Monday, 01 February 2010

Is Time Running Out on Cyprus Reunification?

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By Gareth H. Jenkins (vol. 3, no. 2 of the Turkey Analyst)

Time appears to be running out for a successful conclusion of the latest UN-sponsored negotiations to reunite the divided island of Cyprus. Although representatives of the two communities began intensified talks on January 11, 2010, the impending presidential elections in the Turkish Cypriot north of the island are expected to force a break in the negotiating process. More ominously, if – as currently seems likely – the incumbent Mehmet Ali Talat is replaced by the more hawkish Dervis Eroğlu, the prospects of a settlement are likely to recede considerably.

BACKGROUND: When the current negotiating process was inaugurated on September 3, 2008, it appeared to offer the best chance for the reunification of Cyprus since April 24, 2004, when twin referenda on a UN-drafted settlement – known as the Annan Plan after Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General at time – resulted in its approval by the Turkish Cypriots but its rejection by the Greek Cypriots. The referenda were held just one week before a reunited Cyprus was due to join the EU. The failure of the Annan Plan meant that, on May 1, 2004, the Greek Cypriot part, the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, acceded to the EU on its own.

Privately, UN officials involved in drafting the Annan Plan admitted that they had given priority to addressing Turkish Cypriot concerns. The resultant disparity between the votes in the referenda demonstrated how far apart the two sides were: with 64.9 percent of Turkish Cypriots voting to approve the plan, while 75.8 percent of Greek Cypriots rejected it.

Initially, there were fears that the collapse of the Annan Plan spelled the end of any attempt to reunite the island. Both Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Turkish Cypriot government insisted that any future settlement should be based on the Annan Plan while the Greek Cypriots made it clear that they considered the plan dead and buried.

However, hopes were revived by the election on February 24, 2008, of Dimitris Christofias as Cypriot president. An avowed communist, Christofias was generally regarded as more dovish than his predecessor, the hard-line nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos. By the time of Christofias’s election, the leadership of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the Turkish Cypriot statelet in the north of the island, had also changed hands. Rauf Denktaş, who had been the president of the TRNC since its unilateral declaration of independence in November 1983, had been replaced by Mehmet Ali Talat. Unlike Denktaş, Talat was an outspoken supporter of reunification and had known Christofias since both were leftist activists in their youth. There appeared to be a genuine chance that, as the bitterness of the divisions over the Annan Plan began to fade and building on their good personal relations, the two leaders could formulate a comprehensive agreement that would reunite the island.

In the 15 months following the inauguration of negotiations in September 2008, the two sides held 59 meetings to try to draw up a blueprint for the composition of a federal Cyprus comprising two constituent states, a Greek Cypriot one in the south and a Turkish Cypriot one in the north. Topics discussed included the division of territory, power-sharing, sovereignty, security, freedom of movement and the restitution of, or compensation for, property which had changed hands in 1974.

On 11 January 2010, the two sides began a series of intensified discussions in the hope of reducing the number of issues on which they disagreed in the run-up to a final summit meeting in spring 2010. However, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived on the island on January 31, 2010, to try to give a final push to the negotiations, it was clear not only that the two sides were still far apart on several key issues but that time was running out to reach a comprehensive settlement.

IMPLICATIONS:  On April 18, 2010, Turkish Cypriots will go to the polls to elect a new president. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the national vote, a run-off between the two leading candidates will be held on April 25, 2010.

In the last presidential election on April 17, 2005, Talat won in the first round receiving 55.9 percent of vote, well ahead of his nearest rival, Derviş Eroğlu, who took 22.9 percent. Eroğlu has already declared that he will stand as a candidate on April 18, 2010. Talat is expected to announce his own candidacy in early February 2010, which would almost inevitably necessitate him taking a break from the UN-sponsored negotiations in order to campaign for re-election.

In recent years, Talat’s Republican Turkish Party (CTP) has suffered a sharp decline in its popularity, not least as a result of widespread dissatisfaction with the way it has managed the economy. In the general election of April 19, 2009, the CTP won only 29.2 percent, down from 44.5 percent in the previous election on February 20, 2005, when it was still led by Talat.

In contrast, Eroğlu’s National Unity Party (UBP) won the April 19, 2009 election with 44.1 percent of the popular vote, up from 31.7 percent on February 20, 2005. Although Talat’s personal popularity currently appears greater than that of the CTP, Eroğlu enjoys a comfortable lead in opinion polls for the presidential elections. Unlike Talat, Eroğlu has consistently argued that any solution to the Cyprus problem must include a significant degree of sovereignty for the TRNC, to the extent that it would preserve a much higher proportion of its current de facto independence than is ever likely to be acceptable to the Greek Cypriots. If elected, Eroğlu is unlikely to withdraw completely from the UN-sponsored negotiating process but the chances of him being able to reach an agreement with the Greek Cypriots appear remote.

Yet, even if Talat is re-elected, the two sides still appear far apart on a number of key issues. On issues such as power-sharing between the two communities within a federal state, citizenship, the boundaries of the territory administered by the two “constituent states” and  the provision of security, the differences – though still considerable – are probably not unbridgeable. In theory, it is also possible to envisage a solution on the property issue, where the main problem appears to be financial. For example, the Turkish Cypriots insist that any compensation for assets lost in 1974 should be based on their status at the time, while the Greek Cypriots maintain it should reflect their current value, including any subsequent development – a cost which the TRNC and Turkey could not realistically meet on their own.

More intractable would appear to be the continuation of the Treaty of Guarantee, which gives Greece, Turkey and Britain the right to intervene unilaterally in the island to preserve the system established by the original Cypriot constitution when the island was granted its independence from Britain in 1960. Turkey cited the Treaty of Guarantee to justify its military intervention in 1974, even though the original Cypriot constitution had been violated by the exclusion of the Turkish Cypriots from government in 1963 and Turkey’s subsequent recognition of the TRNC in 1983 is a clear breach of Article One of the treaty under which the three guarantors are prohibited from doing anything to promote the “union or partition of the island.” Both Greece and Britain have already indicated that they are prepared to relinquish their guarantor powers in the wake of the reunification of the island. However, both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots insist that Ankara’s right to intervene on the island to protect any rights granted to the Turkish Cypriots is a sine qua non of any settlement – while the Greek Cypriots are equally adamant that it cannot be part of any solution.

CONCLUSIONS:  The failure of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots to reach an agreement despite over nearly 16 months of negotiations has demonstrated that the claims, repeated frequently over the years, that Turkey – and particularly the Turkish military – is the main obstacle to the reunification of Cyprus are, at best, an over-simplification.

It is true that, until relatively recently, the Turkish military regarded the Cyprus problem as falling within its sphere of influence and was very supportive of Turkish Cypriots, particularly Rauf Denktaş, who were essentially opposed to the reunification of the island. However, since Talat was elected president in 2005, the Turkish military has found it increasingly difficult to influence the positions adopted by the Turkish Cypriot side in negotiations; and has played virtually no role in the process that was launched in September 2008. Similarly, although it continues to consult regularly with Talat, the AKP has tended to step back and allow him a relatively free hand in his negotiations with the Greek Cypriots.

Nevertheless, Turkey still retains the power to exert considerable influence over the Turkish Cypriots should it choose to do so. Ankara currently provides several hundred million dollars a year to bankroll the TRNC; without which the government of the TRNC would simply cease to function. In theory at least, it is possible to envisage the AKP pressuring even the intransigent Eroğlu into adopting a more conciliatory stance in negotiations; not least because a settlement of the Cyprus problem would remove one of the main barriers to Turkey’s own hopes of joining the EU. However, in practice, doing so would expose the AKP to considerable domestic political risks.

The Cyprus issue is not the only obstacle to Turkey joining the EU and few Turks now believe that the EU will allow their country to accede even if it fulfils all of the criteria for membership. Applying pressure on Eroğlu would also raise the specter of him appealing for support from Turkish nationalists inside Turkey, for whom Cyprus still retains enormous iconic significance. With a general election due in Turkey in mid-2011 at the latest, and with the AKP already feeling under pressure from the Turkish nationalist right over its poorly-handled Kurdish and Armenian initiatives, it cannot afford to go to the polls with charges of having “sold out” the Turkish Cypriots ringing in its ears. But if, as currently seems likely, the next few weeks do not produce a major breakthrough in the negotiations between the two sides and Eroğlu wins the TRNC presidential elections in April, the latest initiative to reunite the island appears likely to join its predecessors in ending in failure.

Gareth H. Jenkins is a Senior Nonresident Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institue & Silk Road Studies Program's Turkey Initiative.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.

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