by Yiannis Charalambous
In 2014, a combination of external as well as domestic developments gave rise to cautious optimism regarding the solution of the Cyprus Problem.
Domestically, much of this optimism was partly based on the election of Nicos Anastasiades at the helm of the Republic of Cyprus, since March 2013, who had supported the 2004 Annan Plan risking his political career. However, it wasn’t until the agreement of the Joint Declaration between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots and the subsequent resumption of negotiations in February that the feeling of a new momentum started to emerge. In addition, the fact that both communities were now in dire economic conditions, the Greek Cypriots indebted to the troika and Turkish Cypriots to Turkey, created the impression that both communities would this time have sufficient incentives and motives, especially economic, to push forward a solution. In fact, the Joint Declaration referred to the status quo as non viable thus unsustainable.
Externally, regional instability in the Middle East, as a derivative of the Arap Spring but also on a global scale due to the Ukranian Crisis, further cultivated the urgent feeling regarding the closure of the Cyprus Problem. Moreover, there were expectations that Turkey, now facing serious setbacks in its relations with its neighbouring countries would seek to at least reset its foreign policy in order to lend some credibility to its declared ‘Zero Problems Policy’. Such a ‘reset’ could have included the Kurdish issue or maybe the Cyprus Problem. The main reason however behind this renewed optimism lied behind the discovery of significant natural gas findings in the Cypriot EEZ and the Levantin basin. In fact, natural gas had been attributed with the capacity to act as a ‘game changer’ or as a catalyst in efforts to resolve the problem, potentially bridging the gap between the respective parties.
By mid-summer it became well understood that negotiations were facing a negotiations fatigue, leading towards a stalemate. In particular, both sides seemed unable to agree on any CBM’s or on the methodology to be followed during the give and take phase of the negotiations. Meanwhile, Tayip Erdogan’s statements, during his visit to the northern part of the island, were interpreted as leaning towards a confederation and therefore dashed the hopes of those expecting that Turkey would act constructively towards a solution. Eventually, the talks broke down after Turkey issued a marine advisory (Navtex) within the Cypriot EEZ which led the Greek Cypriots to temporarily withdraw their participation from the negotiations table.
Essentially, it would not be an exaggeration to argue that none of the respective sides really intended to act constructively towards a solution in 2014. In contrast, the momentum that occurred after the agreement of the Joint Declaration and the resumption of peace talks in February, was an outcome of pressure by the International Community and the US in light of enduring instability in the Middle East and the Ukrainian Crises. The respective parties instead agreed to engage into negotiations under the fear of being blamed for rejection and the political cost that such blame would have inflicted.
This is particularly important for the Greek Cypriots who cannot bear the cost of another rejection following that of 2004. For the Greek Cypriot side, the dispatch and incursion of the Barbaros into the Cypriot EEZ provided a golden opportunity to disengage from the talks having in mind that these were heading nowhere and with presidential elections looming in the north, in April 2015.
For Turkey, the Turkification agenda followed by the AKP in the north provides it with the privilege to shift between a policy of preserving the status quo or paying lip service towards a solution, always according to her terms. A Greek Cypriot withdrawal from the negotiations table and the consequent blaming of such a move on the Greek Cypriot side has been a declared goal of Ankara’s policy in Cyprus, provided that her interests can be served with or without a solution, to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriot people who unfortunately suffer due to the lack of a true leader to stand up to Ankara’s policies.
As regards the catalytic effect of energy, this has so far proven to be ‘insufficient’. Energy could have acted as a catalyst if it served common interests of the respective parties. The only thinkable scenario where energy could have created mutual interests is that of a natural gas pipeline linking Israel, Cyprus and Turkey. However, under current under current conditions such a project seems unfeasible from both a political as well as a commercial perspective.
Instead, Greek Cypriots have politically been investing in the gas card as tool to maximize power vis a vis Turkey and as a potential means to extract concessions in case of a future settlement. Turkey on the other hand has reacted to the Greek Cypriot energy designs, not in order to protect the interests of the Turkish Cypriots as it proclaims, but to avoid being isolated from the Eastern Mediterranean energy game. The concern of being surrounded by enemy countries to her interests, a kind of ‘Serbes Syndrome’ revival, has traditionally played a decisive role in Turkey’s policy formulation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
What remains to be seen now, is how the Greek Cypriot side will manage to de-link the hydrocarbons issue from the negotiations table, something it has clumsily caused by its temporary withdrawal and suspension of the talks. Of equal importance is whether Turkey decides to resend the Barbaros in the Cypriot EEZ, following the expiry of the Navtex on December 20. A potential renewal of the Turkish Navtex will not be perceived as a good omen, while it will certainly kill any attempts for a quick resumption of the talks. In such a case the Cyprus Problem will be put on ice for at least another year.
Yiannis Charalambous is a graduate of Turkish Studies form the National Kapodistrian University of Athens. He holds an MA in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Nicosia. He has conducted research on the Cyprus Problem and contributes to the writing of the monthly FES Cyprus Newsletter.