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October 31, 2010, Sunday

The Cyprus conundrum

Cyprus is a beautiful island, but sadly a hostage to a history of being divided for over three decades. Some people argue even longer, citing the years of British colonial rule when a barbed-wire fence, a Mason-Dixon Line, was erected between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in Nicosia, after bloody inter-ethnic clashes in 1956. Cypriots have now been living apart for so long that the two communities no longer have any feeling of belonging to a single Cypriot nation, and more and more people are beginning to question whether the only realistic way forward is permanent separation. Aside from creating problems between the two Cypriot communities, the problem has negatively affected both Turkey-Greece and EU-Turkey relations as well as the EU enlargement process.

Over the years there have been several attempts at reunification. All have failed. The latest effort has been under way for over two years.

Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias was in Brussels this week for the European Council. During the visit he gave an update on developments. One can conclude that while progress is being made, a solution is not around the corner. The blame game is also still alive and kicking. The Greek Cypriots continue to say Turkey is the elephant in the room; that the Turkish Cypriot leadership cannot negotiate freely because Turkey -- and more particularly the Turkish military -- breathes down its neck, viewing the island as an extension of Anatolia. Turkey does not share this view.

Turkey is trying to maintain its “one step ahead” approach, and Ankara claims Turkey is doing everything to find a solution. Turkey supported the UN’s 2004 Annan plan -- which the majority of Turkish Cypriot voted yes to, while Greek Cypriots voted no. Turkey claims it never interferes in the talks between the two leaders, rather they support the Turkish Cypriot leadership; what Greek Cypriots say about the role of the military is balderdash. Ankara says the Greek Cypriots are not interested in a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation solution because they do not want to share the island. They do not want the Turkish Cypriots to have any power or a say in governance. Rather the Greek Cypriots want their Turkish Cypriot brothers to be a minority which they can dictate terms to.

Furthermore, Ankara states that the Greek Cypriots have no incentive to negotiate fairly because they are already an EU member. Their rejection of the Annan plan in April 2004, coming just a few weeks before their admission to the EU, is evidence. According to the Turks, now that the Greek Cypriots are safely in the “club,” they will do everything possible to prevent the lifting of the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots, while at the same time do the maximum to create difficulties for Turkey’s EU talks.

Greek Cypriots don’t agree. Firstly, prior to the Annan plan there were numerous other peace plans and efforts that could have borne fruit but did not principally because of the intransigent position of the former Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktaş, and the policies of Turkey’s ruling elite. Rather the Greek Cypriots say the Annan plan contained many points that were unacceptable to them, hence their request to the UN to postpone the referendum for a few months to continue negotiations. Of course, then leader Tassos Papadopoulos was hardly a dove of peace, so it is possible that whatever plan had been negotiated he would never have supported it. Nevertheless the request to postpone was rejected.

Christofias believes Turkey’s accession to the EU would be positive for the entire region and he supports it. At the same time Turkey needs to fulfill its obligations, there should be no shortcuts. Turkey asks for no preferential treatment so why do they refuse to extend their customs union to Greek Cyprus -- something they are legally obliged to do. Turkey stubbornly refuses to do so until the EU delivers on the commitment it made to the Turkish Cypriots to implement a Direct Trade Regulation. It is highly unlikely that this is ever going to happen because the Greek Cypriots continue to block it. They view the regulation as a first step towards recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) and as a separate issue to Turkey’s own obligations. The result has been the freezing of a number of negotiating chapters and new deadlines placed on Ankara. An increasingly assertive Turkey will not back down; rather they expect the EU to increase pressure on “tiny” Cyprus to give up. Cyprus may be small but as with every other state, big or small, when it comes to issues of sovereignty, they will stand their ground -- even if it’s against the mighty Turks.

The only way out is to resolve the Cyprus problem. It would bring peace to the eastern Mediterranean and also resolve all the Cyprus-related issues attached to Turkey’s membership bid. It is time for Cyprus to be freed from the chains of the past. All those concerned need to move beyond the blame game and find a common vision for a future united Cyprus.

Previous articles of the columnist