Cyprus: The Year of Decision - or Not?

As the Middle East explodes in a storm of riots and rebellion, the geostrategically vital island of Cyprus sits in the eye of the hurricane. Its seeming calm is misleading however. For once again, Cyprus is facing its own quiet upheaval.

It came as a shock to discover that Turkey was the second biggest subject of the US cables brought to light by Wikileaks. The reason is simple. While unsurprisingly they gave disparaging opinions on Sarkozy and Berlusconi, they also revealed that Turkey matters very much indeed nowadays: particularly to America.

So Turkey and Cyprus are looming large on the international agenda once again. Big changes are in the air. To the consternation of the Greek Cypriots, the UN Secretary-General has indicated that there will now, after four decades of fruitless talks on reunification, be a clear UN deadline to come to a final settlement. He has also warned that the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus may not be a permanent fixture and the EU, plus several of its members, have now openly admitted that it was a serious mistake to admit the Greek Republic of Cyprus into the Union. Suddenly, a real settlement of the Cyprus question, one way or another, is up for grabs. The political log jam is starting to break up.

Of course, we have been here before. Recent history is littered with ‘final chances for Cyprus’, from the abortive Clerides-Denktash talks of 1975 to the ill-fated Annan Plan of 2004. This time however, it really is different. A number of major factors have changed the situation.

Plus ça Change
One thing is the same. Cyprus’s curse remains its location. Forget the two warring communities; it is the island’s geostrategic position that really matters, as it has for the past 3,500 years. Aphrodite’s Island, controlling the Eastern Mediterranean, has simply always been too important a piece of real estate to be left to the locals. It matters to the US, the UK, NATO, Greece, Russia, Israel and, most of all, to Turkey. Cyprus is important, and at a time when the Middle East is in ferment, it remains a key factor in a rapidly unravelling region.

The changing political landscape is based around three main developments: the genuine possibility of a political settlement on Cyprus; second, the discovery that there may be serious deposits of natural gas and oil off the coast; but, above all, the acknowledgement that the island is a vital pawn and a haven of stability in what is undoubtedly a rough neighbourhood. And it is a neighbourhood that can get much rougher.

Just sixty miles to the east of Cyprus sit Lebanon, Syria and Israel. Tel Aviv in particular is watching nervously as events move on. One of the dangers lies in the fear that the new, post-Mubarak Egypt will move to distance itself from the Jewish state. Cairo’s sudden willingness to allow Iranian warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in thirty-two years underlines the explosive changes on the horizon. Israel, with an Iranian battle fleet in the Cyprus straits, suddenly looks even more surrounded and embattled than ever. Iran and its nuclear ambitions will cast an ever-greater shadow over the region, and over Israel’s future.

At the heart of the possible changes for Cyprus is the possibility that the talks may not succeed. Diplomats are currently calculating what the likely outcome will be if the talks fail come early summer. With elections in the air the stakes are high for all parties involved.

Asia Minor Comes of Age
Turkey’s growing self-confidence is the key, as the alarmed US diplomatic cables have shown. Ankara has slashed its links with Israel, increased its ties with Iran and is now openly pursuing a new and independent line in the region. Plans to base NATO air-defence missiles in the area have been put on the backburner, to the discomfiture of the Alliance and the worry of the USA.
Turkey used to be a well-controlled ally that lined up with the West. Now it is a democracy with a booming economy and big geopolitical ambitions of its own.

With a market of 70 million people, a growth rate of nearly 10 per cent and an increasingly assertive governing party, Ankara is now in a position to deal with many of the problems that have bedevilled it over recent years. These range from its stalled EU bid, to controlling its generals; from becoming energy independent to sorting out Cyprus.

There is no doubt that Ankara’s frustration and growing irritation with the tiny unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has now come to a head. The Turkish Cypriot mini-state drains over a million dollars a day from the Turkish taxpayer. Ankara has clearly decided it is time to find a better solution than its policy of support by cheque book. For four decades the Turkish Cypriots have lived in their comfort zone, secure from Greek harassment – or worse under the murderous Akritas plan – and cocooned from economic reality by Ankara’s generous handouts.

The result has been a false culture of entitlement and dependency, where striking Turkish Cypriot union leaders in late January could display banners saying ‘No Cuts!’ and ‘Turkey! We Don’t Need Your Money!’ while being paid up to £3,500 a month by the Turkish taxpayer. It is no wonder that the Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdogan, exploded with rage on seeing the anti-Turkish demonstrations in Lefkosa. ‘Biting the hand that feeds you’ does not begin to do justice to Turkish anger at the TV images of a small group of well-paid ingrates who are suspected of secretly siding with their Greek Cypriot co-unionists.

Ankara’s solution will be economic and painful, as the continuing wave of union strikes and protests against ‘Ankara’s austerity cuts’ demonstrate – but above all, it will be political. So, ironically, Ankara and the UN are for once in step: there will be a solution to the Cyprus problem, whether the Turkish or Greek Cypriots like it or not. The TRNC is really at either a crossroads or a fork in the road. For the devil is in the detail of what sort of country any re-unified state will be.

Questions of State
The proposed UN-EU-UK outcome, a bi-zonal federal EU state like Belgium, raises as many questions as it answers. Has there ever been such a state that worked? Will the three guarantor powers agree? What happens to the British Sovereign Base Areas? Will it adopt the euro as its currency? While many in the North will be licking their lips at the chance to suckle on the generous financial teat of Brussels (whose out-of-control budget can easily afford to chuck juicy euro-bribes to tempt the TRNC), it would also mean taking on the six billion euros of toxic debt to which the Republic in the South admits, and sharing the pain of the South’s recession. No sane economist is encouraging anyone to join the Eurozone’s southern tier at present.

But there is another, little discussed factor to the TRNC becoming part of the EU: it could actually be to Ankara’s benefit. Calculating politicians can see the advantages of letting a small part of Turkey get its nose inside Brussels’s door. It could save Ankara nearly $600 million a year and would also demonstrate that Turks – in small numbers anyway – are not a threat to the EU.

However, any bizonal state in the EU immediately raises questions of the Turkish guarantee to the North and the presence of the Turkish army. Greeks have always maintained two red lines in their negotiations. Forgetting the Turks intervened in 1974 to stop a Greek invasion, coup and civil war, Greek propagandists demand that the ‘occupying’ Turkish army must go. And, while the Turks have generally accepted the loss of their pre-1974 properties in the south, Greek Cypriots want their grandfathers’ properties back. Although all things are possible, it is hard to see any compromise on these two issues. Ankara has its red lines on Cyprus too, and has spilt blood to achieve them.

More of the Same?
What is more likely is that the talks will founder slowly on the rocks of property and the Turkish bases in the TRNC. The outcome for the TRNC then looks very different as financially it cannot survive as an independent nation.

Totally in hock to Turkey, Lefkosa cannot dictate terms. But Ankara can. The choice is straightforward enough, and the fork in the road is clear. If it is to survive economically and politically, then either the TRNC makes a settlement with the Republic of Cyprus, or it must entertain the prospect of partition – an option that is now openly discussed. The TRNC may have to become a province of Turkey, or a self-governing protectorate, in order to survive.

If any future referendum backed such a move, then there could no longer be any question of international non-recognition. Under the UN Charter on the self-determination of people, the TRNC would become a legitimate political entity and would be able to start earning its own living in the world. The Greek side would undoubtedly continue carping and shrieking; but the UN and the EU could heave a sigh of relief and get on with more important matters.

However such a scenario is by no means assured. One weary observer of the Cyprus scene who remembers the bright glad dawn of independence in 1960, and who lived through the massacres of 1963, the ethnic cleansing of the Turkish Cypriots under Makarios, the Greek coup and civil war of 1974 and then the Turkish intervention, and who has since watched the endless talks, has a very different view.  He believes that the ‘on again, off again’ talks may well continue − because neither side really wants to find a solution.

Endless talks, contrary to the received wisdom of ‘2011 – the year of decision’, could once again be the outcome for Cyprus.

John Hughes-Wilson
Associate Fellow

John Hughes-Wilson

Associate Fellow

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