The division of Cyprus is now in its 43rd year. Next week may mark the decisive moment when the small eastern Mediterranean island nation starts to be stitched back together again.
After 19 months of talks aimed at reunifying the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south with the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north, the final details of a peace deal are set to be thrashed out, potentially bringing some good news to a region wracked by conflict and distrust.
But many hurdles remain — hurdles that have not been cleared in previous reunification attempts.
The Conference on Cyprus is scheduled to start on Jan. 12 in Geneva, and is intended to hammer out some of the toughest aspects of a peace deal — including how to ensure security for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots once an aimed-for federation is established. The leaders of Greece, Turkey and the former colonial power Britain — the so-called guarantors — are widely anticipated to make an appearance at the summit.
Making sure there’s no repeat of the events of 1974 is key. In the summer of that year, Cyprus was split into two after Turkey invaded in the wake of a Greek-backed coup that aimed to unite the island with the rest of Greece. Following the invasion, the country was cleaved along ethnic lines with the Turkish Cypriots controlling 36.5 percent of Cyprus’ land mass backed by more than 35,000 Turkish troops deployed in the north. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey.
Before the official opening of the summit, Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have earmarked three days from Jan. 9 to clear up a string of outstanding issues — including the pivotal matter of how much territory each side will control in a federation.
Talks almost broke down in November because Anastasiades and Akinci couldn’t agree on how much territory the Greek and Turkish federal zones would control.
The difference was marginal — just a percentage point. Its impact was immense.
Greek Cypriots say enough territory must be returned under their control in order to allow at least 90,000 Greek Cypriots displaced by the 1974 invasion to reclaim lost homes and property in a relatively short time. The argument is that an agreement on those lines would reduce the financial burden of a peace deal by limiting the compensation amounts that will have to be paid to those not able to reclaim their homes and land. It would also potentially boost Greek Cypriot support for a deal when it’s put to a vote — a previous peace deal in 2004 was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum.
Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, want to limit the numbers that relocate. Telling Turkish Cypriots to leave what they have considered home for decades is unlikely to go down well with many in any subsequent referendum.
Both Anastasiades and Akinci are expected to produce maps showcasing their intentions. Anastasiades said without maps to sort out a final deal, talks won’t move to the top issue — security.
There’s another layer when it comes to Cyprus, an island that’s seen its share of big power intrigue through the centuries, from Alexander the Great’s invasion in the fourth century B.C., through Roman times, the Crusaders and most recently the British.
Legally, negotiations that touch on Cyprus’ security must include Greece, Turkey and Britain because Cyprus’ 1960 constitution accorded them “guarantor” status. The idea was to have the three protect the fledgling democracy at its independence from British rule which had followed four years of a guerrilla campaign by Greek Cypriots aimed at unifying the island with Greece — something the minority Turkish Cypriots deeply opposed.
Turkey invoked its intervention rights from its status as a guarantor in 1974.
Trust is therefore essential.
Turkish Cypriots fear that the majority Greek Cypriots could overwhelm them in the future. That’s why they are insisting that Turkish troops should remain as a bulwark.
Greek Cypriots, meanwhile, have worries over the might of Turkey and insist that a country outside the European Union — of which Cyprus is a member — should neither keep troops on the island nor the right to militarily intervene. EU officials have backed that notion.
Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian ways and recent security problems, evidenced further in the New Year’s Day attack in Istanbul that killed 39 people, have done little to either assuage Greek Cypriot fears or foster trust. United Nations officials are reportedly trying to work out a formula that would answer the security fears of both sides.
Word is that Greece, Britain and Turkey will be represented at the Cyprus Conference at the highest levels. Top EU officials including Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini are said to be going, too. Anastasiades said that UN Security Council members may also attend on the sidelines if they so wish.
UN envoy Espen Barth Eide has said the talks may expand to include issues that affect EU-Turkey relations, such as what to do with all the refugees who have fled Syria for Europe. Akinci has said that if a deal is struck in Geneva, it may take a few more months to thrash out the legal details before accord is put to a vote in the summer.
A peace deal would bolster regional security and ease cooperation in tapping potentially huge oil and gas reserves beneath the Med seabed.
For the wider region, a deal could be a beacon of hope.
Greeks and Turks, Muslims and Christians working things out could send a powerful message of peace.