The discovery of national gas deposits could be the turning point that can end the ongoing conflict and boost the island’s economy.
In history of the half-century-old Cyprus dispute, there has been no better chance than now to strike a UN-brokered peace deal. Talks are gaining momentum, based on geopolitical developments as well as the possibility of developing new energy routes.
After four decades of division and acrimony, the discovery of offshore gas near the Mediterranean island has raised hopes for reunification. The economic bonanza could serve as an incentive to unite Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
In a win-win scenario, a united Cyprus could serve as a hub for pipelines transferring natural gas, possibly even including Israeli gas, to the European Union through Cyprus and Turkey.
Discoveries of natural gas in the area since 2010 have altered the geopolitical situation and increased international interest in a solution. And as turmoil in the Middle East increases due to the threat of radical Islamists, the impetus is growing for an urgent settlement to ensure broader security in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Problems between Greek and Turkish Cypriots erupted soon after Cyprus was granted independence from the UK in 1960. Greece, Turkey and Britain became guarantors of the internal power arrangement. But inter-communal clashes broke down the shared Cyprus government in 1964.
Following Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus after a 1974 coup aimed at unification with Greece, the island has effectively been split between its majority-population of Greeks in the south and its minority of Turks in the north. The north is backed by the Turkish military with nearly 35,000 Turkish troops stationed on the island.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots have negotiated with and without UN mediation, but always reluctantly; and all attempts at resolving the conflict have collapsed. In 2004, the Annan Plan failed after a large majority of Greek Cypriots rejected it in a referendum, even though most Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of reunification. Thus Greek Cyprus entered the European Union in 2004 without the Turkish Cypriots.
The long-stalled reunification talks appeared to be dead in the water in 2014 due to a dispute over gas exploration. But they resumed with unforeseen momentum in May 2015 following the election of a veteran leftist politician in the north, Mustafa Akinci, whose desire to reunify Cyprus found resonance with his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nikos Anastasiades.
UN-brokered talks between the two Cypriot leaders have raised hopes of ending the island’s ethnic divide and uniting Cyprus in a new bi-zonal and bi-communal federal republic.
For the first time in four decades, politicians on both sides are willing to press for a lasting solution. Recent financial turmoil in the internationally recognized Greek Cyprus and the increased isolation of Turkish Cypriots, whose economy is entirely dependent on Turkey, have also paved the way for progress, with Akinci and Anastasiades expressing their commitment to reunifying the island in 2016.
Following regular talks since May 2015, which were facilitated by UN envoy Espen Barth-Eide, the leaders had “intense talks” with eight one-on-one meetings in September. These were followed by a meeting in New York with the UN secretary general, after which Ban ki Moon pledged to play a greater role in talks to reach a deal on the Cyprus dispute before the end of the year.
In NewYork, Anastasiades rejected a calendar proposal demanded by Turkish leader Akinci for the peace talks to end with a deal before the end of 2016. The upcoming round of talks will determine if there will be a five-party meeting with the guarantor powers: Greece, Turkey and Britain.
Akinci and Anastasiades have reached a common understanding on crucial issues such as the sharing of executive power, the modalities of a new bi-communal and bi-zonal Cypriot federation, and legislative and judicial institutions. But security guarantees and territory still remain contentious issues.
The aim is to finalize a peace deal in simultaneous separate referendums in the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.
Both groups would need to ratify the treaty, and thus public opinion is crucial. Akinci and Anastasiades are therefore also cultivating the informal aspect of the process with symbolic gestures towards reunification such as sharing a morning walk along Arasta and Ledra Streets (which cross the Green Line) in May 2015 and watching a play by a Turkish Cypriot theater group in Limassol in June. So far, the countries’ interlocutors have abstained from playing the blame game and are releasing optimistic statements.
Meanwhile, various domestic political challenges on both sides could end up poisoning the positive climate and ratcheting up the pressure in the peace talks.
Turkish Cyprus saw a cabinet change in early 2016, after the coalition government collapsed in a dispute linked to pressure from Turkey to set up privatized utilities. Thus Akinci faces new challenges on the modalities of the peace negotiations due to the stance of the newly-elected, more hard-line government.
In a recent political crisis, the new coalition government insisted on having a representative on the Turkish Cypriot negotiating team. Akinci accused the Turkish Cypriot government of harboring ill will and of launching a “no campaign” against a possible solution to the problems in Cyprus.
On the south of the island, the domestic political terrain for pursuing a settlement has also became more difficult for President Anastasiades. After the elections of May 2016, the new parliament appears to be against the resolution in its presently-negotiated form. For the first time, the far-right party has entered parliament and Anastasiades faces opposition from hard-liners who are fiercely opposed to reunification.
It is crucial for Greek Cypriots to reach a resolution in 2016 or early 2017, as the pre-electoral campaign for the presidential elections of 2018 will kick off in the spring of next year.
The turbulent geopolitics of the region and the discovery of natural resources could combine to act as a catalyst for settling Europe’s longest-running frozen conflict.
Talks have entered the final stages. A push for a rapid and more constructive approach is required, and tough decisions must be made. Proposals have been presented and negotiated over and over for almost a half-century, and the two sides know each other’s positions on delicate issues very well. The question is: are they willing to make mutual concessions?
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