The United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) appeared on the island in 1964 after inter-communal strife broke out between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities and never left, making it one of the longest-serving UN peacekeeping forces.
Theoretically, compared to other so-called “frozen conflicts,” the Cyprus problem should be easy to resolve if there is sufficient political will. There has been no violence between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities for years. Instead, there are many social contacts and friendships. Despite this, the Cyprus problem has proven to be a difficult nut to crack, becoming increasingly complicated these days due to a dispute over hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sixteen years ago, former Greek Cypriot leader George Vasiliou told me that the main obstacle to reunification was the intransigent position of Turkey, which maintains some 40,000 troops in the north of the island. Indeed, I remember listening to a speech from a Turkish general (back in those days the Turkish military had a very strong hand in foreign policy decision-making) saying that Ankara would not give one pebble of Cyprus away, arguing that strategically Cyprus was as vital for Turkey in the 1990s as it had been in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, the general perception amongst the international community that Ankara was the main obstacle was blown out of water in 2004 when Turkish Cypriots voted “yes” for reunification, supporting with some 65 percent the UN’s Annan Plan, which was backed by the international community, Turkey and Greece. Seventy-five percent of Greek Cypriots voted “no.”
While it was the democratic right of Greek Cypriots to vote “no,” it had significant repercussions. The Greek Cypriots joined the EU a few weeks later, while the Turkish Cypriots were left out, which left them disappointed and resentful. Finding a solution had never been a criterion for membership. Then-European Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen publicly declared that he felt cheated by the leader of the Greek Cypriot community at the time, Tassos Papadopoulos, who had made an emotional televised plea for Greek Cypriots to vote “no,” despite that fact that Papadopoulos had negotiated the plan.
He accused the UN of producing a Turkey-friendly plan in order to facilitate the opening of accession talks with Ankara — supporting a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem had been one of the criteria. At that point, the UN, the EU and just about everybody else working on this issue was fed up. Years of efforts had come to nothing. It was time for a pause.
In 2008 a new cycle of talks began between the two sides’ leaders, Mehmet Ali Talat and Dimitris Christofias. Between then and now there have been many ups and downs and changes of leadership, including unprecedented support from religious leaders. Yet the bubble of optimism burst: The Turkish Cypriots accuse the Greek Cypriots of stalling by insisting that previously agreed positions be renegotiated; the Greek Cypriots accuse the Turkish Cypriots of putting forward unrealistic proposals. I am aware the substance of the negotiations deserves a much greater analysis but in such a word-restricted article this is impossible. I am currently working on a much longer paper which will go into the nitty-gritty of the matter.
In October 2014, as the two leaders — now Nicos Anastasiades and Derviş Eroğlu — were due to start substantive talks, the Greek Cypriots left the talks following Turkey’s announcement that Ankara was preparing to dispatch a seismic vessel to carry out research in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), near to where the Italian energy company ENI is caring our natural gas exploration. The Greek Cypriots demanded that Turkey get out of its EEZ as a precondition to resuming talks; Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots insisted the Greek Cypriots stop drilling.
Hydrocarbons should be used as an incentive for peace, but instead they have jeopardized the talks. As of today the negotiations remain frozen. While the gas exploration is due to come to a natural end very shortly, with leadership elections in the north in April and elections in Turkey in June, it seems highly unlikely talks will be restarted until the autumn and even then, with no concrete solution to the hydrocarbon issue, there is every chance they may run aground and again bring increased disillusionment — not to mention greater regional instability — that a solution will ever be found.