It would be an excellent thing to reunite the island of Cyprus after 42 years of heavily armed partition, but it probably won’t happen this year.
They’re all meeting in Geneva this week – President Nicos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus and President Mustafa Akinci of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, plus new United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres and representatives of all three countries that guarantee Cyprus’s independence, Britain, Turkey and Greece. But don’t hold your breath.
There are three reasons why reunification will not happen, and the first is that Greek-Cypriots don’t want it as badly as Turkish-Cypriots. The Greek-Cypriot majority has twice the income of the Turkish-Cypriot minority – because the Greeks live in a country in the European Union.
They can trade and travel everywhere. The Turkish-Cypriots live in a ramshackle state recognised by no country except Turkey.
Though they are a well-educated, secular population, they may be outnumbered by the ill-educated, socially conservative immigrants flowing in from Turkey. Then there is the complexity of the negotiations to reunite the country, but this time as a bi-national federal republic.
How will the territory be divided up? (The Turkish-Cypriots hold 37%, but maps the two sides have tabled give them between 28.2% and 29.2%.) Will there be a “rotating” presidency, held sometimes by a Greek and sometimes by a Turk? And above all, who will guarantee both sides observe the terms of the deal?
This is the point where things fell apart in 1974. Cyprus got its independence from Britain as a bi-national republic in 1960. The power-sharing constitution was guaranteed by Britain and by Greece and Turkey, the two “mother countries” of the local populations – but then there was a military coup in Greece.
The Greek military regime conspired with Greek-Cypriot terrorist body called EOKA B to carry out a bloody coup in Cyprus in 1974 and unite the island with Greece. So, the Turkish prime minister flew to London to beg Britain (which has military bases on the island) to carry out its duty as guarantor.
When London refused, Turkey invaded to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority, and the territorial division it imposed on the island in 1974 has lasted ever since.
Getting the right kind of guarantees this time is crucial to a successful deal, but it’s probably not going to happen this year. The deal itself is complex, and the fine print cannot be settled this week. And the real obstacle is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose goal is to change the Turkish constitution to turn his office into an all-powerful “executive” presidency. But that is politically tricky.
It takes 60% of the votes in Turkey’s parliament to change the constitution, and in the final vote, he might lose. Even if Erdogan gets the change through parliament, he must win a national referendum on the question next autumn.
So, Erdogan can’t afford to back the Cyprus deal right now. It would alienate Turkish ultra-nationalists who just want to annex northern Cyprus. Maybe next year, after he has total power. But not now.