Whoever needs proof that in politics “stability” and “stagnation” oftentimes go hand in hand should pay a visit to Cyprus, where the ethnic conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots seems to be frozen in time. By now it has been 42 years since Turkish troops invaded and de facto divided the island as a reaction to a coup d’état initiated by the Greek military junta, and 33 years since the proclamation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a state-like entity not recognized by any country in the world but Turkey. It is here where one can vividly see the dangers of politically administrating the status quo not because it is impossible to change, but so easy to maintain.
“Over the last decades both Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders made their people believe that maintaining the status quo was the best thing they could hope for, when in fact it led to a deterioration of both parts of the island”, explains Savvas Charalambous, a Greek Cypriot working on reconciliation measures for the nongovernmental “NGO Support Centre” in Nicosia. Thanks to its accession to the European Union in 2004 and a banking sector blown out of proportions, the Republic of Cyprus seemed to conceal its economic shortcomings which were finally revealed by the financial crisis in 2014. And contrary to 2004, when Turkish Cypriots were largely in favor of a reunification but Greek Cypriots rejected the “Annan Plan” – named after former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan -, it is now the mood among Turkish Cypriots towards reunification which has changed drastically over fears of instability and financial contagion from the South.
Then again, Greek Cypriots were not provided with any incentive in 2004 to vote for a reunification with the impoverished Turkish part of the island for which they did not want to pay. To avoid a Greek blockage of EU enlargement in Eastern Europe, the European Union had openly declared before the referendum that it would also accept a divided Cyprus as a member state. Ever since, the Cypriot status quo – which in the end helps neither side – has been codified in the typically legalistic formula of “the suspension of the application of the Acquis Communautaire in those areas of the Republic of Cyprus where the Government of the Republic does not exercise effective control.” This means that although the European Union considers the entire island as EU territory, Turkish Cypriots are not granted citizenship.
Yet politicians on both sides of the UN patrolled buffer zone continue to cling to the status quo, while simultaneously proclaiming that reunification talks have made significant advances. It is obvious that such a public display of progress helps both leaders, Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akıncı, to continue their rule since it provides them with a continued legitimacy to coexist. Officially, both the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot governments strive for a “bi-zonal, bi-communal federation” – something that in the personal realities of many Cypriots already exists. So instead of working towards tangible improvements for their people, politicians hedge to acknowledge the realities of life.
The biggest obstacles for a political agreement are compensation payments for dispossessed immovable property on both sides. This issue is trickier than one might think: Whereas a simple exchange of properties between displaced Greek and Turkish Cypriots could be achieved with relative ease, it is the settlers from mainland Turkey who upset the proverbial olive cart. Once willfully transferred by the Republic of Turkey to shift the social structure of the island in favor of the Turkish minority, those “migrants” from mainland Turkey are now perceived as a major obstacle to a negotiated reconcilement of interests.
The price for possible reunification – which mainly stems from compensation payments – is estimated to be around 20-25 billion euros. “As long as people mistake investments for costs, we will not move forward”, says Alex Apostolides, an assistant professor at the European University Cyprus. “The opening of the Green Line [the UN buffer zone, red.] for Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 2003 resulted in growing economic interdependence. Economic interdependence is defined as something positive, so expenses of a possible reunification of the island should rather be seen as an investment in an even deeper economic integration.”
However, for an island of about one million inhabitants the estimated amount constitutes quite a chunk of money as it roughly equals the annual GDP of the Republic of Cyprus. Where should the money come from? For Cypriots, and especially for their politicians, it would be comfortable if the funds for a reunification were to come from abroad – the EU preferably – as it would raise the average per-capita-wealth by 20.000 euros.
This numbers game alone shows that a sound financial settlement of the Cyprus dispute can only evolve from within Cyprus. What happens to countries which boost their standard of living through the influx of foreign loans could recently be observed in Greece: European funds were widely squandered for consumption and subsequently left the state unable to provide its citizens with stable growth rates, which in the end led to the decay of an entire economy.
For the sake of their own island, Cypriot politicians should include their citizens in such considerations rather than merely informing them about bits and pieces of the reunification talks. A solid solution can only be achieved by Cypriots themselves, and by finally overcoming a status quo that has kept the island under siege for far too long. And if eventually unification proves too expensive, politicians should put their efforts into producing further improvements of living conditions on an island so rich of history, economic possibilities and, last but not least, peaceful religious coexistence between Christians and Muslims.
Markus Kaiser (36) is Project Manager for Greece of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.