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Cyprus: Heading for a solution?

Amanda Paul

Date: 18/06/2008
Since Demetris Christofias’ presidential election victory in February, a new window of opportunity has opened to resolve the Cyprus problem.
Although President Christofias and Turkish Cypriot community leader Mehmet Ali Talat have a good personal relationship and have signalled a strong commitment to finding a solution as soon as possible, the task ahead should not be underestimated. As 44 years of United Nations’ talks and recent history have shown, reunification will never be easy. Both sides need to demonstrate levels of political will hitherto unseen, be ready to scale back their demands, abstain from playing the blame game and be resilient to nationalistic attacks. Much also depends on Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops in the north and has the power to make or break a solution.
Recent developments are encouraging. Moving away from the policies of former President Tassos Papadopoulos, Christofias has taken a decisive approach, quickly engaging in talks with Mr Talat which led to the symbolic opening of the Ledra Street crossing point. This had an immediate impact, as this was the first place to be divided during the inter-ethnic conflicts of the 1950s. Such confidence-building measures are vital for fostering trust and need to be built on.
To prepare the ground for new direct negotiations, the two communities are currently meeting under the UN’s auspices in technical committees and working groups to discuss both day-to-day and thornier substantive issues. Both parties need to build on the current momentum and use this preparatory period to identify possible areas of convergence as well as disagreement, while preparing options, where feasible, on the more sensitive elements for the two leaders to consider once formal negotiations begin. They are due to review this work and consider further civilian and military confidence-building measures, including the opening of new crossing points, later this month. 
The constitutional shape of a reunified Cyprus is a crucially important issue. On 23 May, the leaders used a joint press statement to reaffirm their commitment to a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with political equality, as defined by relevant Security Council resolutions. This partnership will have a Federal Government with a single international personality, as well as a Turkish Cypriot Constituent State and a Greek Cypriot Constituent State, which will be of equal status.”
The importance of this statement should not be underestimated - never before has a Greek Cypriot leader agreed to a joint statement which emphasises a commitment to establish a partnership state based on political equality. It represents a compromise by both sides, with the end result being an evolution of the Republic, based on existing agreements and international and EU law, rather than the creation of a brand new state, which would have far-reaching legal implications (including the possibility of having to reapply for EU membership).
Once direct talks start, there will be a number of key issues on the table. 
The presence of foreign troops remains a serious obstacle. For the Greek Cypriots, the 35,000 Turkish soldiers are a constant reminder of a hostile neighbour and they insist on an immediate massive reduction in numbers. For the Turkish Cypriots, the troops represent a guarantee of their safety. The ideal end goal should be total demilitarisation of the island, involving all foreign troops including the British bases. In the short term, however, the two sides will need to find a compromise.
Related to this is the guarantor status currently held by the UK, Greece and Turkey through the Treaty of Guarantee, which gives all three the right to intervene. Its abolition is a must for Greek Cypriots, who view colonial-type guarantors as unacceptable, while Turkish Cypriots continue to see Turkey’s status - supported by its military - as crucial to their safety.
Property and land ownership is a ticking time bomb. Under the 2004 Annan Plan, a considerable amount of territory currently under Turkish control was to be returned to the Greek Cypriots, thereby allowing many Greek Cypriots to return to their old properties. Others would have received some of their land back, plus financial compensation or bonds. However, since then, there has been a massive construction boom in the north which has complicated the situation further. The right of return is also problematic, given the Turkish Cypriots’
calls for the number of Greek Cypriots allowed to return to the north to be capped. The Greek Cypriots see this as unacceptable, as freedom of movement is a fundamental right under
EU law.
The facts and figures on Turkish settlers remain unclear, and an independent census is urgently needed. Over the years, an estimated 125,000 have arrived, which the Greek Cypriots see as an attempt by Turkey to alter the island’s demographic balance. They insist that a significant number (at least 50%) should be resettled back in Turkey. However, it is not just a case of shipping people ‘back home’, given that after decades on the island, there are now many second- and third-generation settlers who see Cyprus as their homeland. This is a humanitarian issue which needs to be addressed in a very pragmatic way: an imaginative resettlement package will have to be agreed to encourage settlers to return.
The list of issues is far-reaching, and it will require a great deal of give and take to deliver a fruitful outcome. 
Ankara’s support will also be essential for success and, indeed, resolution of the Cyprus problem is crucial to Turkey’s own EU aspirations. However, given the current political crisis in Turkey, a question mark remains over Ankara’s likely role in the talks.
Lastly, both sides need to be able to sell the final deal to their communities. To do that, it must not be seen as an imposed solution. The involvement of external players should, therefore, be kept to an absolute minimum. How the plan will be implemented, and how this will be monitored and guaranteed, are also critically important.
However, the new momentum represents a unique opportunity that should not be missed.

Amanda Akçakoca is a Policy Analyst and Programme Executive at the European Policy Centre. 

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