How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
As an international conference on Cyprus got underway in Crans–Montana, Switzerland on June 28, dozens of Turkish and Greek Cypriot protestors gathered at checkpoints along the UN-patrolled buffer zone in the capital of Nicosia. Singing songs and banging drums in the early summer heat, the demonstrators carried an array of banners. “We want a solution now!” read one. “No more waiting!” demanded another.
Indeed, 54 years have passed since this green line first divided the Cypriot capital. In 1963, intercommunal violence broke out between the island’s Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority, threatening the country’s stability and bringing UN peacekeepers to the island. Tensions continued, however, eventually culminating in a Greek-backed coup d’état in 1974 that sought to join Cyprus to Greece. In response, Turkey invaded and captured the north, leading to the de facto division of the island. Over four decades of uneasy peace followed, punctuated by efforts to bring about reunification.
In recent years, however, relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have warmed. In the spring of 2015, peace talks resumed and a wave of optimism swept across Cyprus. Observers and residents alike hoped that after decades of failed neogitiations, the north and south might finally have a chance of reuniting. And during the talks on Saturday, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued an optimistic statement, saying, “A clear understanding emerged...that might lead to a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus.”
Those hopes may be misplaced, however. The atmosphere had already soured back in January of this year when the first phase of the international conference on Cyprus, held at Mont Pelerin in Switzerland, failed to produce an agreement. Leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities met with British, Greek, and Turkish foreign ministers, as well as with an EU observer, to try and resolve the remaining sticking points to a deal. Yet the key issues—particularly over the island’s future security arrangements—proved insurmountable. Since Cyprus’ independence from the British in 1960, Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom have had the right as “guarantor powers” to intervene on the island if they think its independence is threatened. Disputes over the future of this right, which Turkey sees as necessary to deter any future attacks on the Turkish Cypriot minority, eventually proved irresolvable. With the talks breaking up without a deal or even a date for a future meeting, hope for reunification vanished.
In many ways, this change of mood was not surprising, given the dramatic political changes that led up to that January conference. Two years earlier, in May 2015, just as the peace talks began, disputes between the parties over maritime boundaries and oil and gas drilling were put on hold, as UN Security Council and EU member-state officials urged both sides to ink a deal. Among them was then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, whose presence signaled a deeper U.S. interest in a Cyprus solution. Reunifying the island promised an end to strained relations between Greece and Turkey, two key U.S. allies, and would also open up the possibility of exploring and drilling for natural gas off the southern coast of Cyprus, among other benefits.
At that time, relations between Greece and Turkey were cordial, with only occasional flare ups. Turkey and the EU, of which Cyprus is a member, were also on functional terms, even if Brussels was still stalling on Turkey’s EU membership, which was partly held up by the lack of a Cyprus settlement. Elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, in Syria, the Russian-allied regime of President Bashar al-Assad was under increasing pressure and his downfall was widely expected.
But then a few months later in September, Russia began its highly successful military intervention in Syria, boosting its regional presence while also rescuing the beleaguered Assad regime. In Turkey, two elections, the restart of the Kurdish conflict, an attempted coup, and a major crack down on domestic opposition, changed the power dynamics within the country and thus, its stance toward the EU and Cyprus. Turkey’s relations with the EU deteriorated over that time, beginning with the refugee crisis, which was exacerbated by Russian airstrikes. Greece, too, underwent major changes. Aside from its longstanding economic woes, which have often pitted it against fellow EU members, Athens’ relations with Ankara degenerated considerably. The EU–Turkey migrant deal caused friction between these two NATO member-states, as did Athens’ refusal to extradite Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after the failed coup last summer.
Many of these factors came to a head during the January 2017 talks, which were supposed to mark the final stage of UN-sponsored negotiations on the reunification of Cyprus. The summit, however promising, failed to produce a resolution. Greek Foreign Minister Nicos Kotzias, for example, unexpectedly abandoned Greece’s traditional line of following Greek Cyprus’ lead by calling for a 10-day break to formulate a position on the rights of guarantor powers. Further, apparently without consultation, he held an unscheduled press conference to issue a set of maximalist demands, derailing the talks after just one day.
Russia has also complicated the situation. “Because a Cyprus deal would seriously impact the eastern Mediterranean, Russia wouldn’t be happy with that,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, Head of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. “There would be Greek–Turkish–Cypriot–Israeli–Egyptian closeness with less Russian influence and more Western influence.”
Since the January talks, Russia’s ambassador to Cyprus, Stanislav Osadchiy, has recommended that participation in future conferences—currently limited to the Cypriot parties, the island’s three guarantor powers, and an EU observer—should be widened to include all five UN Security Council members. This would, of course, give Moscow a seat at the table, which could pose a problem. “With its ambitions in the region, Russia has more reasons now than ever to act as a spoiler in these negotiations,” said Nathalie Tocci, Deputy Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.
As for Turkey, since January the right-wing nationalist National Action Party (MHP) has increased its influence over Turkish politics because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan relied on its support for the constitutional referendum in April that gave him an unprecedented level of executive powers. This alliance limits Erdogan’s room for compromise on Cyprus, since the MHP and many other Turks see it as a nationalistic cause and want security for the Turkish Cypriots—meaning keeping Turkish troops on the island and maintaining the guarantee for intervention.
In turn, this means that the leverage Brussels once had over Turkey in the Cyprus dispute is now largely nonexistent. Turkey no longer desires EU membership, which had been partly conditioned on resolving the Cyprus dispute. As for the United Kingdom, with Brexit dominating its political agenda, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has so far done little except reiterate long-standing British support for a negotiated settlement.
The United States likewise remains a key player, but is in limbo, too. Ankara’s relations with the United States grew tense after Washington decided to arm the Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists, in the fight against the Islamic State (or ISIS). Furthermore, Ankara is now questioning its continued membership in NATO.
“The U.S. was our main hope,” Ayla Gürel, a senior research consultant at the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Nicosia, told me. “With Greek Cyprus a member of the EU, Brussels has always been seen by the Turkish side as being biased. Two years ago, though, the U.S. came in and helped kickstart things. A Cyprus solution fits the U.S. agenda, as it would be beneficial for energy development in the region, and would ease tensions between U.S. allies, namely, Greece, Israel, and Turkey. So, Washington made a serious effort. Now though, with a change of administration, we’re not sure what to expect.”
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence did meet with Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades in Washington mid-June, reiterating his support for a settlement, and Anastisiades has been actively promoting the Greek Cypriot cause in the United States. But as Triantaphyllou cautioned, “We have to see. There are people questioning if the sheriff hasn’t nodded off on this.”
The clocks are ticking, however. In July, Total Gas & Power begins exploring for oil and gas again in the waters off Cyprus—an event which has previously brought talks to a halt, given that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots dispute the island’s maritime boundaries. Meanwhile, in February 2018, Greek Cypriots go to the polls to choose their next president. Traditionally, election periods see a hardening of nationalist positions on the island.
Given these constraints, a positive international atmosphere becomes more crucial than ever, if a settlement is to be reached. As the conference continues at Crans–Montana, however, hope for reunification remains limited—even amongst those protesting in Nicosia.