Is Cypriot reunification possible?

As we approach a new round of talks, scheduled for 3 September, Professor A. Marco Turk writes that

For the past 45 years, the Cyprus conflict has proven a profound challenge to the international community. With the exception of the years 1960-1974, the island has either been occupied or semi-occupied for 824 years. Internal and external "spoiling" has plagued it since 1963 through actions that denied each side the fulfillment of their basic needs.

Greek Cypriots are convinced of the superiority of their cause. Turkish Cypriots fear renewed domination by Greek Cypriots and a return to the status quo of 1963, that they found so unacceptable. This has been exacerbated by property readjustment displacement (including building by non-Greek Cypriots on Greek Cypriot land in the North) and repatriation of Turkish “settlers” from the mainland, now estimated to be nearing 250,000. Turkey's insistence that Cyprus is critical to Turkish national security, especially vis-à-vis Greece, intensifies the spoiling attempt from Ankara. And the Turkish Cypriot suggestion of the “virgin birth”, that is breaking up the island and starting all over again, is not something that Greek Cypriots are prepared to countenance.

Although the Greek Cypriots have lost ground in their demands since the failure of the Annan Plan, their unilateral admission by the EU has put them in a superior bargaining position, enabling them to block any relief for the Turkish Cypriots through continued international isolation. They can use their EU position to prevent any Cyprus solution or Turkey's EU accession. This has prompted Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airspace to Greek Cypriots “until a just and lasting peace” has been achieved. Not to be forgotten are those politicians from both communities who historically have been successful in placing a possible solution in limbo.

Ways must be found to transform the conflict into a situation that is more peaceful and co-operative than has been the case to date, so that the two communities can live side-by-side; maintaining their disagreements until such time as they can support reunification. This would require firstly the withdrawal of the outside third party spoilers who have so far mismanaged the dispute and secondly, assumption of their own destiny by the Cypriots on both sides at the grassroots level.

Will they seize the moment through such a creative approach? It seems unlikely unless the historical "top-down" political elite approach is reversed radically through "bottom-up" take charge activities of the grassroots citizenry interacting directly with each other. Such interaction would disclose the humanity and validity of each other's needs, followed by a program of public education workshops to mobilise both communities as Cypriots to demonstrate their support for reunification. I have argued in the past, "among other issues, these workshops would consider mutual security, mutual respect, humanization of the other, fair rules for managing conflict, curbing the extremists on both sides, and gradual development of mutual trust and co-operation".

Sadly, the Cyprus conflict is so deep-rooted that it may never be resolved peacefully, irrespective of the fact that it appears to have gone into remission. The greater likelihood is that Turkey will pursue its ambitions by consolidating it's Turkish settler population in the North and encouraging those with pure Turkish Cypriot heritage to move to the South.

During the eleven years that I worked bi-communally with Cypriots on both sides of the island, I became convinced that implementation of any solution will require support from the people at the grassroots who have to live with it. In the absence of such bottom-up support, it would seem that reunification is not attainable. Failing this, the current de facto division of Cyprus may very well become de jure through negotiated partition discussions that many clearly anticipate.

Since his 1997-1999 Fulbright Senior Scholar award in conflict resolution, Professor Turk's international peacebuilding efforts have been centered on Cyprus, where he has made regular trips in addition to work in the USA