Thursday, April 27, 2017

Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive

As 2017 began, Cyprus entered its 53rd year as a politically separated nation and its 43rd year as a physically divided country.

Long under the auspices of the United Nations, unification talks progressed from a period of stalemate, suspension, missed opportunities, and general pessimism beginning in 2012 to a period of new energy and an atmosphere of “high but cautious optimism” by the end of 2016. This optimism was due to the apparent personal relationship between Republic of Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, leader of the Turkish Cypriots, and their commitment to achieving a settlement.

A flurry of intense negotiations between December 2016 and January 2017 in Geneva led many observers to note that the two Cypriot leaders appeared to have come closer to reaching a settlement. For the first time formal discussions took place on the sensitive issues of territory, including the presentation of maps noting territorial adjustments, and security. The Geneva talks also were historic because on January 12, 2017, a five-party conference was convened with the participation of the guarantor powers, Great Britain, Greece, and Turkey. For the first time, Turkey engaged in a dialogue with representatives of the Republic of Cyprus (which Ankara does not recognize). The European Union (EU) also participated in the meetings for the first time.

However, the Geneva negotiations ended over a dispute on an extraneous issue and because neither side appeared ready to make necessary concessions on security. Some also believed that the breakdown was due to the fact that Ankara could not seriously negotiate on security guarantees and troop withdrawals until after a mid-April vote on a constitutional referendum in Turkey.

After Geneva, talks between Anastasiades and Akinci resumed but quickly broke down in February 2017, when the Greek Cypriot legislature passed a bill instructing schools to remember a 1950 Greek Cypriot-led referendum on enosis (the union of Cyprus with Greece). The Turkish Cypriots reacted with outrage, and negotiations were suspended. On April 11, 2017, after eight weeks, both sides agreed to resume the talks and scheduled additional meetings into May.

With the referendum vote in Turkey concluded, time has again become an important factor in the negotiations. First, it is unclear where the Cyprus negotiations fall on Ankara’s priority list as the Turkish leadership begins to implement the provisions of the newly amended constitution. Some believe the positive outcome of the vote, which will strengthen the Turkish presidency, will harden Ankara’s positions on Cyprus. Others say the fact that the majority of Turkish voters in north Cyprus voted “no” to the changes may lessen Ankara’s interest in Cyprus for a while. Second, a proposed new round of hydrocarbon drilling approved by the republic could begin in July. This possibility has already provoked protests from Akinci and warnings from Ankara. Finally, the start of the upcoming presidential elections campaign in the republic for an early 2018 vote will soon be well under way, making any concessions by Anastasiades toward a settlement of the Cyprus issue more controversial.

The United States has long maintained interest in a resolution of the Cyprus issue. Internal developments in Turkey, the continued threat from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the growing prospects that the Eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, can play an important role in regional energy development and supply have added to the urgency to achieve a solution. The Trump Administration has pledged continued support for the negotiations with the goal of a settlement. However, the level of active engagement by the United States in the early part of the new Administration has not yet been as high as the level of U.S. engagement in 2016.

This report provides a brief overview of the history of the negotiations and a description of some of the issues involved in those talks.

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