The First Good News of 2017 Might Come from … Cyprus?

Economics, geopolitics, and a transitioning American administration have combined to produce a potential breakthrough in one of the longest running frozen conflicts in Europe.

Boys pose with placards as they take part in a peace rally on November 18, 2016, in the northern part of Nicosia, in the self proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
Crunch UN-backed Cyprus reunification talks in Switzerland resume on November 20 with hopes that a breakthrough can be achieved this time around. Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci agreed to resume their discussions in the Swiss resort of Mont Pelerin for a crucial deal on territory.

 / AFP / Birol BEBEK        (Photo credit should read BIROL BEBEK/AFP/Getty Images)
Boys pose with placards as they take part in a peace rally on November 18, 2016, in the northern part of Nicosia, in the self proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Crunch UN-backed Cyprus reunification talks in Switzerland resume on November 20 with hopes that a breakthrough can be achieved this time around. Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart Mustafa Akinci agreed to resume their discussions in the Swiss resort of Mont Pelerin for a crucial deal on territory. / AFP / Birol BEBEK (Photo credit should read BIROL BEBEK/AFP/Getty Images)

Amid the historically news-heavy year that was 2016, one could be forgiven for missing what’s been quietly happening in Cyprus. To do so, however, would be a mistake. After nearly two years of intense negotiations, we are approaching a crucial moment in efforts to resolve one of Europe’s longest frozen conflicts.

The leaders of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities have been working toward an agreement to reunify Cyprus — which has been divided for decades — as a bizonal, bicommunal federation. If successful, the island’s reunification could be a game-changer in Europe, provide a (very) last-minute foreign-policy win for the Obama administration, and inspire a region immersed in conflict. Meetings scheduled for this week should provide a clear indicator of whether a deal is achievable.

A historical refresher: Soon after Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960, disagreements between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots about the interpretation and implementation of the new constitution resulted in intercommunal violence. The United Nations deployed peacekeeping forces with a mandate to prevent a recurrence of fighting. Ten years later, a coup — which was supported by the military regime in Athens and aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece — led to Turkish military intervention and the de facto division of the island. U.N. forces have since maintained a buffer zone between the two sides, known as the Green Line. The Republic of Cyprus, which joined the European Union in 2004, controls the southern two-thirds of the island. The Turkish Cypriots administer the other third in the north, though no country other than Turkey recognizes an independent “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.”

Periodic negotiations to reunify the island came closest to success in 2004 with agreement on a peace proposal brokered by the U.N. under the leadership of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which became known as the Annan Plan. The plan was put before Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot voters in separate and simultaneous referendums, requiring simple majority support on both sides to be enacted. With turnout near 90 percent in both communities, the plan was endorsed by two-thirds of Turkish Cypriots but rejected by three-quarters of Greek Cypriots. (While numerous factors affect voting decisions, commonly cited objections include limits on the right to reclaim property in the north and the continued presence of some Turkish troops.)

Since the resumption of talks, the sides have narrowed their differences on many issues. For example, they have developed governance and economic arrangements for a federation composed of two constituent states, agreed on the right of all Cypriots to live and work where they choose, and devised mechanisms to address property lost during the intercommunal violence. The two main sticking points, territory and security, have hampered previous attempts to reunify the island and could yet doom the current effort.

In November, the negotiations took a significant step forward by moving to Switzerland, where leaders and negotiators were sequestered with the U.N. special advisor on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, to focus on territory. Despite some progress, they failed to reach agreement on the internal boundary between the two constituent states, the number of displaced people allowed to return, and the percentage of territory to be controlled by each side. After a weeklong break, the negotiations resumed with the goal of finalizing territory and setting a date for a multiparty meeting on security; neither aim was achieved.

But following a flurry of diplomatic engagement (including a visit from British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and calls from U.S. Vice President Joe Biden), Cypriot leaders announced a way forward on Dec. 1. They’ve agreed to meet in Geneva on Jan. 9-11 for negotiations over outstanding issues, including a discussion on territory that will include maps, which haven’t been used in talks on Cyprus since the Annan Plan. On Jan. 12, a conference on Cyprus will be convened with the guarantor powers. Talks are expected to begin with lower level government representatives; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will likely join if sufficient progress is made on security issues, with British Prime Minister Theresa May expressing her willingness to attend if helpful. The U.N. has indicated that other relevant parties — understood as the EU and permanent members of the Security Council — could be invited as needed.

This conference will bring to a head the decades-old disagreement on security, including guarantees. As part of the constitutional arrangements granting Cyprus independence from Britain, the Treaty of Guarantee gave Britain, Greece, and Turkey the right to “take action” in order to “guarantee the independence, territorial integrity, and security” of Cyprus. Greek Cypriots have welcomed the willingness of Britain and Greece to relinquish this right and expect Turkey to do the same. In addition, they are calling for the removal of all Turkish troops — estimated at around 30,000 to 40,000 — from the island. (The Annan Plan preserved Turkey’s right of guarantee and required a gradual drawdown to 650 troops; many Greek Cypriots found these provisions unacceptable.) On the other side, Turkish Cypriots worry about losing a protective force against the more populous Greek Cypriot side. Turkey has argued for the retention of some system of guarantees and security presence, particularly until it is clear the new federal arrangements are working. In recent weeks, there has been active diplomacy among Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey – including a meeting between the Greek and Turkish Foreign Ministers in New York on January 6 – in an effort to narrow the differences. There appears to be growing consensus about the need for a transitional period.

These January meetings are likely to mark the last, best chance for a Cyprus deal. While the Geneva talks are unlikely to resolve all details, they should indicate whether a solution is within reach. Both sides are growing weary, and nerves are beginning to fray as the endgame nears. As with many frozen conflicts, the issues are well-known and the solutions are well-rehearsed; the question is whether the leaders, and ultimately the people they represent, have the will to make the difficult compromises necessary for peace. Arguably, the combination of the island’s pro-settlement leadership and the geo-political environment is creating auspicious conditions for reaching agreement at long last.

First and foremost, the leaders of both communities want a settlement. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades has long championed reunification, including backing the Annan Plan. With the election of Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci in April 2015, he acquired a negotiating partner who hails from the same hometown and has a similar track record of supporting a reunified island. Whereas the U.N. proposed the final version of the Annan Plan, Anastasiades and Akinci are leading the current negotiations themselves and are personally invested in the emerging text.

Second, economics: In 2013, the global financial crisis and exposure to Greek banks led to the collapse of the Cypriot banking system. Cyprus exited the EU’s bailout program early last year. A unified economy would be a catalyst for foreign investment and enhance the welfare of all Cypriots. It would particularly benefit Turkish Cypriots, whose economy has been internationally isolated and dependent on subsidies from Turkey. In addition, the discovery of gas off the Cypriot coast in 2011 raised hopes about the island’s potential as a regional energy hub. Settling the Cyprus conflict would resolve disputes with Turkey over the extraction of resources and the demarcation of maritime boundaries.

Third, geopolitics: In recent years, Cypriots have found themselves in an increasingly challenging neighborhood marked by a weakening of the security and support structures on which they have relied. Economic turmoil in Greece, insecurity in Turkey, strain across the European Union (including Brexit), and wars in Syria and Iraq have led Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots to see merit in working together to confront the turbulent outside world.

Finally, there will be a transition in American leadership just days after the Geneva talks. While the U.S. government has always backed reunification and Vice President-elect Mike Pence has already called Anastasiades to promise continued support, the current talks have undoubtedly benefitted from high-level engagement by the Obama administration. Biden made a historic trip to Cyprus in May 2014, the most senior U.S. official to visit in 50 years, and encouraged the leaders through meetings and phone calls. Secretary of State John Kerry has been similarly involved, including a visit in December 2015.

The wild card remains Ankara. Thus far, Erdogan has expressed support for reunification — a view seemingly unaffected by the July 2016 coup attempt. There are good reasons for him to do so, including access to regional energy resources, the redeployment of Turkish troops, and money that Ankara would no longer need to spend on the Turkish Cypriot budget. A Cyprus deal would also help him curry favor with the EU at a time when relations between Turkey and Europe are tense, particularly after the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling to freeze accession negotiations. However, Erdogan remains under pressure domestically and may be unwilling to compromise on security issues.

If an agreement is reached, the final hurdle will be ratification by both Cypriot communities. Anastasiades and Akinci will need to work hard to sell the deal to their respective constituencies. The defeat of the Annan Plan looms large while last year’s British and Colombian polls are stark reminders that leaders cannot assume public support.

If these challenges can be overcome, the peace dividends will be significant. Reunification would end the division of Europe’s last divided capital city and normalize life for future generations of Cypriots. It would bolster economic development, encouraging investment in a desirable market that has to date dissuaded risk-averse businesses. Regionally, it could encourage cooperation between the EU and NATO, which has been limited by friction over Cyprus. And most importantly, it would provide a beacon of hope in a conflict-filled region about overcoming past wrongs, resolving differences through dialogue, and enabling two religions to coexist peacefully.

Image credit: BIROL BEBEK/AFP/Getty Images

Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She is also a fellow with the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. She served in the Barack Obama administration as the deputy assistant secretary of state for southern Europe and eastern Mediterranean affairs, as well as senior advisor to the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf region. Twitter: @A_Sloat

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