Turkey holds key at last-ditch Cyprus talks
By Eric Maurice
Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are meeting in Switzerland this week for last-chance talks to reunify Cyprus, in which Turkey could play a crucial part.
Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, who failed last year to agree on how to share the island's territory and power between their two communities, will start three days of discussions on Monday (9 January) to try to agree on a map for a "bizonal and bicommunal federation".
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Their talks under UN auspices will be followed by a five-parties conference starting on Thursday with the three countries that guarantee Cyprus's security - the UK, Greece and Turkey.
The aim of the conference, which will be chaired by the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, will be to endorse a deal reached by the two Cypriot leaders or to try to break a deadlock.
The three guarantors' leaders, UK's Theresa May, Greece's Alexis Tsipras and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, could go to Geneva if a settlement is in sight.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will also go but is not expected to take part directly in the talks. The commission has been preparing a reunification at a technical level.
Anastasiades tweeted on Sunday that he was going to Geneva "with hope and confidence".
He told journalists on the plane that he wanted "a Cyprus solution based on the principles and values that allow us to build a modern European state, a state that respects the concerns of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots".
Turkish Cypriot leader Akinci said before leaving for Geneva that he was "cautious" and expected "a tough week".
"Our first choice is to create a federal structure with political equality, freedom, security and the existence of two politically equal constituent states,” he was quoted as saying by the Cyprus Mail.
"There is a general acceptance that it is the last time that a settlement can be reached," said Amanda Paul, from the European Policy Centre (EPC), a think-tank in Brussels.
Northern Cyprus has been occupied by Turkish troops since Turkey invaded in 1974 in reaction to a military coup on the island.
Lots of changes
The United Nations has been deployed since 1964 and keeps a 1,080-strong force on the ground. It monitors the so-called Green Line between the Greek and Turkish-occupied parts of the island.
The Republic of Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but its northern part is in effect not part of the EU. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus established in the north is recognised only by Turkey.
Anastasiades and Akinci resumed talks in 2015 in the first attempt to find a solution for the island since a UN plan failed 2004.
A week before Cyprus joined the EU, the Greek community rejected in a referendum a plan put forward by the then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
The effort this time is Cyprus-led, with the UN helping. Greece and Turkey, the closest supporters of the two parties, have also remained more distant from the negotiations.
Since 2004 there have been changes in the dynamics on the island, Amanda Paul said.
The process for new talks was accelerated by the 2013 financial crisis, when Cyprus had to restructure its banking system under a €10 billion bailout from the EU and the International Monetary Fund that ended in 2015.
People in south understood they would be better off on a reunified island, Paul noted.
She pointed out that the election in March 2015 of Akinci, a former mayor of North Nicosia with a lifelong commitment to a settlement with the Greek Cypriots, was "an important turning point".
The personal factor has been crucial in maintaining talks between Anastasiades and Akinci on track, even when they reached a dead-end last November.
Anastasiades, who was elected Cyprus president in 2013, is "the last chance to make the process continue and reach a settlement", an EU source said. "He's from the last generation to want a settlement."
But both men are under pressure not to give too much to the other, putting the talks at risk of failing.
Both will have to get an eventual deal endorsed by their voters in two separate referendums.
For Anastasiades, the main challenge is to ensure that enough territory is under Greek Cypriot control, especially to allow 90,000 people to get back the property they lost in the Turkish invasion in 1974.
For Akinci, the main issue is to ensure that Turkish Cypriots are sufficiently politically represented and effectively participate in decision-making in a future federal state. He insists in particular on a rotating presidency.
Security and guarantees
For both, the most difficult issue is security, and the future of the 40,000 Turkish troops still on the island.
"We cannot continue to be the only country that third countries guarantee,” Anastasiades said on Sunday, adding that as an EU member state his country "requires neither guarantors nor troops".
Akinci wants to keep Turkish troops to ensure his community's security. He insisted on Sunday that an agreement would be acceptable only if both sides feel "secure".
Ultimately, the deal maker or breaker could be Turkey and its president Erdogan.
"It comes down to what Turkey has to gain," EPC's Paul noted. "But we shouldn't presume that it won't support the process."
Sinan Ulgen, from the Carnegie Europe think-tank, said Turkey would not accept the end of the guarantee, but would be “open to a modernisation" of the security framework.
For Ulgen, who is based in Istanbul, Turkey considers this week's discussions a real opportunity to find a political settlement.
A reunification of Cyprus, he said, would "help Turkey achieve a healthier relationship with the EU", be it about accession talks, trade or Nato.
Erdogan could also see an element of prestige in successful talks.
"With all the difficulties in the neighbourhood, being seen as a country that has contributed to a settlement is something of interest to the government and to Erdogan," Ulgen said.
The situation in Turkey, six months after a failed coup that hardened Erdogan's rule, could however be an obstacle to a solution.
"Turkey is in a pre-electoral atmosphere," with a referendum that could be organised during the spring on a constitutional reform to extend the president's powers, Ulgen pointed out.
Erdogan, who needs the support of nationalists for whom any power-sharing deal on the island would be considered as selling Cyprus, "doesn't want a nationalist backlash", he said.
For Turkey as well as for Greece or the EU, the main incentive for a Cyprus settlement is "first and foremost" stability and security in a region destablised by the war in Syria, EPC's Paul said.
Another incentive is too create the conditions for an economic success and "a win-win situation for all four parties", she also noted.
Hostage to history
A reunified Cyprus would need foreign investment, especially in the northern part, and Turkey "has a lot to gain economically".
Energy is also "a key driving force", Paul said, with offshore gas and oil resources waiting to be exploited.
"The most cost effective way to bring oil and gas to the Western Europe market would be a pipeline through Turkey," Carnegie's Ulgen said.
“Energy is a facilitating factor for a settlement, and it is true also for the Greek Cypriots, not only for the Turks.”
Twelve years after the last peace effort and the EU accession, Cyprus is entering the most crucial week of its modern history.
The island has always been "hostage to history", Paul observed. "It's strategically well-placed. It has always been hostage to external powers who wanted to have an influence. It is still the case today, to a certain extent."