On 22-24 January, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders held their fifth trilateral meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon since November 2010. Even as the leaders arrived at the Greentree Foundation (Long Island, NY), however, hopes of a breakthrough were dim: both sides admitted there had been almost no progress since their last trilateral meeting in October 2011 and none of the seven negotiating issues had been resolved. With a disappointingly fruitless summit behind them – and to the dismay of an increasingly frustrated UN – the leaders now look unlikely to produce a comprehensive settlement to reunite the island in a bizonal, bicommunal federation before the Greek Cypriot-led Republic of Cyprus takes over EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012. For some, hopes of progress towards reunification rest on a possible change of Greek Cypriot leadership in 2013 presidential elections. But a main obstacle to process for decades remains: a total lack of contacts, communication or trust between Turkey and Greek Cypriots.
The stalemate leading up to Greentree was not for lack of trying on the part of the UN, which, since 2008, has been facilitating the fourth round of talks to reunify the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island, divided politically since 1963 and by military force since 1974. At the end of the previous summit at the same location, in October 2011, the UN had hoped the leaders would reach an agreement on all internal aspects of the Cyprus problem before meeting again in January. An international conference on the remaining issues could then – so the thinking went – be called shortly afterwards, followed by a simultaneous referendum on both sides of the island to approve an eventual settlement plan. The UN Good Offices mission has been much more active since mid-2011,but there is a limit to the pressure it can exert while the process is “Cypriot-owned” and “Cypriot-led”.
At Greentree, the UN had hoped to get some agreement on three core issues which had already been discussed: 1. Sharing of executive powers (particularly determining how the Presidency will be elected and will rotate); 2. Property (particularly regarding the sharing of data by Turkish Cypriots); 3.Citizenship (i.e. the issue of dealing with settlers in the north from mainland Turkey). In his statement on 25 January after the summit ended, Ban said discussions were intensive, but they achieved “limited progress”.
The UN has been giving signals that it will wind down its Good Offices mission in the absence of tangible progress in the coming months. Ban’s Special Adviser on the island, Alexander Downer, stated in early January that there were no plans for another trilateral summit, and Greentree would be a “make or break” meeting. Ban sent a letter to both leaders before the summit, saying that he thought they were reaching an impasse, and warning about the difficulties of continuing the talks when the Republic of Cyprus takes over EU’s rotating presidency in July 2012. He also said the negotiations have entered “a final stage”, meaning that it was time for Turkish Cypriots to share with Greek Cypriots data on properties in the north, and for the Greek Cypriots to accept participating in a broader multilateral conference.
In his 25 January statement, Ban also removed an earlier precondition of reaching an agreement on the internal aspects of a Cyprus solution (including the chapters on governance, property, economy and citizenship) before holding an international conference. He said he will review the situation at the end of March, and if there is enough progress in talks (albeit without specifying criteria), he will call a conference in late April or early May. A multilateral conference – with the participation of the two Cypriot sides and Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom as guarantor powers, at the least – will likely involve discussions on territory (with maps and figures) and external guarantees.
Not all was lost at Greentree, however. Ban underlined some tangible progress, saying the sides had agreed to exchange data on property in the coming two weeks.
It thus seems the latest round of reunification talks remains kinetically active, but has lost most meaningful traction. If the current deadlock continues, a breakthrough might still come after the 2013 Greek Cypriot presidential elections, when a candidate ready to accept a looser federation with Turkish Cypriots could replace President Christofias. Given that there is no open debate about such a model, however, even this scenario may fail to bring the sides together in a common vision of how they see a future united republic.
One major reason that the negotiations since 2008 have never gained real momentum is the failure of Greek Cypriots and Turkey to find a way to engage or just simply talk. The result is that neither Turks nor Greek Cypriots believe the other side genuinely wants a settlement or will stick to an eventual agreement. The sides should focus on resolving this key problem if there is to be a breakthrough in 2013. The stalling of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations is another main reason behind this absence of communication, for which all sides are responsible: the Greek Cypriots for obstructive tactics inside the EU, some EU states for discouraging Turkey, and Turkey for refusing to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic and for letting its EU-related reform process wither.