Last Tango in Cyprus: The Negotiating Challenges Ahead

By
Helena Smith

Jan./Feb. 2002 - So finally we have it: the last tango in Cyprus, where the clock is ticking louder than it has since the division of the island in 1974.

The men who will dance to the tune—Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash—are not bit players in this fractured corner of the Levant, but political hegemons who have dominated its messy history for the past 40 years.

Now, as they embark on the most critical push yet to re-unify the country with the long-awaited resumption of U.N.-brokered talks, their hour of reckoning has come.

Do they have the political will to solve the West's longest-running diplomatic dispute? Tackling the substance of the problem is less of a hindrance.

Do they have the desire to bridge the chasm of distrust that still divides their peoples by creating a loose bizonal, bicommunal federation? And do they really want to go that extra mile to achieve what countless bilateral negotiations and U.N. resolutions have failed to do?

All agree that finally cracking the Cyprus nut would not only release Greek-Turkish relations of their biggest thorn—and ease tensions on NATO's edgy southeastern front—but it would also head off a potentially devastating confrontation between Ankara and the EU, if Turkey carries out its threat to annex Denktash's breakaway republic in the north.

The potent combination of age, fading health, and geopolitical circumstance has dictated that there will be no other opportunity for the two leaders to put history's last humpty-dumpty back together again.

Clerides, about to turn 83, says he will not seek re-election when his term expires in February 2003. Denktash is a 77-year-old diabetic dogged by poor health.

As the Turkish Cypriot, himself, felt compelled to confess, this will be their "last tango" in the ballroom of U.N.-sponsored talks. Clerides echoed the sentiment when the two longtime adversaries agreed to an "intensive schedule of talks" on January 16.

Add to this the former British colony's anticipated accession to the EU, at the Copenhagen summit this December, and the pas de deux looks shorter still.

It is clearly now or never, if securing a settlement, and a place in the history books, is their ultimate objective. No two politicians are better placed to bring peace to Cyprus, for no two men know the problem as well or have the moral standing to sell a solution to their peoples.

But it is precisely because the two London-trained barristers have focused almost solely on one case, the Cyprus problem, that mediators fear them most. Their formidable inside knowledge of the brief has floored negotiators again and again.

This time around, with no time to lose, the leaders must break out of old molds and exemplify the sort of mental catch-up generally so necessary among the island's populace by changing tack altogether.

That will be the first challenge since there can be no peace if bicommunal ambivalence continues to reign supreme across the ethnic divide. Tranquility in Cyprus can only be viable—and last—if it genuinely springs from the hearts and minds of all Cypriots.

Indulging in some confidence-building measures, such as easing the economic embargo on the north in exchange for easing out some of the 35,000 Turkish troops stationed in the breakaway territory, would be a start.

Already, Clerides has shown a startling willingness to think outside the box, going further than any of his advisors, even his foreign minister, in terms of concessions. He has indicated, on CNN Turk no less, that he would be willing to countenance the gradual, rather than complete, withdrawal of Turkish mainland troops from the north. Not long ago, that was unthinkable.

Concerning the highly controversial right of return for the estimated 200,000 Greek Cypriot refugees who were forcibly displaced in 1974, he has also signaled that he would be willing to restrict freedom of movement for these refugees into the north.

Refugee flows could, he suggested, be staggered to assuage Turkish Cypriots of any fear that a solution would see them being outbought and overrun by the much wealthier Greek Cypriots. At around $16,000 per annum, the per capita income of the average Greek Cypriot is about seven times higher than that of the average Turkish Cypriot.

For the Greek Cypriot side, retrieving territory in the north for the return of refugees remains indisputably the most difficult issue. It is one that Cyprus's 700,000-strong Greek Cypriot population has been woefully ill-prepared for.

To further show his goodwill, on December 4, the Greek Cypriot leader took the unexpected step, one that was as heavy in courage as it was in symbolism, of dining with Denktash as the first Cyprus president to cross the "green line" and enter the creation of the Turkish army, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Denktash remains more of a conundrum, although he is now under immense pressure from his impoverished people to search for a solution. The greatest concession the Turkish Cypriot leader will be called upon to make still revolves around his acceptance that he will never gain international recognition for his self-proclaimed state, although, ultimately, this would be a false compromise since no state but Turkey has acknowledged the breakaway territory.

At the end of the day, Denktash will have to ask whether the trappings of power mean more to him than a settlement.

It now seems apparent that the Greek Cypriots, the majority population, have agreed to a decentralized form of power-sharing whereby they will live alongside the Turkish Cypriots in two autonomous entities.

The Turkish Cypriots still fear that the Greek Cypriots will exploit their entry into the EU to unravel a settlement, for example, by resorting to the European Court of Human Rights over matters of territory and freedom of movement.

Despite their comparative wealth, the Greek Cypriots can ill-afford complacency. If it is perceived that, in any way, they have turned down a decent settlement from Denktash, they may find themselves looking as obdurate and isolated as the Turkish Cypriots have previously been, with their patrons in Athens unable, under pressure from the EU, to bail them out.

Still, the very basis of the negotiations is how much power will remain in the hands of a central government. Will we see a state whose only truly bicommunal authority will be a tourism ministry, a seat in the U.N., and a common currency?

What is certain is that the Greek Cypriots, with the sympathy of the international community, will not accept a loose-knit confederation from which the Turkish Cypriots could secede and emerge with all the majesty of a sovereign state should a united Cyprus collapse for a second time. Nor will they accept the Turkish army remaining in the north without the continuation of a U.N. force, although the disbanding of well-established and lavishly-equipped Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot militias remains an essential final component of any settlement.

It is only when the disarming of both sides has occurred that a new Cypriot identity stands any chance of taking root.

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  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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