August 12, 2016
No More Lost Opportunities
By Harry Tzimitras
Director the Peace Research Institute Oslo - PRIO Cyprus Centre

The leaders of the island’s communities enjoy a rapport that would seem encouraging for settling decades-long differences. But new geopolitical realities could easily sideline progress. The time is now for visionary and credible political initiative, coupled with the constructive engagement of the international community.

Few would disagree that negotiations for the solution of the decades-old Cyprus problem have made considerable progress. But few would agree that the final solution is only a matter of time. The euphoric climate surrounding the negotiations, prompted especially by the good rapport between the leaders of the two communities leads to much optimism. At the same time, despite progress achieved in negotiations, disagreements remain on thorny issues.

The Cyprus issue does not exist in a vacuum, but is directly or indirectly affected by international and regional realities and includes the involvement and interests of the international community, individual states and international organizations. In this respect, regional and international developments, in addition to local ones, shape the prospects of the solution. Therefore, a realistic evaluation of opportunities and obstacles is of the essence, as is the recognition of windows of opportunities. For many, the Cyprus issue is a history of lost opportunities. It seems that the current conjuncture represents such a chance – perhaps the last one – and is important that it is not lost.   This requires realism and an understanding of the sense of urgency.

Locally, the very positive climate within which negotiations are taking place and the constructive approach of both sides is a reason for optimism. Convergences on a number of issues pertaining to governance, power sharing, economy, and the EU have been attained. The fact that negotiations are being conducted between two leaders who are dedicated to reaching a solution further adds to the sense of optimism. And, of course, the positive and fruitful involvement of international organizations, including the UN, EU, IMF and World Bank, is also greatly facilitating the process. At the same time, various challenges constantly arise, that hold the potential of spoiling the climate and making it much more difficult to reach a final agreement.

After the recent May 2016 elections in the Republic of Cyprus (RoC), the domestic political terrain changed in ways that would render it more difficult for President Nicos Anastasiades to pursue his vision for a solution. The two main political parties, the only ones clearly in favor of a solution, suffered major losses to other, more rejectionist parties. Also, for the first time, the far right has entered parliament. Half of the new parliament seems to be in principle against a solution in the form it is being negotiated. Further to the parliamentary reality, the President is expected to face additional challenges within the context of the National Council. The council, comprising heads of political parties and former Presidents of the Republic and being responsible for the Cyprus issue, has traditionally been a rather conservative and hard-liner body. The new electoral outcome is expected to render it even more so.

In Cyprus, the sense of urgency for a solution this year or early 2017 is further accentuated by two issues. First, in the spring of 2017, the pre-electoral campaign for the presidential elections of 2018 in the RoC will commence. Second, in northern Cyprus, the political situation has been impacted by the fall of the government earlier in 2016 and its replacement with a much more hard line one. Although it is the Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci who is responsible for the Cyprus issue and the negotiations, the change of government presents him with multiple challenges. It is crucial that a solution is reached while he is in a strong position to pursue it and present it to the Turkish Cypriot community. Unfortunately, although both leaders have shown a lot of good will, leadership seems not to have been equally displayed.

Beyond local realities, the sense of urgency for a solution manifests itself in the rapidly changing regional and international realities. The commitment and engagement until now of organizations, states and personalities is challenged by both regular and unforeseen developments. To name but a few, the UN Secretary-General’s term in office will finish at the end of 2016 as will that of the Special Adviser for Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide. The United States, which plays the most active role in the Cyprus issue, will elect a new administration this November. The time needed for the new administration to become functional on the issue may simply be time we don’t have regarding the Cyprus problem. Further, the two most engaged personalities – Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry – will not be in office any more. Britain, which has also been greatly involved in the Cyprus issue, now faces the challenges brought about by the Brexit situation. Further, it remains to be seen if and how the EU, challenged in unprecedented ways both internally and externally, will be able to deal resolutely with the Cyprus issue.

On the regional plane, domestic developments in neighboring states and relations between them sketch a fluid and uncertain picture for the future. Alignments, alliances, and existing arrangements should not be taken for granted. Thus, for instance, the emergent rapprochement between Israel and Turkey holds the potential of reshaping regional realities. Those who banked on the rift between the two countries and saw Cypriot-Israeli relations as an alternative to that have a hard time coping with the new facts. The same holds true for Russian-Turkish relations under the evolving understanding between the two states. Not least, this has potential consequences for energy issues that are currently core to South Eastern Mediterranean policy considerations. In this respect, a lot of valuable time has been lost in the recent years due to pursuit of energy policies based on unrealistic expectations and informed purely by political criteria of a specific understanding. In the Cypriot context, this has led to the energy issue becoming yet another issue of contention between the two communities and a new chapter in the existing conflict. A pragmatic evaluation of realities and prospects is urgently needed.

Finally, domestic developments in Turkey, as well as the ever volatile Turkey-EU relations, affect the stance of Turkey on the Cyprus issue. The AK Party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan never made a secret of the fact that Cyprus was not one of their top priorities. In principle, the Turkish leadership for the past nearly 15 years seems to have wanted the issue resolved. However, it is not certain how much longer this stance will be maintained, in particular given the latest domestic developments in the country and the way Turkey-EU relations are moving. Presumably, if these relations suffer further, Turkey is expected to have less of an incentive to contribute in a constructive way to the solution of the Cyprus problem. This further adds to the urgency to solve the problem as soon as possible.

This is the time for bold steps ahead, signifying a disentanglement from past mindsets and practices that have perpetuated the Cyprus issue for more than four decades. Visionary and credible political initiative needs to be displayed locally, coupled with the constructive engagement of the international community and the empowerment of the leaders. Pressing international and regional realities can easily sideline the Cyprus issue. It is also these same challenges faced by Cyprus too that can best, if not exclusively, be addressed by a united, stronger Cyprus. The status quo on the island is, quite simply, unsustainable. Responsible political leaderships need to convey this message clearly before a referendum. Responsible citizens need to take this seriously into consideration when making their choice.

*Views expressed in this article are entirely personal.

Harry TzimitrasDr. Harry Tzimitras is the Director the Peace Research Institute Oslo - PRIO Cyprus Centre. In this capacity, he coordinates research and dialogue activities on the search for a political settlement to the island’s division. He is also Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is Associate Professor of International Law and International Relations, specializing in the law of the sea, energy geopolitics, foreign policy, and the Eastern Mediterranean and has published extensively in these areas.