Divided island

The failure in Geneva last week of a round of talks on the reunification of Cyprus is by all measures a huge diplomatic setback. This is not the first time the United Nations-backed dialogue between the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state in the north and the Greek-Cypriot Republic of Cyprus has been deadlocked. Even so, the current stalemate is disappointing as the prospects for a final deal had been pinned on the two interlocutors — Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, his counterpart in Northern Cyprus. Both represent a generation that regards the status quo as an everyday reminder of the memories of partition of the island, whose combined population is just about one and a half million. The split took place in 1974 when Turkey invaded the north after an Athens-backed coup in Cyprus aimed at annexing the island. Among the main challenges the two leaders face is the demand for restitution of the property rights of the Greek-Cypriots who had fled the north in the 1970s. The establishment of an institutional framework to secure the interests of both ethnic groups is another. Nicosia’s assurances of a rotating presidency between Greek and Turkish-Cypriots in a future federal union have not soothed anxieties in the north. Another challenge is Turkey’s refusal to guarantee the withdrawal of its troops stationed in the north. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists on an indefinite Turkish military presence on the island.

The record of stalled negotiations, in fact, is almost as old as the 1974 partition. An early test of the diplomatic and political resolve to reunite the region was the 2002 Kofi Annan plan for reconciliation. Its terms were rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a 2004 referendum, which coincided with Cyprus joining the European Union. Voters had counted on the increased leverage EU membership would allow them vis-à-vis the north. On the other hand, the Turkish-Cypriots had ratified the Annan plan overwhelmingly, sensing enhanced prospects for a reunited island inside the bloc. The potential for reconciliation might also have been boosted by Turkey’s bid to join the EU, which was then high on the agenda in Brussels. More than a decade later, a reunion seems to be as elusive as ever. Yet, the economic incentives for reunification have, if anything, become more compelling. A united Cyprus would allow both parts of the island to realise their immense tourism potential. The prospect of exploitation of offshore gas reserves in the Mediterranean too is something the two sides could then realistically set their eyes on. But the imperative is not just economic — a successful settlement would allow Cyprus to be more in control of its affairs, without both the sides being so reliant on neighbouring powers.