Cyprus: Beyond the Deadlock – Gustave Feissel
March 21 2005

Gustave Feissel, former United Nations Special Representative to Cyprus, discussed the recent history, current situation, and future prospects of Cyprus. He opened by highlighting the difficulty of addressing the Cyprus issue constructively in Washington D.C. over the last two years, after the failure of the April 2004 Annan Plan.

In introducing Mr. Feissel, John Sitilides observed that the Cyprus issue has not been engaged at the appropriate policy agenda level that it warrants, both for its own sake and for its impact on U.S. geostrategy in southeast Europe and specifically within the eastern Mediterranean region.

According to Mr. Feissel, after fifty years of the Cyprus problem, there is still no settlement in sight. There have certainly been numerous attempts since, and prior to, the 1974 invasion to work out a settlement. One must ask what can be learned from these efforts.

Mr. Feissel emphasized that at different times, both sides have adopted positions which were not credibly achievable. As a result, not only has little progress been made, but possibilities once available no longer exist. In particular, he cited two possibilities before 1974 that could have prevented the events of 1974.

In 1969, Rauf Denktash, then leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, proposed to Archbishop Makarios, then the President of Cyprus, that the Turkish Cypriots who had left their homes in 1963 be allowed to return to their original villages. The United Nations (UN) began devising phased-in arrangements to carry out the return to homes, but the proposal was allowed to wither. A more striking proposal in 1972 would have the Turkish Cypriots accept the thirteen amendments proposed by President Makarios in 1963 in exchange for legal guarantees of considerable Turkish Cypriot autonomy within a quasi-unitary Cypriot nation-state. The proposal was rejected, and war occurred two years later.

In 1994, Mr. Feissel convened a series of meetings at his UN residence in Nicosia between then-President of Cyprus Glafkos Clerides and Mr. Denktash. Greek Cypriots sought Turkish Cypriot support for European Union (EU) membership, in exchange for Clerides' acceptance of various conditions called for by Denktash. Denktash ultimately rejected the effort, and Turkish Cypriots squandered a major bargaining chip, as Cyprus soon became a candidate for EU membership without Turkish Cypriot support, culminating in full EU membership in May 2004.

The UN very actively supported EU membership for Cyprus with or without a settlement, believing that the problem in achieving a settlement was largely the fault of Turkish Cypriots. Today, the problem has advanced in a manner exactly opposite from what was anticipated, where the Greek Cypriots, governing EU member Cyprus, feel quite comfortable with their improved bargaining position.

There are still dangers of misjudgments and the pursuit of unachievable positions that can further delay an optimum settlement. Mr. Feissel referenced the remarks of President Makarios' appeal to Greek Cypriots to seek the achievable, not only the desirable, which is just as valid today, and should act as a "north star" for Greek Cypriot strategy.

Several factors must be taken into account to move forward from the current situation. The fact that the two sides have lived apart for more than four decades cannot be ignored. Rightly or wrongly, the reality is that the two communities have grown accustomed to living apart. Mr. Feissel noted that Greek Cypriots have expressed to him first-hand their optimism in governing themselves for the first time in their history. Efforts to achieve a strong central government, however, would lead to disenchantment, as a simple visit to the northern part of Cyprus makes clear that everything is now Turkish Cypriot, much as everything in the South is Greek. However much Greek Cypriots seek a more unitary government for the entire island, Cyprus remains "a house with two rooms."

The objective of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation remains a valid objective which Greek Cypriots should still pursue. The Greek Cypriot leadership should explain the realities of the Cyprus problem to its citizens. Turkish Cypriots must come to terms with their demographic reality as an 18% minority of the island's population, versus 80% on the Greek Cypriot side.

The big risk today, more so than in the past, is partition, less from political declaration than by default. EU membership has increased the risk of partition because Turkish Cypriots with Cyprus passports enjoy the same benefits as all EU citizens. Many have moved off the island to seek a better way of life elsewhere in the EU, opening the door to additional mainland Turks with far less interest in a Cyprus settlement moving into the north and shaping Turkish Cypriot politics. This means that urgency and a determined effort to find a settlement is more important today than ever. Since Greek Cypriots have the upper hand and the greatest stake in a reunified Cyprus, they should actively consider steps to be taken now to avoid default partition in the near future.

On the Turkish Cypriot side, the political ascendance of Mehmet Ali Talat has created a major opportunity. According to Mr. Feissel, Mr. Talat, whom he has known for many years, genuinely desires a political settlement. It would be in the interest of Greek Cypriots to support Mr. Talat and strengthen his position within the Turkish Cypriot community. Unfortunately, over the past few years, Mr. Talat has been criticized and undermined. This has probably had the opposite effect, pushing Mr. Talat closer to Turkey and dependence on Ankara for political support in the north.

Both sides should instead seek greater independence from the so-called mother countries, assume greater control of their respective destinies, and reduce the influence of Greece, Turkey, and external politics and interests on their own common future.

Mr. Feissel concluded by saying that establishing a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation based on the political equality of these two communities should be the overall objective, noting that this need not be the final word in a settlement. Once an initial settlement is achieved, the potential success of co-existent, cooperating communities over a period of time can eventually lead to a more unitary central government that fully protects the rights of each of its citizens.