It would be an excellent thing to reunite the island of Cyprus after 42 years of heavily armed partition, but it’s probably not going to happen this year.
They’re all meeting in Geneva this week — President Nicos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus and President Mustafa Akinci of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, plus the new UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, and representatives of all three countries that guarantee Cyprus’ independence, Britain, Turkey and Greece. The talk is all upbeat:
“Best and last chance for peace,” says Guterres.
But don’t hold your breath.
There are three reasons why reunification is probably not about to happen, and the first is that Greek-Cypriots simply don’t want it as badly as Turkish-Cypriots. The Greek-Cypriot majority has twice the average income of the Turkish-Cypriot minority, mainly because the Greeks live in a universally recognized country that belongs to the European Union. They can trade and travel everywhere.
The Turkish-Cypriots live in utter isolation, their ramshackle state recognized by no country except Turkey. And although they are a well-educated, secular population, they may already be outnumbered by the ill-educated, socially conservative immigrants who have been flowing in from Turkey. No wonder the Turkish-Cypriots voted two-to-one in favor of reunification in 2004, the last time a peace deal was attempted.
The Greek-Cypriots, by contrast, voted three-to-one against the deal — not because it was really such a bad deal, but because many of them don’t feel much need to compromise. The status quo is quite bearable, and the United Nations troops will be happy to stick around and enforce the ceasefire for another 42 years if necessary. Or so the Greek-Cypriot “no” voters seemed to believe last time.
Then there is the sheer complexity of the negotiations to put the country back together again, but this time as a binational federal republic. How will the territory be divided up? (The Turkish-Cypriots hold 37 percent, but maps the two sides have tabled give them between 28.2 percent and 29.2 percent.) Will there be a “rotating” presidency, held sometimes by a Greek and sometimes by a Turk?
And above all, who will guarantee that both sides will observe the terms of the deal? This is the point at which things fell apart in 1974.
Cyprus got its independence from the British empire as a binational republic in 1960. The power-sharing constitution was guaranteed by Britain and by Greece and Turkey, the two “mother countries” of the local populations — but then there was a military coup in Greece.
The Greek military regime conspired with a local Greek-Cypriot terrorist organization called EOKA B to carry out a bloody coup in Cyprus in 1974 and unite the island with Greece. So the Turkish prime minister flew to London to beg Britain (which has military bases on the island) to carry out its duty as guarantor, stop the carnage and roll back the coup. When London refused to act, Turkey itself invaded to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority, and the territorial division it imposed on the island in 1974 has lasted ever since.
Getting the right kind of guarantees this time is crucial to a successful deal, but it’s probably not going to happen this year.
The deal itself is ferociously complex, and the fine print certainly cannot be settled this week. With enough good will on both sides, it could be done in the next few months, but the real obstacle now is Turkish politics.
Nobody knows what Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan really wants in Cyprus. But his one fixed goal is to change the Turkish constitution in order to turn his office into an all-powerful “executive” presidency. Like Putin’s in Russia, for example.
That is politically tricky. It takes 60 percent of the votes in Turkey’s parliament to change the constitution, and on the first reading he barely scraped through. In the final vote, he might lose. And even if Erdogan gets the change through parliament, he must then win a national referendum on the question next autumn.
So Erdogan can’t afford to back the Cyprus deal right now. It would alienate Turkish ultra-nationalists who just want to annex northern Cyprus. Maybe next year, after he has total power. But not now.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.