Mustafa Cirakli and Fadil Ersozer look at the latest developments in Cyprus, after one of the main players in negotiations gave a lecture in Manchester.
The decades-old reunification talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which resumed in February last year, were unilaterally suspended by the Greek Cypriot side in October last year after an alleged violation of Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus’ territorial waters by the Turkish seismic research vessel Barbaros. The window of opportunity for resuming the settlement negotiations has appeared following the withdrawal of the Turkish vessel in March this year.
Ergun M. Olgun, the Chief Negotiator who has been representing the Turkish Cypriot side in the peace talks, was in Manchester to deliver the Annual Lecture of the Manchester Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence (JMCE). A diplomatic heavyweight and a seasoned negotiator who previously served as a Special Advisor to late Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, and held key positions in the Turkish Cypriot team who negotiated the infamous “Annan Plan” and in subsequent rounds of talks, Olgun stressed the importance of the latest “window of opportunity” to settle the decades-old “Cyprus Problem”.
Speaking to a selected audience in Manchester, Olgun began by asserting that since the collapse of the “power-sharing” deal in 1963, Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots have been striving to find a comprehensive settlement to end the “unacceptable” and “unsustainable” status-quo and return to “normalcy” by renewing their partnership.
Few would disagree with Olgun that there is a need for settlement in Cyprus and a number of “opportunities” could provide some momentum for reunification talks. The Turkish Cypriot Negotiator highlighted that there are at least three factors with the potential to act as “catalysts” if dealt properly, unlike the unsuccessful use of EU membership prospect for settlement in Cyprus in 2004. Firstly, discovery of hydrocarbons is a huge opportunity and should be shaped as a catalyst for a federal future within true understanding, where sides must avoid ethnically induced actions – unilateralism – unlike what has been done in hydrocarbons issue until recent times. For Olgun, hydrocarbons can be “a key catalyst but also can end up being a curse if stakeholders do not cooperate but compete”.
Secondly, Olgun highlighted the unsustainability of the economies and financial systems of both sides in Cyprus stressing that both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot economies rely on rescue packages, from the EU and from Turkey, respectively. This mutual stalemate is also significant in convincing the sides that “we need to take the step from the status-quo towards power-sharing” in Cyprus.
Last but not least, Olgun emphasized that there is need for security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean particularly in view of the recent developments in the region. Reaching a deal in Cyprus would not only serve as a regional model of “peaceful coexistence” and two different ethnic groups overcoming their differences “without resorting to violence” but also contribute to the prospects of Turkey’s EU accession process thus firmly “anchoring [the country] in Europe”, hence further reducing instability in a particularly volatile region. At the same time, in an indirect reference to recent Greek-Cypriot efforts to build a stronger relationship with the neighbouring Israel and Egypt, both of which have seen their relations with Turkey worsen in recent years, Olgun said that the lingering of the Cyprus issue also risked creating new “polarizations, rivalries and conflict zones”. The regional dimension stemming from the hydrocarbons in Cyprus is further consolidated in view of the European Council’s decision in March 2014 to decrease the EU’s gas dependency on Russia due to the latter’s attitude towards the events in Ukraine and Crimea. An EU-member contribution in decreasing this dependency, especially in the discomfort of the deteriorating relations with Russia, is significant for the EU.
Olgun also touched upon some areas, which are fundamentally perceived as “threats” from Turkish Cypriot leadership’s perspective, telling the audience to listen the Greek Cypriot perspective for a complete picture. According to the Turkish Cypriot Negotiator, there is an “asymmetry of power” and “legitimacy” as of the 1963 events providing a tremendous political advantage to the Greek Cypriots in representing the whole island despite the obvious omission of equal co-founder partner Turkish Cypriots. This situation created a “comfort zone” and a political incentive for Greek Cypriots to keep and perpetuate the status-quo making power-sharing with Turkish Cypriots less attractive.
Additionally, Olgun said that through the Turkish Cypriot leadership’s perception, Greek Cypriots perceive Cyprus as a Hellenic island, where the Turkish Cypriots are not political equals for equal power-sharing. On these grounds, some powerful political actors do not internalize the need for power-sharing. “The junior coalition partner DIKO in the Greek Cypriot government” can be seen as a case in point here when it withdrew its support to the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades following the announcement of a “joint declaration” with the Turkish Cypriot leadership in February 2014, arguing that “Hellenism of the island cannot be compromised.”
Finally, Olgun said that the two sides in Cyprus understand and interpret the concept of Federalism differently. He added that, through the Turkish Cypriot leadership’s perception, Greek Cypriot leadership interprets federalism almost identical to a majoritarian system of governance, whereas Turkish Cypriots understand equal power-sharing. Indeed, although both sides agreed under the UN framework in 1977 and 1979 High Level Agreements that the island’s future lies in federalism; there remained an ocean of gaps to fill in that always gave way for disagreements.
In concluding remarks, Olgun emphasized that among the aforementioned opportunities he sees hydrocarbons as the most tangible opportunity to be shaped as a catalyst in the sense that the issue will involve rewards and inducement for both communities. He further stressed that we need political stability, cooperation, working intra-island and external relations, and efficient planning of target markets requiring least investment in order to turn the hydrocarbons into a blessing in Cyprus.
The pro-solution candidate Mustafa Akıncı won the Turkish Cypriot ‘presidential’ elections on 26 April 2015 and negotiations resumed on 15 May after a ‘climate of optimism’ emerged. The current negotiator of the Turkish Cypriot side is Özdil Nami.
Aside from the clear benefits that would flow for all Cypriots, the wider geopolitical stakes tied to the resolution of the Cyprus Problem offer tangible dividends across the board, not least for Europe but also Britain who is directly implicated in the situation as a ‘guarantor’ of the Cyprus constitution and through its military presence on the island. What is certain is that with so much at stake, future developments will warrant close attention.