One Last Chance to Reunite Cyprus?

One Last Chance to Reunite Cyprus?

A mountaintop meeting underway in Switzerland could help end over 40 years of bad blood in the eastern Mediterranean.

In 1974, Turkey seized the north part of Cyprus after a coup attempt seeking to unite the island with Greece. Ever since, the island has been divided, each with its international backer. But Greek and Turkish Cypriot representatives — along with guarantors from Greece, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations — are meeting in Switzerland this week to try to change that. And there is political will — but that does not mean that there is a practical way.

It’s not that the parties don’t want change. “There is a general consensus on the Turkish Cypriot side that the current conference should be a decisive one and the negotiations cannot go on for another 40 years,” the Washington office of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (so-called because it is not internationally recognized as such) told Foreign Policy. “It is high time for the Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriots side to seize the opportunity for finding a lasting solution in Cyprus.”

The Turkish Embassy in Washington seemed to concur, saying, “Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots remain committed and have the necessary political will to reach a comprehensive settlement.” But, it says, progress requires a reciprocal effort from the other side.

Greek Cypriots say they’re game, as well. Greek Cypriots are headed to Geneva with “determination and commitment,” with “the aim of working towards reaching a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem that truly reunites Cyprus and its people in a viable, functional state,” said the Embassy of Cyprus in Washington.

But forty-odd years later, the two sides still differ on just how that change should come about. Greek Cypriots demand a withdrawal of the Turkish troops, of which there are now roughly 30,000, that have been there since the early 1970s, saying there’s no place for “occupying troops” in an EU member state.

But the Turkish Cypriots aren’t convinced. Any settlement, their Washington office says, must continue Turkey’s guarantee — lest painful history repeat itself. “The bitter experiences suffered from the past acts of their Greek Cypriot partners and moreover current statements of the Greek Cypriot side falls short of convincing Turkish Cypriots that such need for Turkey’s guarantee is obsolete,” the office said.

The continued standoff between the two sides is colliding with fresh urgency from the international community to solve the problem. The Guardian quotes a “well-placed western diplomat” as saying, “The new UN secretary general [António Guterres] is taking a firmer stance than his predecessor and has indicated in no uncertain terms that this can’t go on forever. There are other more pressing places the UN can be.” The Turkish Embassy says “the actual window of opportunity cannot remain open indefinitely.”

U.S. engagement in the Cyprus talks has been limited. Vice President Mike Pence did meet with Republic of Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and have a phone call with Turkish Cypriot Leader Mustafa Akinci earlier this month to express his hope that the two sides would reach an agreement in Switzerland. Both sides might want Washington to play a bigger role — but it’s not clear if there’s much appetite to do so.

Turkish Cypriots said they hope the United States, as one of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, can nudge Greek Cypriots toward a solution. Greek Cypriots say Washington will have an important role to play in implementing any settlement. A State Department official told FP, “The United States reaffirms its continued support for the leaders as they try to reach a comprehensive settlement to reunify the island as a bizonal, bicommunal federation, which would benefit all Cypriots as well as the wider region. The United States continues to fully support the UN-facilitated process under UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide, and we are very encouraged by the progress Cypriot leaders have made.”

But for the United States to play a role at the UN implementing a settlement, a settlement has to be reached. And it’s not clear yet, despite all the hopes raised this year, that the conference in Switzerland can sneak through what all agree is a rapidly-closing window.

Photo credit: IAKOVOS HATZISTAVROU/AFP/Getty Images