Cracking the Cyprus Code

The window is still open for a landmark deal to end Cyprus’s conflict and reunify the island. But it could be closing, fast.

TO GO WITH STORY BY SOPHIE DEVILLER A huge Turkish-Cypriot flag painted on the side of the Kyrenia mountain range which overlooks the divided city of Nicosia is seen in the background, as barbed wire marks the dividing "green line" 14 March 2004, on the Greek-Cypriot side of the capital. The "Green Line" which cuts Cyprus in two has become, since the island's entry into the EU in 2004, the least secure land border in Europe, a godsend for clandestine immigrants.  AFP PHOTO/Philip MARK (Photo credit should read PHILIP MARK/AFP/Getty Images)
TO GO WITH STORY BY SOPHIE DEVILLER A huge Turkish-Cypriot flag painted on the side of the Kyrenia mountain range which overlooks the divided city of Nicosia is seen in the background, as barbed wire marks the dividing "green line" 14 March 2004, on the Greek-Cypriot side of the capital. The "Green Line" which cuts Cyprus in two has become, since the island's entry into the EU in 2004, the least secure land border in Europe, a godsend for clandestine immigrants. AFP PHOTO/Philip MARK (Photo credit should read PHILIP MARK/AFP/Getty Images)

If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, then Cyprus is the graveyard of diplomacy. The Mediterranean island has been bitterly divided between ethnic Greek and Turkish sides since 1974. Successive generations of emissaries have tried, failed, and tried again to reach a reunification deal between the two camps. In case after case, the deep distrust between the two sides has swamped any attempts at progress.

But there’s a whiff of cautious optimism swirling around the latest round of U.N.-brokered talks. Observers detect a new tone and a measure of resolve on both sides to move beyond a conflict that has defined the island for more than four decades. Skeptics and cynics alike agree: There’s a rare window of opportunity to reunify Cyprus.

At the center of the buzz is Espen Barth Eide, the U.N. envoy to Cyprus, whose short stature and poindexter glasses belie a diplomatic heavyweight. Norway’s former minister of both defense and foreign affairs, Eide is an articulate and seasoned professional who is known for his unflappable optimism. He’s now injecting that spirit into resolving a diplomatic dilemma that has chewed up and spat out so many before him.

Eide has overseen peace negotiations between the island’s Greek Cypriot south and Turkish Cypriot north since 2014, when the latest round of talks began. “We are in the final mile of negotiations,” he said in an interview with Foreign Policy. “And making the deal is a heroic thing.”

A lot is at stake. The European Union has spent years trying to solve a conflict that has thwarted productive relations with NATO. Turkey, a member of NATO but not the EU, doesn’t recognize the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus; that hampers EU relations with NATO. The Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU but not of NATO, doesn’t recognize the Turkish Cypriot north (no one other than Ankara does), so it blocks NATO-EU engagement from its seat at the EU.

A reunified Cyprus would also provide Brussels a much-needed lift as it grapples with an otherwise bleak landscape of rising populism, Russian revanchism, and a chillier relationship with the United States under President Donald Trump. Companies, too, are eagerly watching the negotiations, hoping a reunified Cyprus will provide business opportunities and unlock undeveloped energy reserves off the Cypriot coast. (Unification would make it easier to divvy up, auction off, and drill offshore deposits. It would also be the key to exporting the gas to any neighbors.)

The picturesque island has been divided for more than four decades, since Turkish troops invaded to protect the northern part from a Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece. The two sides settled into a frozen conflict, a tense standoff largely devoid of any violence, with around 35,000 Turkish troops stationed in the north.

Talks in the past have been two steps forward, two steps back. In 2004, Greek Cypriots firmly rejected a peace deal approved by Turkish Cypriots after their president urged them to vote “no.” This time, it could be different. That’s partly because Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci both seem genuinely invested in achieving a unification deal, Eide said, literally writing the terms of the deal themselves. He said another good sign is that “every issue is on the negotiating table” now, including contentious issues related to property rights, political representation, and the presence of Turkish troops on the island.

But reunification is still not in the bag. Rather, the mantra repeated among diplomats, experts, and the two sides themselves is “cautiously optimistic.” After a 22-month grind with a few stops and starts, the talks ran into trouble in February. Turkish Cypriots left the negotiating table, angered that Greek Cypriot lawmakers voted to honor Enosis, a 1950 referendum proclaiming Cyprus part of Greece.

Tahsin Ertugruloglu, the Turkish Cypriot foreign minister, said the February vote had “dealt a severe blow” to trust between the two parties. “This decision was taken at a time when the negotiations were at a critical juncture,” he told FP. Hurt feelings were exacerbated in the aftermath when Greek Cypriot President Anastasiades said the majority ethnic Greek community on the island should not be equated with the minority ethnic Turkish community, he added.

“The basic principle of the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus was that the two co-founders, namely the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots, were political equals,” Ertugruloglu countered.

The Greek Cypriots fired back that the Turkish Cypriots overreacted on the February Enosis vote in an effort to stall the talks ahead of Turkey’s constitutional referendum in April. Turkey comes up as a repeated powerbroker, able to make or break the negotiations. If Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wishes to smooth over relations with the EU, helping a Cyprus deal come to pass could be a potential boon. And any final settlement will need to resolve the issue of Turkish troops stationed on the island. Turkish Cypriots, scarred by violence against their community in the 1950s and 1960s, wish to keep a significant contingent of Turkish troops in the north and Turkey’s right to intervene on the island. But Greek Cypriots are unlikely to accept a deal without a drastic reduction.

Andreas Mavroyiannis, the Greek Cypriot negotiator, said Turkish Cypriots were trying to block negotiations because they “don’t have any moral ground” to justify keeping a large contingent of Turkish troops on the island. “We want them to come back to the table without preconditions to continue where we stopped,” he told FP, adding a warning: “If they don’t come back very soon, they are going to run out of time.”

Ertugruloglu echoed the same testiness. “Numerous windows of opportunity have been missed” in the past, due to the “Greek Cypriot side’s uncompromising stance,” he said. After years of standstill, patience is wearing thin. “This current process of negotiation is considered by all parties as the last chance to reach a settlement,” he said.

Despite the tense exchanges, Eide remains optimistic that there’s too much at stake for a complete breakdown in negotiations. “I know that we will be sitting down again and their personal relationship will be rebuilt,” he said.

One wild card is the involvement of the United States. During former President Barack Obama’s administration, Cyprus was a pet issue for Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden, and Victoria Nuland, the top diplomat for Europe, who all traveled to the island and expressed support for unification.

Rex Tillerson’s State Department seems to be continuing the trend. The secretary of state already called the leaders of the two sides in his first weeks in office, and Cyprus received special mention at the State Department’s first press briefing in early March, reaffirming “strong U.S. support” for the reunification process.

Amanda Sloat, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Southern Europe and Eastern Mediterranean affairs, said involvement by Tillerson and Vice President Mike Pence could be just the thing to push talks forward.

“A well-placed call for encouragement from them at key points in the process could be very effective,” she told FP.

But there’s worry that U.S. attention to Cyprus could slip through the cracks in the Trump administration, which has been distracted by leaks and infighting. The administration has proposed sharp budget cuts at the State Department, where numerous top-level posts have yet to be filled.

Another threat is quietly simmering: Russia. Unblocking NATO-EU cooperation could be bad news for Russia in its standoff with the West. A unified island could also tap offshore gas reserves, potentially competing with Russian gas to supply southeastern Europe. Meanwhile, Cypriot banks, a traditional hub of Russian money (including some shadier investments), could wean off their Russian ties under any new deal as they embed themselves deeper into EU regulations.

“I think we’ve seen Russia engaged in disinformation across Europe,” Sloat said. “It’s a very real possibility they could do the same thing in Cyprus.”

But the drive for an agreement isn’t coming just from diplomats. Business leaders who see opportunities in a unified Cyprus are jumping into the fray. John Harkrider started One Cyprus Now, an alliance of economic development experts and business leaders, to sell Cypriots from both sides of the island on their unified potential.

Most Cypriots “are not even aware” how much money is ready to pour in if a deal were achieved, he told FP. “It’s very clear that international players want to invest in this economy, especially in a very low-risk European economy,” Harkrider said.

Despite his enthusiasm, he agreed that the window for a reunification deal wouldn’t last much longer. “If [negotiations] keep going further out to sea … at some point you have to stop swimming,” he said, adding U.S. involvement “is the only way it is going to happen.”

The winds of cautious optimism around Cyprus waned a bit in recent weeks, but they still swirl. A former British diplomat, David Hannay, once famously observed, “Nobody ever lost money betting against a Cyprus solution.”

Eide laughed when reminded of the quote. “Maybe this time they might,” he said.

Photo credit: PHILIP MARK/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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