Cyprus and the peace process

Opinion by Michális S. Michael

When Cypriots are frustrated by a difficult situation, they often exclaim ‘it has become like the Cyprus problem!’ Such exclamations are typical of the way that everyday Cypriots stoically greet any new UN peace effort.

As the UN prepares for another lacklustre initiative, we cannot help reminding ourselves of the pertinent question that has beleaguered the Cyprus problem for decades: why, despite endless negotiations and countless proposals, has there been no resolution to the Cyprus conflict?

Any attempt to answer this question must, from the outset, first adopt a viewpoint that realises the limitations of traditional diplomacy and allows for alternative modes of analysis and resolution. Such an approach will soon reveal a concentric perspective of the Cyprus negotiations.

The best way to understand this is to conceptualise the history of the intercommunal talks as an ever-expanding circle, each phase constituting a different layer in the circle, and each layer being determined in terms of three themes (parties involved, continuity/change and internal/external factors) that shape and give content to the negotiations at any given time.

An overall assessment of the psychological and political dynamic that has thus far obstructed a resolution to the Cyprus problem reveals that since the acceptance of a bicommunal/bizonal federation, negotiations have followed a repetitious cyclical pattern where disagreements on the substantial issues saw both sides retreat to their entrenched positions.

As talks progressed, they inevitably became more complicated with the introduction of greater detail and new points of disputation. In addition, talks were often hampered by the introduction of different interpretations to concepts that had previously been agreed upon.

Further hindering the process throughout were the contrasting motives, priorities, preferences and objectives of the two sides, most starkly expressed in a series of dualisms: maintaining/changing the status quo, unification/separatism, federation/confederation, unitarism/decentralisation. In conceptual terms, disagreement over reunification fundamentally revolved around its structural form and, at least implicitly, the nature of power sharing.

But underlying these differences was the intangible climate of mistrust between the two sides and their sense of insecurity, which meant the continuation of the status quo and contemplation of other unilateral options.

The overall conclusion arising from any survey of the Cyprus talks is that in their current form and operating in isolation from other initiatives, they cannot overcome the structural, intellectual and psychological obstacles to a negotiated settlement.

The relative failure of the intercommunal talks stems from their incapacity to address a number of political and organisational problems. Chief among them is that the negotiating process has developed a logic and timing of its own, which does not necessarily correspond to the psychology of the political situation it was seeking to remedy.

In addition, the common interests shared by the two communities and the mutual benefits that could result from a negotiated settlement have not been sufficiently elaborated or emphasised during the intercommunal dialogue. Those elements in both communities who can discern mutual benefits and have an interest in establishing a constructive intercommunal relationship have not successfully done this, nor have the mediating parties adequately assisted them in this endeavour.

Conflicts are rarely monocausal, one-dimensional, or static. Protracted conflicts develop their own language, culture and processes. As with most protracted conflicts, the Cyprus conflict requires innovative and multidimensional approaches capable of introducing, at key junctures as circumstances change, new variables, parties and ideas, linking them at different levels into the central peace process.

The problem with concentrating exclusively on track-one diplomacy, striving for a political settlement while neglecting the need to shift the conflictive relationship on the ground, was borne out during the ill-fated 2008–2012 ‘Cypriot-owned, Cypriot-led’ negotiations.

Beyond the acrimony that often exemplifies inter-governmental discourse, the need to broaden communication between Turkey and the Greek Cypriot community in order to dispel apprehension and provide accurate and unfettered information is becoming increasingly apparent.

As the dynamics of conflict reveal, the Cyprus problem has principally been driven by Greek Cypriot insecurity and Turkish frustration—both borne out of the intertwining complexities of the security–insecurity syndrome as it manifested through the fractures of the internal–external divide. 

Greek Cypriot public opinion is transfixed to an image that views Turkey through an anachronistic expansionist prism and their vacillation constitutes a defence mechanism against encroaching Turkish military supremacy.

Equally, Ankara must comprehend that Greek Cypriots have long abandoned all vestiges of ‘enosis’ and their occasional nationalist exaltations are symptomatic of their insecurity against preconceived notions of Turkish society and polity.

These generally held predispositions perpetuate a national mindset, which frames public discourse around a series of seemingly intractable issues that polarise debate and stifle policymaking.

The challenge confronting Cyprus ultimately lies in its capacity to transform itself into a postmodern society with a political arrangement that transcends its historical insecurities. At a more fundamental level, the ethical dilemma compounding each attempt to resolve the Cyprus conflict has been: how to construct a legal-constitutional order, dictated by a set of historical determinants, including the desire to rectify past injustices, which reconciles human rights and group security, with the expectation of upholding the fundamental precepts of liberal democracy, while fortifying the foundations for sequential integration/unification.

Often a climate of uncertainty and ambivalence demands risk-taking. As Cypriots need to overcome their past and create their own history, there is the danger that continual rejections will prolong stalemate, and stalemate will ensconce partition.

First published in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs on 29 January 2014.

Dr Michális S. Michael is a Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University.

Image credit: Martin Belam