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Another false dawn? Cyprus 5 avril 2008

Posted by Acturca in South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est.
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The New York Times (USA), March 28, 2008

By Alvaro de Soto

The history of attempts to overcome the division of Cyprus can be measured out in false dawns. One or another leader could always be relied on to stand athwart the effort and yell  »no! » Support from either Ankara or Athens would go missing. But last Friday, the newly minted Greek Cypriot leader, Demetris Cristofias, and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, agreed to begin a new effort. Why should we be excited?

The Cyprus problem has been aptly compared to a padlock requiring four keys, held respectively by the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots, Greece and Turkey.

The meeting last Friday took place on the ashes of the biggest effort ever made, when a comprehensive plan that had the EU’s crucial blessing was approved by the Turkish Cypriots and turned down by the Greek Cypriots in separate referendums on April 24, 2004.

So where are the keepers of the padlock today? The Turkish Cypriots, left at the altar in 2004, would dearly aspire to be brought in from international isolation, which can only happen if they come to terms with the Greek Cypriots. Turkey’s aspiration to join the EU depends on settling the Cyprus problem, if only because the Greek Cypriot-led Cyprus, now an EU member, has a veto. Since its rapprochement with Turkey began in the late 1990s, Greece has not stood in the way of a settlement. That’s three keys in place.

What of the Greek Cypriots? No one had to force Cristofias to the meeting last Friday. His commitment to seek a solution was always in contrast to the ardent resistance of his former coalition partner and predecessor, Tassos Papadopoulos. Cristofias and Talat, ideologically close, quickly agreed to form teams to start work. The fourth key appears to be in place.

The statement the leaders issued after their meeting deftly sidesteps the potentially thorny question of the basis on which negotiations are to take place. Clear ownership of the effort by the parties is obviously an advantage – the appearance of imposition from the outside handicapped the 2004 effort.

The talks that took place from 1999 to 2004 occurred against a deadline consisting of the countdown to EU enlargement: The EU wanted the problem solved before Cyprus’s accession, and as long as that was not decided, Greek Cypriots had to demonstrate to the EU that they were making a good-faith effort.

This time there is no deadline. The Turkish Cypriots are in a hurry, but the tangible incentives for the Greek Cypriots are less clear.

What has changed on the Greek Cypriot side? While Turkish Cypriots approved the 2004 settlement plan by a 2:1 margin, close to 76 percent of Greek Cypriots rejected it. Is there reason to believe that people have changed their minds in sufficient numbers?

In 2004, Greek Cypriot undercurrents of opposition ran so strong that the campaign against the plan hardly touched on the substance of the proposals. Instead, it played to the fear of Turkey that many older Greek Cypriots still harbor, as well as to their belief that foreign meddling is responsible for the decades-long deadlock.

Even Greek Cypriots holding title to property currently under Turkish Cypriot control voted against the plan, knowing that they would thus forsake the possibility of recovering the property or receiving compensation for it. In 2004, fairly or not, Greek Cypriots felt they were being pushed into a settlement that involved considerable compromises – though on balance these paled by comparison with the sacrifices expected of the Turkish Cypriots, many of whom would be displaced, some for the second or third time in their lives.

Finally, the very nature of the proposed settlement seemed to displease the Greek Cypriots: Leaders had agreed as long ago as 1977 that the solution should be a bi-zonal, bi-communal and federal solution. The Greek Cypriot majority may have had trouble reconciling itself to the notion inherent in federalism of the political equality of federal partners and power-sharing at the federal level.

In his speech in the run-up to the referendum, Papadopoulos’ opposition was built around one killer argument that anyone could understand: Why should Greek Cypriots go along with a compromise that they don’t like when in a few weeks they will be in the EU and in a position to squeeze a better deal out of Turkey, whose membership aspirations they will able to blackball? Here the deadline worked against a settlement.

Cristofias will have to seek significant changes with respect to what was voted on in the 2004 referendums, particularly with respect to the security provisions and the overrated but emotional issue of Greek and Turkish troops – a few hundred can remain on the island under a 1960 treaty. No doubt the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot sides realize that this time around they will be facing an interlocutor prepared to engage in serious give-and-take. The Turkish Cypriots cannot realistically expect simply a carbon copy of the plan they already approved. Finding a fair balance that satisfies the Greek Cypriots without losing the Turkish Cypriots will be a difficult task.

But Cristofias is a seasoned player and the leader of the first pan-Cyprian political party on the island, and therein may lie the key: He and Talat, ideological brethren, will both have to be statesmanlike and think in terms of the whole island and all of its inhabitants – not through a sectarian prism.

Talat, supported by the Turkish leadership, will have to consider the lingering fears among Greek Cypriots, justified or not, and be prepared to adjust accordingly. Cristofias will have to persuade his people that they must address the lingering fear of the Turkish Cypriots – that the only relationship that the Greek Cypriots are prepared to entertain with them is one of domination.

Perhaps Talat and Cristofias can persuade their people to think of themselves as Cypriots as opposed to merely Greek- or Turkish-Cypriots.

* Alvaro de Soto was special adviser on Cyprus to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and led the 1999-2004 negotiations.

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