Revisiting the Helsinki Gamble on Cyprus

By
Elizabeth H. Prodromou

September 2000 - The deadlock in the recent U.N. talks on Cyprus, which enjoyed the endorsement of the European Union and the United States, has reinforced the policy and academic cliche that the Cyprus problem is one of the world's most intractable conflicts. Furthermore, given the recent slowdown in the momentum of the Greek-Turkish reconciliation, policymakers pushing either a status quo or partition approach in Cyprus have gained renewed influence.

Despite this backdrop, the time is ripe for reaching a comprehensive peace in Cyprus based on the bizonal, bicommunal, federal (BBF) framework endorsed by the U.N. The conditions of ripeness for a Cyprus solution derive from the EU decisions at Helsinki in December 1999, which effectively altered the parameters of the Cyprus peace process.

Paradoxically, the most recent developments in the Greece-Turkey-Cyprus triangle suggest that the Helsinki decisions have begun to exert decisive pressures for peace. The resolution of the Cyprus problem depends on the political will of EU decisionmakers, reinforced by U.S. policymakers, to employ judicious diplomacy that disarms spoilers and rewards regional and local actors willing to take a risk for peace.

The Helsinki summit produced two decisions relevant to Cyprus, commenting favorably on the republic's progress in its EU accession path and extending EU candidate status to Turkey. Helsinki explicitly affirmed that a divided Cyprus may join the EU by year-end 2004. The European Council also acknowledged the linkages between Turkey's EU accession path, the resolution of Greek-Turkish differences over Aegean issues, and the end of Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus.

In short, the Helsinki decisions positioned the EU as the catalyst for brokering a sustainable peace in Cyprus. By creating a set of overlapping contingencies that link Cyprus's accession outcome, Turkey's candidacy path, and Greek-Turkish rapprochement, the EU's engagement with the Greece-Turkey-Cyprus triangle is a grand gamble on the European project as a whole.

In fact, the European Council's decisions constitute a calculated risk that has created conditions of ripeness for a resolution of the Cyprus problem and for a peace dividend for the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The importance of the Helsinki decisions lies in the fact that they have imposed specificity on the key systemic, regional, and local changes relevant to a Cyprus solution. Likewise, the decisions have clarified the potential costs to all parties of a lack of peace on the island.

At the systemic level, Washington and Brussels are convinced that the status quo in Cyprus constitutes a mutually hurting stalemate that obstructs NATO's goal of recommitting institutional, human capital, and military resources to the security risks in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. Additionally, the EU's 2004 deadline on Cyprus and Greek-Turkish questions has clarified the temporal parameters for NATO's own efforts to facilitate a solution.

At the regional level, ripeness for a Cyprus peace has been significantly enhanced by the nascent Greek-Turkish rapprochement. The policy of constructive engagement formulated by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou has had a positive response from Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, suggesting that the current leaderships in Athens and Ankara recognize the significant economic, military and political gains associated with the normalization of bilateral relations.

In economic terms, neither country can afford to continue the disproportionate allocation of their GDPs to defense spending based on a real or perceived security dilemma. A reduction in defense expenditures will help Greece to benefit from membership in the European Economic and Monetary Union and will help Turkey to move beyond the structural problems that have brought IMF tutelage to Ankara.

In military terms, the Imia crisis and the S-300 episode have pushed the militaries in Ankara and Athens to recognize that military solutions to their bilateral problems are inconsistent with their respective political objectives at home and abroad. Consequently, both militaries have begun to realize that the failure to achieve peace in Cyprus will jeopardize Greek-Turkish reconciliation and potentially impact each country's relationships within NATO.

At the local level, conditions of ripeness for a Cyprus solution have been enhanced by recent developments affecting the negotiating calculus of the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaderships. For the government of President Glafcos Clerides in Nicosia, the Papandreou-Cem engagement has underscored Athens' desire to avoid wagering its bilateral agenda with Turkey on the Cyprus problem. Athens' pressure on Nicosia to rethink its S-300 decision only emphasized Greece's unwillingness to sacrifice its European strategy on an increasing militarization of the Cyprus problem.

By the same token, the Helsinki decisions suggested that Athens' interest in a Cyprus solution would not preclude unprecedented efforts at a bilateral normalization with Ankara in the form of advocating Turkey's EU candidacy. Helsinki also opened the possibility that a divided Cyprus might enter the EU with no guarantees for any future reintegration of the island.

In sum, the Helsinki dynamic has encouraged the government of the Republic of Cyprus to develop a policy of greater autonomy vis-a-vis Athens. Moreover, by confronting Nicosia with the real possibility of membership for a truncated Cyprus, the Helsinki decisions have encouraged the Clerides government to think innovatively about a BBF solution whose political parameters would be safeguarded by EU requirements.

For the Turkish Cypriot regime, a first glance suggests that neither Greek-Turkish reconciliation nor the Helsinki decisions have affected the positions of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash for a Cyprus solution. Indeed, Denktash's insistence on a two-state solution in Cyprus has been endorsed in statements by political leaders in Ankara that Greek-Turkish rapprochement is unrelated to Turkey's stance on the Cyprus situation. Furthermore, with the green-zone advances by Turkish occupation troops in Cyprus, followed by Cem's public critique of Greece's domestic policy on minorities, it appears that the longstanding policy identification between Denktash and Ankara remains intact.

However, careful analysis suggests that Turkish Cypriot and Turkish interests are neither identical nor monolithic, thereby offering new possibilities for a Cyprus peace generated by Helsinki. The unprecedented public demonstrations against the Dervis Eroglu regime, along with calls for Denktash's resignation and protests against the role of the Turkish Security Forces in northern Cyprus, present evidence of Turkish Cypriots' dissatisfaction with the economic and political consequences of Turkish occupation. Attendant media criticism in Turkey of the military's role in Cyprus reflects concerns that the Cyprus problem will sabotage the highly popular reconciliation process with Greece.

In short, both Turkish Cypriot and Turkish responses to recent spoiler acts by Denktash and the Turkish General Staff (TGS) should motivate a coordinated EU-U.S. initiative to move the Cyprus peace process from ripeness to resolution. Such a policy initiative must be designed to reward good-faith actors who have already taken risks for peace, empower the multiple local voices committed to peace, incorporate fence sitters unsure about the gains of peace, and disarm spoilers aiming to undermine the peace process. Brussels and Washington should use quiet diplomacy to convince skeptics in the TGS of the benefits of a Cyprus breakthrough in the upcoming round of U.N. proximity talks scheduled for September.

The overarching goal in the short term should be to win Ankara's support for persuading Denktash to endorse a Turkish Cypriot presence on the republic's EU accession team, accompanied by his unambiguous commitment to the BBF formula. A bicommunal EU accession team would give Turkish Cypriots direct input into the island's accession process, thereby pluralizing the Turkish Cypriot voice in the broader peace process and helping to alleviate their concerns about economic marginalization in an integrated Cyprus within the EU.

In addition, Denktash's support for the BBF formula would give Nicosia the necessary reassurances that a bicommunal engagement with the EU would be a step toward the BBF solution. Finally, a short-term breakthrough on Cyprus would reinvigorate the Greek-Turkish rapprochement by rewarding Athens' patience for a substantive gesture from Turkey.

The medium- and long-term objectives for the Cyprus peace process are political and military in nature. EU and U.S. leaders should offer visionary suggestions for a military arrangement that satisfies the security needs of both Cypriot communities and, in particular, that does not minimize the security concerns of the Greek Cypriots vis-a-vis Turkey. NATO membership for Cyprus, perhaps in combination with Clerides' demilitarization plan, is a viable security option. Having extended formal and informal security guarantees to some Balkan countries, NATO has set a precedent that can be applied to Cyprus.

On the political front, the onus of responsibility lies with the two Cypriot communities, which must take the lead in crafting a sustainable BBF solution. The BBF solution must avoid deadlock mechanisms and opt-out options in favor of electoral and legislative arrangements that combine to safeguard individual and group rights. Above all, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots alike must reject a BBF solution that replicates the pitfalls of the 1960 constitution. Instead, they must commit themselves to building a pluralist democratic regime reinforced by EU institutions and culture.

In all respects, the move from ripeness to resolution demands decisiveness by EU and U.S. mediators, along with vision by Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders. Above all, the current conjuncture demands bold policy to end Denktash's spoiler role as well as to convince the Turkish military of the logic of a Cyprus solution. Therein lies the beginning of the end of intractability in the Cyprus problem.

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Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is a Senior Research Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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