On March 21, the leaders of the Turkish and Greek Cypriots agreed to restart comprehensive negotiations to reunify the divided island and, in a symbolic gesture, to reopen the Ledra Street crossing in Nicosia, which has been closed for nearly 45 years.
Speaking after their meeting, newly elected Cypriot President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat announced that working groups and technical committees from the two communities would now begin to prepare a detailed agenda for reunification negotiations. The two leaders promised that they would meet again in three months to review the progress of the working groups and committees and start fully fledged negotiations based on the agenda that had been drawn up.
The meeting was the first between the leaders of the two communities for nearly two years, and has been hailed by the international community as a potential first step toward a comprehensive settlement to end the 34 year-old division of the island.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded to prevent the unification of the island with mainland Greece. However, for Turkish Cypriots, the problems date back to 1963, when a power-sharing agreement between the two communities collapsed just three years after the island had declared its independence from Britain. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot north of the island issued its own unilateral declaration of independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). To date, the TRNC has only been recognized by Turkey, which still has approximately 35,000 troops deployed in the north of the island.
Decades of intermittent UN-backed negotiations have failed to bring the two communities any closer together. Indeed, the two sides have often appeared more concerned with “points scoring” and portraying the other as the more intransigent party than making the concessions necessary for any lasting settlement. The most recent comprehensive attempt to reunify the island – known as the Annan Plan, after the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan – collapsed in April 2004 when twin referenda on the island resulted in the plan being approved by the Turkish Cypriots and rejected by the Greek Cypriots. In recent years, the Cyprus problems appears to have been suffering from diplomatic fatigue. Neither the two sides on the island nor the international community has appeared to have had the energy or the will to try again. However, in January 2008, a report by the International Crisis Group warned that time was time running out to prevent the de facto division of the island becoming permanent (Cyprus: Reversing the Drift to Partition, www.crisisgroup.org).
Hopes were raised by the election in February 2008 of the more moderate Christofias as Cypriot president in place of his obdurate predecessor Tassos Papadopoulos. On March 21, the U.S. State Department issued a statement welcoming the meeting between Christofias and Talat and congratulating the two leaders on their decision to reopen the Ledra Street crossing.
Ledra Street runs across the green line separating the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the capital of Nicosia. It has been closed since the communal violence of 1963–64 and has become a powerful symbol for what remains the only divided capital city in Europe.
However, it is unclear whether the opening of the Ledra Street crossing will have more than a symbolic importance. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been able to cross into each other’s territory since April 2003, when the Turkish Cypriots finally agreed to open the green line between the two communities. In the first few months after the green line was opened, thousands of Greek Cypriots crossed into the north on day trips, often to visit property from which they had been expelled in the wake of the Turkish invasion. Turkish Cypriots visited the economically more developed south.
However, hopes that contact would bring the communities closer together proved short-lived. If anything, opening the green line demonstrated how little, not how much, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had in common. Privately, many Greek Cypriots admit that it made them less, not more, convinced that they could live by side with Turkish Cypriots. In recent years, the number of Cypriots crossing the green line has dwindled dramatically.
Although the resumption of direct talks between Christofias and Talat is undoubtedly a positive development, they did not discuss anything of substance at their meeting on March 21. There is still no indication that either is prepared to make sufficient concessions to bridge the often huge gap on issues such as the status of property abandoned in the wake of the 1974 invasion, the continued Turkish military presence in the north or exactly how the two communities would share power within a federal or confederal state.
It is also difficult to envisage a permanent solution without Turkey’s agreement, not least when it comes to the issue of the Turkish troops in the TRNC. Interestingly, the announcement by Christofias and Talat that they were restarting the negotiation process generated considerably more interest in the international media than it did inside Turkey. This is probably partly because the Turkish media is currently obsessed by what threatens to be the worst domestic political crisis in a decade (see EDM, March 21). But there was also little comment from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which would, at first sight, appear to have much to gain from a settlement of the Cyprus problem, not least because it would remove one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s own EU aspirations. However, the AKP too is currently focused almost exclusively on the rising tensions within Turkey.
The problem for successive governments in Turkey has always been that any resolution of Cyprus problem – however favorable to the Turkish Cypriots – will automatically be condemned as a sellout by hard-line Turkish nationalists. Perhaps most critically, Cyprus has always been close to the heart of the Turkish General Staff. In recent weeks, despite rising tensions between the AKP and the secularist judiciary, the Turkish military has remained silent. Under the current circumstances, the AKP can ill afford to antagonize the Turkish military or hard-line nationalist opinion by being seen to make concessions over Cyprus. Yet without concessions by both sides there can be no solution. As a result, the prospects for the reopening of peace talks resulting in substantive progress toward a comprehensive settlement would be appear to be based more on hope than conviction.