By Neophytos Loizides
In the past few months no sensible pundit on the Cyprus problem would cite any positive developments at the political level; the Cypriot stalemate is deepening further each day. Yet at the grassroots level bicommunal activity at the civil society level is emerging as the critical actor in the reunification process.
Surprisingly, the current interruption in the Cyprus negotiations turned February 2015 into the month of civil society. Mr. Tsipras was the first Greek PM to meet with bicommunal NGOs in his inaugural visit to Cyprus while the following week President Anastasiades held a well-received press conference with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot journalists. But much of the civil society engagement receives little media or public attention. Last week the two chambers of commerce launched a successful event in London hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. At the same time, the Cyprus Academic Dialogue (CAD) was co-organising a flagship conference in Ankara, the first bicommunal event that took place in the Turkish capital after half a century of Cyprus conflict.
As the University of Kent co-organised this event, I witnessed firsthand three major strengths of Cyprus-based academic and civil society practitioners that could prove catalytic for the settlement.
First, civil society can take risks governments cannot afford. Organising a bicommunal conference in Ankara was not an easy undertaking. A year’s long preparation could have led to nowhere, if any of the sides withdrew. Last minute problems are not unusual after decades of conflict and suspicion. But taking risks also pays; the event attracted seventeen academics and NGO leaders from both communities in Cyprus. Even more impressively, on the Ankara end it attracted ten ambassadors, 33 officers from 24 different embassies (including the U.S. Embassy and 15 EU member states as well as the EU Delegation in Ankara), 6 officers from Turkish state institutions (including 3 from Ministry of Foreign Affairs), 11 researchers from 9 think-tanks, 29 academics from 9 different universities and 10 reporters from 5 different media agents (including Reuters, France 24, Anadolu News Agency).
It also included participants from the Turkish industrialist association and the country’s largest conglomerate Kos Holding. This is only just one example of what is happening at a smaller scale elsewhere. Such events are critical in rallying political support for change at the government level.
Following months of preparations, the event hosted at the USAK House secured two high profile speakers George Papandreou and former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Hikmet Çetin. Papandreou’s prestige and leverage in Turkey is impressive. As organizers we are indebted to the former Greek PM for mobilizing his network to create a new vision for Cyprus in Ankara.
George Papandreou who helped Cyprus join the EU will be a great asset in the reunification process. Moreover, Cypriot academics and NGO leaders increasingly speak a shared language in such events, hence they are more convincing. For those observers recently suggesting partition, the best response comes from joint bicommunal action.
Thinking outside the box and reframing the Cyprus question is easier for civil society leaders than governments. Participants did not speak in Greek or Turkish terms but reframe issues in humanitarian and scholarly terms reaching out to different audiences. Speaking at the same wavelength (despite disagreement on issues) makes a highly convincing case for reunification.
Finally, bicommunal groups are becoming increasing more professionalised having decades of joint work across the divide. The scholarly work presented at the Ankara conference provided tangible examples of what could work in a future settlement not only in Cyprus but other comparative cases. When negotiations restart, academics and civil society practitioners will be in a position to make available to all sides the best practices worldwide for the settlement of the Cyprus problem.
Neophytos Loizides is a Reader at the University of Kent and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow