos Anastasiades seems to have put the reunification issue to the top of the national agenda. He has the support of the opposition communist party AKEL. The Orthodox Church also seems to have a relatively positive approach.
Mr. Anastasiades’ visit to London in January has produced a significant result with the UK government agreeing to hand over some sovereign bases territory to Cyprus government which may be helpful when we come to “confidence building” measures from both sides.
The Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu may be sceptical about the whole process but he is not blind to his community’s wishes. I also take note of what his predecessor Mehmet Ali Talat says. Mr Talat believes Mr Eroglu has taken some important steps and if he continued on this road, Mr Talat would support Eroglu in the elections next year.
The representatives of the both communities, Kudret Özersay and Andreas Mavroyannis are well-equipped to do the job.
Last but not the least, both sides have foreign ministers with great deal of experience and integrity. At some stage, in my long years of interest in Cyprus, I was lucky enough to get to know both men a little to benefit from their wisdom.
This post is also available in: Turkish