Realpolitik Arrives in Cyprus

May 21, 2014

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Cyprus today, and he’ll be followed at some point by Secretary of State John Kerry. This intense U.S. interest in this partitioned little island of mine in the Eastern Mediterranean has caused much excitement, giving rise to statements by politicians on both sides of the dividing line, speculation and expectations, rumours and criticism.

Cyprus has not received this much attention from the U.S. since the 1974 invasion and occupation of the northern part by Turkey. The island, which is the only European country (Cyprus has been a member of the EU since 2004) to have been invaded and occupied since the Second World War, remains divided; some 40,000 Turkish troops remain in the north, where the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” was established after the invasion, an illegal state recognised only by Turkey. Turkey is also the only country that refuses to recognise the Republic of Cyprus, an independent state and a member of the UN since British colonial rule came to an end in 1960.

Talks and negotiations between the Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, now completely separated from each other, have been ongoing in some form or other since 1963, when the first inter-communal clashes occurred and Turkish Cypriots withdrew to their own enclaves in the north.  The process of separation was completed with the Turkish invasion of 1974 when 200,000 Greek Cypriots were driven from their homes and properties in the north and the remaining Turkish Cypriots of the south were moved to the north.  Ankara imported 160,000 Turkish settlers from mainland Turkey to Cyprus, so that they now outnumber the original Turkish Cypriots of the island, reduced to 88,900, by a ratio of 2 to 1. The Greek Cypriot population is 800,000, bringing the population of the island as a whole to just over a million.

Since the 1974 invasion, negotiations with the avowed objective of reunification of the island have been held under the auspices of the UN at different times. The most intense negotiation was in 2000, with the proposal of the Annan plan (named after then-UN Secretary General Koffi Annan) for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. The plan was rejected overwhelmingly in 2004 by the Greek Cypriots in a referendum, as urged by then-President Tassos Papadopoulos, an unreconstructed nationalist, who misrepresented the terms of the plan as ruinous for Greek Cypriots.  The Annan plan was approved by a large majority of Turkish Cypriots in a separate referendum.

The following years saw several half-hearted attempts to resuscitate the talks that failed to reach an agreed solution.  It was not until February 11 of this year that a joint declaration was issued by the leaders of the two communities indicating a serious commitment to move forward towards a lasting settlement of the problem on the basis of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation and political equality.

In these latest efforts, Washington has been markedly and actively involved, both through its current ambassador in Nicosia and at a higher level with declarations of support from President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Vice President Biden in favor of the peace process and a negotiated settlement at the earliest possible time.

The momentum that has been gathering behind these latest attempts has to be seen against the background of the banking crisis and economic meltdown in the Republic of Cyprus last March, and the discovery of considerable deposits of natural gas off the southern shores of Cyprus and within its Exclusive Economic Zone.  Add to this the neighbouring Israeli gas deposits, Turkey’s strategic position both as a market and conduit for gas, and European and American desires to shake off reliance on Russian gas (especially now with the Ukraine crisis), and the visits from Biden and possibly Kerry later in the summer become less of a mystery and more of – one hopes – a carefully calculated attempt to promote peace and security in Cyprus in the context of hard-headed geopolitical and economic objectives. Realpolitik may have finally arrived in Cyprus, where it has historically been as much needed as it has been missing, and where politicians pander to nationalism at the drop of a hat.

For better or worse, it is crystal clear to all concerned with the wider region that with Turkey hovering menacingly, Cypriots should not and cannot be left to their own devices to decide whether, when and how they might be prepared to settle their differences.  That is not to say that a settlement devised by outsiders should be imposed on the island nation. On the contrary, during the lengthy and frustrating years of negotiations, the two communities have reached compromises on the majority of issues involved.  Where they haven’t yet (and that is the point of these current talks), the parameters within which compromises must be found have long been drawn. So issues such as the powers of the federal government and constituent states, citizenship, land and property have all been thoroughly examined and discussed by Cypriots and UN experts. Therefore, these current talks cannot hold any major surprises for the negotiators. It is now a matter of will, driven by economic need and hope for reaping returns from the gas and oil reserves for both communities, which can effect the final push towards the finishing line.

The current, center-right government of Cyprus came into power last February, just in time to negotiate a national bail-out with the Eurozone and the IMF to the tune of €10 billion. It has since been struggling to keep to its electoral promise to reach a negotiated settlement to the Cyprus problem in the face of continuous and inane opposition from professional politicians heavily invested in perpetuating the status quo of partition and separation. The joint declaration of 11 February 2014 by the leaders of the two communities, which launched this latest and most promising round of talks, was made possible by the direct involvement of the U.S. government. American interest in reaching a settlement for Cyprus, which has been absent since the rejection of the Annan plan by the Greek Cypriots ten years ago, has been rekindled. The catalyst, according to most commentators, is the “gamechanger” (a very popular term in Cyprus recently) discovery of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, the exploitation of which requires regional stability and regional co-operation. The United States is currently promoting a wider energy strategy in the region which takes into account Israeli interests, improved Turkey-Israel relations and a settlement in Cyprus that would finally allow the  three countries to work together in exploiting the available gas and oil reserves. As we are repeatedly told here, it is a “win –win” dream scenario.

Vice President Biden, who has previously expressed his support for the efforts of the Cyprus government to reach a settlement, encouragingly telephoned the Cyprus President Anastasiades after the issuing of the joint communiqué of February 11, describing Cyprus as a “key partner in a vital region.” The statement of the Cyprus Government Spokesman on Biden’s May visit is quite revealing in its acknowledgment of the “enhanced interest of the U.S. with regard to the Cyprus problem” and its role in the region, and in welcoming the improved relations between the two countries as well as the important role of the U.S. in finding a settlement. At the same time, the statement is interesting in its listing of the subjects to be discussed during the visit: “Developments on the Cyprus problem, energy, the economy, the strategic role of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, the developments in Ukraine.”

Only the meanest minded and most self-serving politicians on the island will dispute the words of the joint declaration that “the status quo [on the island] is unacceptable,” with both communities suffering, for different reasons, under financial hardship, corruption scandals dating back many decades, mismanagement, a real property bubble and short-sighted planning and investment, to name but a few problems plaguing the island. And everyone agrees that the people of Cyprus would benefit immensely from the revenues that the natural gas reserves will undoubtedly generate. Already oil and gas giants Total ENI and Texas-based Noble Energy are firmly on board, having signed contracts with the government of Cyprus to operate the Aphrodite gas field (in the southern Mediterranean). But the question of the best way to transport gas remains unresolved: Would it be an LNG plant on the island itself or a pipeline through Turkey? These are matters that will be much more easily tackled within the framework of a settlement of the Cyprus problem and cooperation between the two communities in a federal Cyprus and Turkey.

Finally the Biden visit is rumored to promote the confidence building initiative, proposed by the President of Cyprus over a year ago, of opening up the Turkish-occupied and fenced off ghost city of Varosha in Famagusta in the north-eastern part of occupied Cyprus. Biden is reportedly going to announce the financing of a master plan for the Famagusta area, which has been held by the Turkish army as a military zone since 1974. The Greek Cypriot community has been calling for the return of Varosha, currently held by the Turks, empty and derelict, as a bargaining chip in the negotiating process.  After several failed attempts at negotiating the return of this area, the American initiative, if indeed it materializes, will add much needed momentum to the ongoing talks and help push the two sides towards an overall settlement of the Cyprus problem.


Eleni Meleagrou is an Attorney at Law and UK solicitor with a practice in Cyprus; she specialised in European human rights and represents Greek Cypriot land owners with homes and property in the occupied north of Cyprus.