Breaking off Cyprus talks

I talked with Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu over the weekend and had a chance to converse with the A-team he created right after he got elected as the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) in April. It was very clear to me that both Eroğlu and his team are determined to keep talks going in with Greek Cyprus order to find some sort of solution to the decades-long Cyprus problem. Yet there is also growing resignation among his team that the Greek Cypriots are simply wasting time by putting forward rehashed old ideas that simply do not recognize the changed facts on the ground after three decades of division.

Understandably, Eroğlu is very careful not to fall into the traps set up by the Greek Cypriots in order to present him as “hard-liner” who has no real interest in talks. The negative campaign backfired on the Greek Cypriots when he issued a letter right after his inauguration that he was ready to pick up where his predecessor left off. He conveyed the strong commitment of the Turkish Cypriots to the talks during a visit to Brussels last week where he held series of meetings with the European Union officials. Now he is ready to repeat the same messages over in New York this week on the occasion of UN General Assembly proceedings.

Nevertheless, both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are preparing themselves for what some observers describe as an inevitable outcome of more than 35 years of fruitless talks: Partition and then separation with two independent states on a tiny island. Eroğlu and his team are holding their cards on this contingency plan very close to their chests and will not reveal any details on that matter. Though they are quite focused on revitalizing talks with new ideas, such as offering to set up a joint construction and housing authority to develop abandoned properties on both sides of the island to make progress on property settlement issues, Eroğlu’s team is also developing a “plan B” as a fall-back position in case talks end in failure and the UN simply gives up on settlement.

In the meantime, life on the island goes on as usual and people do not seem to be paying much attention to what is going on in the talks. There is visibly growing fatigue and frustration with the Greek Cypriots at the same time, especially after the 2004 UN-sponsored referendum on the Annan plan ended in failure due to the Greek Cypriots’ rejection. Turkish residents on the island strongly feel that the Greek Cypriots will never give up on demands that will disrupt the lives they have become accustomed to during the past 35 years. They remain indifferent to talks. The same can be said for the larger Turkish audience of 72 million back in mainland Turkey. Stories on Cyprus rarely make the headlines of Turkish papers, let alone find a place on the front page; most stories are pushed back to the inside pages, if they ever get published at all.

The Greek Cypriots may be making a grave mistake by thinking that time is on their side. Their game plan to keep pushing isolation on the Turkish residents is not as effective as it used to be. At the same time, European officials are increasingly worried that the obstructionist policies of a tiny island are deeply hurting the economic, military and political interests of the 27-member bloc as a whole. More and more people in Europe have begun to describe Greek Cypriot government as a “spoiler kid.”

Just think about the energy security for a number of Eastern and Central European countries and how important it is for them to develop alternative supply routes using Turkey as a transit country. But EU-candidate Turkey could not even open talks on energy in negotiations because of the Greek Cypriot government’s veto. With the increasing Turkish clout in foreign policy both regionally and globally, coupled with it possessing the fastest growing economy among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) members, Ankara is maneuvering herself into a much better position when compare to the Greek Cypriots.

The Greek Cypriots should also recognize the fact that they are being used as a proxy by France and Germany, the two major European powers that have much to lose in the event that Turkey becomes a full member of the EU. The Greek Cypriots simply became a tool for these countries that are located thousands of miles away from the tiny island. At a time when Turkey is sincerely trying to develop relations with “old enemy, new friend” Greece and focusing on cooperating while pushing thorny issues aside, Cyprus could really use the new “zero problems with neighbors” policy of Turkey and capitalize on this unique opening. Turks really mean business and want to reconcile differences on the island.

But, as the saying goes, it takes “two to tango” and Greek Cypriots should do their homework to make the most of this fertile ground. Idling away time does not serve the interest of either the Turkish or Greek Cypriots on the island. But if there is no genuine effort made and the focus is instead on window-dressing then the inevitable outcome of partition will look more appealing to many people. I just hope it never comes to that.

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