Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

The Catch 22 that keeps Cyprus divided


By Alper Ali Riza

I first realised the latest talks to solve the Cyprus problem were stalling when I heard the negotiators use the dreaded phrase ‘red lines’. I thought that ‘red lines’ were used sparingly in the world of international diplomacy and then only when one state wishes to send a stern warning to another about its intentions. Red is the colour of warning.

Red lines are inappropriate and counter-productive in delicate negotiations to resolve long-standing political problems that require a preparedness to compromise every inch of the way. Negotiating in good faith involves discussing all contentious issues with the intention of reaching a compromise in the end – rather like EU leaders do in those all night sessions that always result in agreement by next morning.

The framework within which the Cyprus talks are conducted is that of reuniting the island as a federation comprising two core communities inside the EU that rules out union with any other country or partition of any kind. Everything else is negotiable within the elastic contours of the European legal order. There is no room for red lines!

Election fever aside, the underlying reason for the current difficulties in the talks, however, is lack of political leadership. Deep down few people in the know really believe Nicos Anastasiades has the gumption to solve the problem without a push from the public. He is a light weight, wheeler-dealer kind of leader. He gives the impression that he is enjoying himself being president, travelling here and there, shaking hands and smiling and joking with fellow non-entities – although the embarrassing ‘always there is a woman’ joke he cracked the other day on the occasion of the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner was a bit passé as well as in bad taste. It makes one look back nostalgically to the days and moody rugged looks of the late Tasos Papadopoulos!

But like everyone else before him, Anastasiades and the rest of the political establishment are beholden to the nationalists. The Cyprus problem is a national question for which the nationalists hold the key even if they do not – as the latest polls show – attract much popular support. It is a strange paradox that although these extremists are not popular they are unquestioningly accepted as the true custodians of the national question. This has always been a fact of political life in Cyprus even after the catastrophe they inflicted on the island in 1974. That no one dares challenge the nationalists on the national question is not just a truism. From 1955 onwards, rational sensible people have been intimidated into submission by a small group of ruthless extremists.

Unfortunately, these nationalists cannot just be wished away, but when Mustafa Akinci was elected on the Turkish side I believed that his election could neutralise their power. I thought that previous Turkish Cypriot demands of a purely symbolic nature such as virgin birth, rotating presidency and foreign guarantees – which are anathema to Greek Cypriots – would be deconstructed and shown to be of little practical value. I thought that attention would shift to what actually matters to the Turkish Cypriot people: security and prosperity in a reunited federal Cyprus within the EU in which the Turkish Cypriots are the core community in north Cyprus with political equality in key areas at the centre.

I naively believed that agreement along the above lines could be thrashed out within Akinci’s post election honeymoon period given the unequivocal mandate he received from the Turkish Cypriot people. Alas I was mistaken! Obviously he has his own nationalists to worry about, not to mention president Erdogan of Turkey over his shoulder; although to be fair, on Cyprus, Erdogan has been amenable in the past.

The problem is that Cyprus is caught in a vicious circle. In Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch 22 the hero is dumbfounded by the absurd logic of the rule that you can only be excused from flying combat missions if you are crazy, but if you apply not to fly because you are crazy you are acting sanely and cannot therefore be crazy. The catch in Cyprus is that you need to please the nationalists to solve the Cyprus problem but if you please the nationalists you cannot solve the problem!

How then to break this vicious circle and make it virtuous? The nationalists on both sides are dead against a federation. Therefore if we had referendums now on a federal solution and the people voted in favour, the nationalists would lose their political force. If on the other hand the people vote against a federation, well then, the people will have spoken and que sera sera!

Which conveniently brings me to the British referendum. As always in these matters the British do procedure well. Even though it was unforgivably selfish of the Tory government to hold the whole country to ransom and have an in/out referendum on the EU in order to placate the euro sceptics in their midst, the legal mechanism they devised for holding a referendum will yield a result of maximum democratic legitimacy and is a good precedent to follow.

The question that will be on the ballot paper is going to be: ‘Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?’ And the alternative responses: ‘remain a member of the EU’ or ‘leave the EU.’

The idea behind having such a compound question and two alternative responses is important because it concentrates the voters’ mind on the consequences of choosing one course rather than another and enhances the democratic legitimacy of the result.

Which is exactly the kind of choice Cypriot voters need right now! Taking a leaf from the British referendum the question could be: ‘should Cyprus reunite as a federal state or should the two communities remain separate?’ And the alternative responses: ‘reunite as a federal state’ or ‘remain separate’. No general election result can provide as conclusive a mandate as a reunite majority in a referendum!

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part time judge

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