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Realpolitik arrives in Cyprus

By Eleni Meleagrou

VICE President Joe Biden arrived in Cyprus yesterday, followed at some point by Secretary of State John Kerry. This intense U.S. interest in this partitioned little island of mine has caused much excitement, giving rise to statements by politicians on both sides of the dividing line, speculation and expectations, rumours and criticism.

Cyprus has not received this much attention from the U.S. since the 1974 invasion and occupation of the northern part by Turkey. The only European country to have been invaded and occupied since the Second World War, the island remains divided and Turkey is the only country that refuses to recognise the Republic of Cyprus.

Since the 1974 invasion, negotiations with the avowed objective of reunification of the island have been held under the auspices of the UN at different times. The most intense negotiation was in 2000, with the proposal of the Annan plan (named after then-UN Secretary General Koffi Annan) for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. The plan was overwhelmingly rejected in 2004 by the Greek Cypriots in a referendum, as urged by then-President Tassos Papadopoulos, an unreconstructed nationalist, who misrepresented the terms of the plan as ruinous for Greek Cypriots. The Annan plan was approved by a large majority of Turkish Cypriots in a separate referendum.

The following years saw several half-hearted attempts to resuscitate the talks that failed to reach an agreed solution. It was not until February 11 of this year that a joint declaration was issued by the leaders of the two communities indicating a serious commitment to move forward towards a lasting settlement of the problem on the basis of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation and political equality.

In these latest efforts, Washington has been markedly and actively involved, both through its current ambassador in Nicosia and at a higher level with declarations of support from President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Vice President Biden in favour of the peace process and a negotiated settlement at the earliest possible time.

The momentum that has been gathering behind these latest attempts has to be seen against the background of the banking crisis and economic meltdown last year, and the discovery of considerable deposits of natural gas off the southern shores. Add to this the neighbouring Israeli gas deposits, Turkey’s strategic position both as a market and conduit for gas, and European and American desires to shake off reliance on Russian gas (especially now with the Ukraine crisis), and the visits from Biden and possibly Kerry later in the summer become less of a mystery and more of – one hopes – a carefully calculated attempt to promote peace and security in Cyprus in the context of hard-headed geopolitical and economic objectives. Realpolitik may have finally arrived in Cyprus, where it has historically been as much needed as it has been missing, and where politicians pander to nationalism at the drop of a hat.

For better or worse, it is crystal clear that with Turkey hovering menacingly, Cypriots should not and cannot be left to their own devices to decide whether, when and how they might be prepared to settle their differences. That is not to say that a settlement devised by outsiders should be imposed on the island. On the contrary, during the lengthy and frustrating years of negotiations, the two communities have reached compromises on the majority of issues involved. Where they haven’t yet (and that is the point of these current talks), the parameters within which compromises must be found have long been drawn. So, issues such as the powers of the federal government and constituent states, citizenship, land and property have all been thoroughly examined and discussed by Cypriots and UN experts. Therefore, these current talks cannot hold any major surprises for the negotiators.

It is now a matter of will, driven by economic need and hope for reaping returns from the gas and oil reserves for both communities, which can effect the final push towards the finishing line.

The current, centre-right government in Nicosia came into power in February last year, just in time to negotiate a bail-out with the Eurozone and the IMF to the tune of €10bn. It has since been struggling to keep to its electoral promise to reach a negotiated settlement in the face of continuous and inane opposition from professional politicians heavily invested in perpetuating the status quo of partition and separation. American interest in reaching a settlement for Cyprus has been rekindled. The catalyst is the “gamechanger” discovery of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, the exploitation of which requires regional stability and co-operation. The U.S. is currently promoting a wider energy strategy in the region which takes into account Israeli interests, improved Turkey-Israel relations and a settlement in Cyprus that would finally allow the three countries to work together in exploiting the available gas and oil reserves. As we are repeatedly told here, it is a “win–win” dream scenario.

Vice President Biden, who has previously expressed his support for the efforts of the Cyprus government to reach a settlement, encouragingly telephoned President Anastasiades after the joint communiqué of February 11, describing Cyprus as a “key partner in a vital region.” The statement by the Government Spokesman on Biden’s May visit is quite revealing in its acknowledgment of the “enhanced interest of the U.S. with regard to the Cyprus problem” and its role in the region, and in welcoming the improved relations between the two countries as well as the important role of the U.S. in finding a settlement. At the same time, the statement is interesting in its listing of the subjects to be discussed: “Developments on the Cyprus problem, energy, the economy, the strategic role of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, the developments in Ukraine.”

Only the meanest minded and most self-serving politicians on the island will dispute the words of the joint declaration that “the status quo [on the island] is unacceptable,” with both communities suffering, for different reasons, under financial hardship, corruption scandals dating back many decades, mismanagement, a property bubble and short-sighted planning and investment, to name but a few problems plaguing the island. And everyone agrees that the people of Cyprus would benefit immensely from the revenues that the natural gas reserves will undoubtedly generate. Already, oil and gas giants Total, ENI and Texas-based Noble Energy are firmly on board, having signed contracts with the government of Cyprus to operate the Aphrodite gas field. But the question of the best way to transport gas remains unresolved: Would it be an LNG plant on the island itself or a pipeline through Turkey? These are matters that will be much more easily tackled within the framework of a settlement and cooperation between the two communities in a federal Cyprus, and Turkey.

Finally, the Biden visit is rumoured to promote the confidence building initiative, proposed by President Anastasiades over a year ago, of opening up the Turkish-occupied and fenced off ghost city of Varosha. Biden is reportedly going to announce the financing of a master plan for the Famagusta area. The Greek Cypriot community has been calling for the return of Varosha, empty and derelict, as a bargaining chip in the negotiating process. After several failed attempts at negotiating the return of this area, the American initiative, if indeed it materialises, will add much needed momentum to the ongoing talks and help push the two sides towards an overall settlement of the Cyprus problem.

Eleni Meleagrou is a UK solicitor with a practice in Cyprus. She specialised in European human rights and represents Greek Cypriot land owners with homes and property in the occupied north of Cyprus.

http://warontherocks.com/2014/05/realpolitik-arrives-in-cyprus/

 

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