There is only one village in Cyprus where Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots live side-by-side. It is called Pyla and the only reason that the two ethnic groups there continue to live together is that it is in the United Nations Buffer Zone that separates the Republic of Cyprus from the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). It would be in real trouble if the United Nations pulled out.
That could happen. UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus) is 53 years old, and patience is running out. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned in 2011 that “UNFICYP’s continued presence on the island cannot be taken for granted”, and the current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has said quite plainly that this cannot go on forever.
But he may have been bluffing. He said that just before the umpteenth conference seeking to reunify the island opened in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana on June 28. Everybody reckoned that it had a good chance of success – but now that it has failed, we will find out whether Guterres meant his threat or not.
It should have succeeded, because President Nicos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus and President Mustafa Akinci of the TRNC were very close to a deal and it looked like the two communities on the island were both willing to vote for it. (Referendums on both sides would have been required to ratify any deal.) But the talks fell apart at the last hurdle.
When Cyprus got its independence from the British empire in 1960, three countries were given the job of guaranteeing the constitution that laid down how power should be shared between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots: the United Kingdom and the two “mother countries”, Greece and Turkey. These guarantors had the right and duty to intervene if the terms of the deal were violated.
The power-sharing deal collapsed in 1963, mainly because a large number of Greek-Cypriots wanted union with Greece. The Turkish-Cypriot minority fled into dozens of isolated enclaves and in 1964 the United Nations sent in the UNFICYP peacekeeping mission to protect them. But none of the guarantors intervened.
Ten years later, in 1974, the colonels who ruled in Athens organised a bloody coup in Cyprus that overthrew the elected government and installed a regime committed to unite the island with Greece. When Britain, the other guarantor, refused to act against the coup (Britain had military bases on the island), Turkey sent troops on its own.
Greek-Cypriot resistance collapsed in a few days and Turkey occupied more than one-third of the island. All the Greek-Cypriots in the Turkish-occupied zone fled south and all the Turkish-Cypriots in the rest of the island abandoned their besieged communities and fled north. And that is how it has remained for the past 43 years, with UNFICYP patrolling the buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC.
Finally, four years ago, both parts of the island managed to have governments that were in favour of reunification at the same time. There was broad agreement between them on a federal republic with wide autonomy for the two communities and so the conference in Switzerland began last month with high hopes.
Why was the Greek-Cypriot side finally ready for a deal? (The last time a roughly similar deal was on the table, in 2004, the Turkish-Cypriots voted in favour by two-to-one – and the Greek-Cypriots voted against it by three-to-one.) The answer is probably money.
A reservoir of natural gas worth an estimated US$50 billion has been discovered on the seabed off Cyprus’s coast, but it cannot be developed so long as the seabed rights are potentially in dispute. Turkey itself has no claim, but it could certainly provide powerful backing if the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus were to demand a share of the revenue.
It was Turkey that killed the hopes for a final deal in Switzerland last weekend. In past years it was never an obstacle to a deal: the various previous attempts at a permanent settlement died for other reasons. But it is a different Turkey nowadays – one ruled by a mini-Vladimir Putin called President Recep Tayyib Erdogan.
Erdogan holds absolute power only by grace of a referendum in April that he won by a mere 1% margin – and he only got that by monopolising the media coverage and fiddling the results.
The 49% of Turks who voted “No” against expanding Erdogan’s powers see him, quite rightly, as the end of real democracy in Turkey, so he needs to wrong-foot them and keep his own supporters mobilised by inflaming public opinion with various nationalist grievances. This time it is Cyprus.
Turkey refused to give up its right to intervene in Cyprus under the 1960 agreement, or to withdraw the 35 000 soldiers it keeps stationed in the TRNC. So the deal collapsed and it will be a long time before anybody tries again.
If ever. But in the circumstances, it is very unlikely that the UN will pull its peacekeepers out.