Cyprus: Showdown at the Last Chance Saloon

By Gwynne Dyer

“ALL sides have entered the Last Chance Saloon, whether they want to accept it or not,” said a diplomat as Greek, Turkish and Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot diplomats arrived at Lucerne in Switzer

land in late February for UN-brokered talks on reuniting Cyprus. But that was actually only the Second-Last-Chance Saloon.


With no progress at Lucerne, the caravan has now moved to Burgenstock for a final week of talks – and this time it really is the last chance.


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan arrived in Burgenstock on Saturday, soon to be followed by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan. Either they and the two Cypriot governments would agree on a negotiated deal that will then be put to a referendum in both parts of the divided island, or the Secretary-General’s own proposed settlement will be put to the voters instead. Cyprus officially joins the European Union on May 1, so everybody needs a final answer by then.


The referendum date was originally set for April 21, but then somebody remembered that that was the date of the military coup that brought the colonels to power in Athens in 1967, which led in turn to the coup in Nicosia in 1974 that was intended to join the whole of Cyprus to Greece, which in turn led to the Turkish invasion to protect the Turkish minority in the north – so now the date of the referendum is April 20.


If both communities on the island say “yes” to the deal, then everybody lives more or less happily ever after. The problem is that not everybody is equally motivated to say “yes”.


Both “mother countries” back a deal that would remove this irritant from their relationship. Turkey is particularly keen, because the 40 000 Turkish troops who are based in northern Cyprus to protect the Turkish-speaking minority will become a great embarrassment after May, when the whole island technically becomes EU territory. Prime Minister Erdogan, who is seeking EU membership for Turkey itself, has even risked a confrontation with his own military by backing the reunification of Cyprus on UN terms. Unfortunately, the situation on the island is murkier.


The Turkish-Cypriots, according to the results of last December’s election, are almost evenly divided on reunification. They long for an end to their isolation (nobody except Turkey recognises their breakaway republic) and for the prosperity that would come from EU membership, but they are apprehensive about being a minority in a Greek-dominated country again.


But the UN proposal is for a bi-national federation with a weak central government, so they will probably bring themselves to vote “yes” in the end.


The real question mark hangs over the Greek-Cypriots, because they really don’t have a strong incentive to say “yes”. Thanks to the fact that their “mother country”, Greece, is already in the EU while Turkey is not, they are guaranteed membership of the EU regardless of how they vote in the referendum. (Greece threatened to veto the whole process of EU expansion if Cyprus did not gain unconditional entry.) So if they vote “no” to the deal and the Turkish-Cypriots vote “yes”, they become EU citizens anyway, while the Turkish-Cypriots are left out in the cold.


It’s not that the Greek-Cypriots really want to kill the deal and leave the island divided, with the northern part occupied by Turkish troops. It’s just that their huge negotiating advantage tempts them to pitch their demands too high on issues like the return of Greek-Cypriot refugees to their former homes in the north and the expulsion of mainland Turkish settlers who have arrived in Cyprus since 1974. The Turkish-Cypriots may simply refuse to make that sort of deal, preferring the more even-handed UN proposal to be put to the referendum on April 20.


And then the Greek-Cypriots, offered significantly less than their maximum demands, might vote against it.


“The process in Burgenstock will be very intensive,” said the UN’s Cyprus mediator, Alvaro de Soto, last week. “All involved will have to show the necessary political will.” But what if they do not? What if the referendum has to be on the UN formula for a settlement instead, and then the Greek-Cypriots reject it? That would not please the EU at all, and it is starting to drop hints that amount, frankly, to blackmail. The designated heavy was British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.


Speaking to CNN on March 4, Straw made it clear that a “no” vote by the Greek-Cypriots could have unwelcome consequences for them. For 30 years the international community has withheld recognition from the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, insisting that the only legitimate government on the island is the one in Greek-majority southern Cyprus. But Straw warned that “if the Greek side becomes a member of the EU (after voting ‘no’ to reunification), then they would represent only the southern part… The Turkish-Cypriot side would not be punished. The Turkish-Cypriot position would be appreciated.”


There was an outcry over his remarks in Greek Cyprus, but the message undoubtedly got through. There may be a deal yet.


* Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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