Saturday, 13 April 2013

Time For Change On Cyprus? Maybe, Just Maybe.

Few places better than the island of Cyprus demonstrate the futility, the touchingly naïve earnestness, embodied in the English word ‘should’.  Given the climate, resources, relatively well educated population and rich history the Eastern Mediterranean island should be a shining example of harmony and prosperity. It isn’t.

In addition to the recent, largely self-inflicted, financial collapse the island suffers from a long-standing division between the 800,000 Greek Cypriots in the southern part of the island and the roughly 300,000 Turks who live in the politically and economically isolated northern part of the island. About half of the Turkish population is native Turkish Cypriots while the others are immigrants from Anatolia.

This island 'should' be a paradise
 The Greek part of Cyprus is the internationally recognized and European Union member Republic of Cyprus. The self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey. It survives largely on casinos, tourism and about $600 million in annual subsidies from Turkey. Until recently the Republic of Cyprus enjoyed a much higher income than its northern counterpart. With the collapse of the Cypriot banking bubble this difference has narrowed sharply.

Reasonable people might think that this is the perfect time for the two groups on the island to overcome their past differences, re-unite and build a prosperous island that begins to fulfil its potential. Unfortunately, as is often the case in this part of the world, such people are simultaneously right and wrong. They are right to believe that a unified island would be much stronger than a divided island. They are wrong to think this is going to happen any time soon. Cyprus is very close to the Middle East, and in that part of the world the mere fact that such a move would make sense is absolutely no guarantee that it will happen.

Why not? How much time do you have? The tangled history of Cyprus involves centuries of invasion, co-habitation, the sometimes malevolent influence of religion, colonization, communal strife and, above all, a deeply ingrained sense of grievance and victimhood.

However, there are changes in the wind that, according to one astute observer, could change the narrative, the frozen paradigm of the divided island. Metin Munir, a native of Cyprus and formerly a prominent columnist with the Turkish daily newspaper Milliyet, has long been sceptical of the real chances of reunification. Now, however, there are changes that might, just might, in time help bring the island together.

“The economic difference between the two sides is diminishing. In addition, Turkey  is bringing water to the island from the mainland and will soon be bringing electricity for much less than it costs to generate it on the island. The rapprochement between Turkey and Israel also has the potential to change the situation. If Israel ships its gas through Turkey via a pipeline there could be a great deal of pressure on Cyprus to do the same for its offshore gas, or at least sell its gas to Israel who in turn would use the pipeline to Turkey. The alternative is to build a very expensive LNG plant on Cyprus. It is difficult to see right now who would spend the $7 - $8 billion for such a plant when a much cheaper pipeline alternative (Turkey is only 40 miles away) is available.

Turkey is so close and so far away
“Nothing is going to happen immediately, but the potential for change is emerging. For one thing there is a lot of sympathy on this side of the island for what the Greeks are going through right now. One major obstacle is what the Greeks perceive as Turkey’s belligerent approach to Cyprus. Turkey has to change its tune, and then we will see what happens.”

He has a point. No one can accuse Turkish foreign policy of being subtle. Why use a scalpel when a sledge hammer will do? There is a certain aggressive, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude in the comments of many Turkish politicians that make it difficult to create a win-win rather than an I-win-you-lose situation. A recent example is Turkey’s heavy-handed threats against the Cypriot development of the offshore natural gas deposits without including the Turkish part of the islands.

To be fair to Turkey, the internal timing for any concessions on Cyprus couldn’t be worse. The Turkish government is already in tense negotiations with the Kurds to end decades of conflict. This is prompting outrage on the part of Turkish nationalists who see any move to accommodate the Kurds as a betrayal of the very concept of a Turkish nation. Any concessions on Cyprus would send this outrage off the charts and stir up the old cries of ‘selling out’ their brothers on the island.

The best chance for a settlement on the island was in 2004 when negotiations under the auspices of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan produced a plan that was overwhelming approved by the Turkish population on Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots, however, already promised a place in the European Union and prompted by the Archbishop of Cyprus who called the plan ‘the work of the devil’, rejected the plan.

Despite this history, calls for a radical re-think are growing. Former Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis recently expressed her support for reconciliation on the island.

Will these discoveries prompt settlement or strife?

It is too early to tell if the faint signs of reconciliation and common sense will prevail over long-held and possibly no-longer-relevant grievances. But the world, and more particularly Cyprus, has changed dramatically in the last few decades. It may just be time to dust off those under-utilized negotiating skills

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