The Cyprus Republic marks its 63rd anniversary today with the traditional military parade attended by the political and church hierarchy. Although it only lasted three years in the bicommunal form established in 1960, the Republic has survived as a Greek Cypriot state for 60 years, despite losing 40 per cent of its territory as part of this achievement.
There have been opportunities for the country to become whole again, under a bizonal, bicommunal federal government, but that would have brought an end to the Cyprus Republic as we have known it. Greek Cypriots would have lost the control of the state, which they had enjoyed since 1963 and would have had to share power with the Turkish Cypriots, for the sake of political equality. When it came to the crunch, it seemed they would rather surrender the occupied territory to Turkey than share power.
The previous three presidents chose to safeguard the status of the Republic, which was a noble way of saying they wanted to keep all state power in their owns hands, and their stand commanded sizeable public support. This was because there is a large section of the population that has benefited financially from the island’s division and feared that reunification would put their interests at risk.
Apart from the landowners in the south that have seen their properties rocket in value over the years, there are the developers and hoteliers, who do not want competition, and the businessmen exploiting Turkish Cypriot properties. The Republic has also created the privileged class of public sector workers, who are guaranteed an enviable standard of living which they would never put at risk for the return of Varosha or any other territory. Would foreign ministry employees be happy with reduced availability of ambassadorial posts because some would have to go to Turkish Cypriots? And what would happen to the plethora of high-ranking National Guard officers?
It is no coincidence that the hardline parties have now made the safeguarding of the Cyprus Republic the national cause, billing it as the most valuable thing we have, that must be preserved at all costs. This is another way of saying they do not want a settlement, as preserving the Republic’s current status rules out reunification and a federal state. It is the roundabout way of supporting partition, which nobody dares mention, because that would mean they are prepared to surrender the occupied territory to Turkey. Yet preserving the Republic guarantees partition.
President Nikos Christodoulides has, on countless occasions, asserted that the current situation was not sustainable, to justify his pro-settlement rhetoric, but he has never elaborated, although he is making a valid general point. Unficyp will not stay in Cyprus forever guarding the buffer zone. Once it is withdrawn, the Republic will have borders not with the ‘TRNC’ but with Turkey. EU membership offers only limited security. If there is a confrontation along the dividing line that leads to fighting, in all likelihood it is the Republic that would come out worse off. Should we mention the possibility of the north eventually having a bigger population than the south?
This is why the status quo is unsustainable and the president has been arguing for the need of a settlement. The commitment to settlement so far has not gone beyond words, Christodoulides unwilling or unable to back this with action that would indicate he is prepared to go all the way. A large part of the reason his trip to New York failed to yield any result – not even the appointment of a special envoy for Cyprus – was his refusal to take any practical steps to back his conciliatory rhetoric. In New York he had been expected to submit unilateral confidence-building measures he had prepared and to announce his acceptance of the Pyla deal which the two sides had agreed. He did neither, raising questions about his commitment.
He has now set a new landmark – the European Council meeting in December that is scheduled to discuss EU-Turkish relations, in which the Cyprus problem will also feature – but nothing will come of that either if Christodoulides is not prepared to back his words with actions. If a federal settlement is too daunting a proposition for the president, perhaps he should consider negotiating partition. He may even secure the return of Varosha and part of the buffer zone as part of the deal. And once partition is formalised, the dividing line would become an EU border that would provide some security to the Republic.
If, as the president says, the status quo is unsustainable, we would have to choose between negotiating partition and preserving the Cyprus Republic or, a bizonal bicommunal federation that would mean sharing power with the Turkish Cypriots. There is, however, a question mark over the second option, considering what the Turkish side has been saying in the last few years. Hopefully the 63rd anniversary of independence will make our leadership, after 49 years of hollow rhetoric, understand that real decisions need to be taken.