During the course of 2017, Cyprus got closer than ever to being unified. Despite having made unprecedented progress in almost all issues, prepared maps of territorial adjustments, and opened the security and guarantee system to negotiation for the first time in history, Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leaders failed to take the final step and reach a settlement.
To the astonishment of the international community, in the early hours of 7 July 2017, the parties left the negotiation table at Crans Montana, Switzerland and walked away from the best and probably last chance to unify Cyprus.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres later wrote in his report, this was not due to a lack of understanding over the substance, but a lack of trust and determination. Unfortunately fear and short-term political agendas won over vision in Crans-Montana and now Cyprus stands closer than ever to be permanently divided.
The collapse of talks has empowered the pro-partition forces on both sides of the island. While right-wing nationalists on the Turkish Cypriot side are advocating an independent or semi-independent state, Greek Cypriot nationalists are talking about federalism as an unnecessary risk that would put Cyprus in permanent danger by enabling Turkey to have impact in its daily affairs. Although no Greek Cypriot political party or politician has spoken publicly in favour of a partition, the option of a velvet divorce has entered public discourse. Moreover, elements across the divide with vested interest in the continuation of status quo have been active in promoting separation.
A number of reciprocal provocative steps on both sides of the divide, such as imposing customs duties on humanitarian aid delivered to Greek Cypriots and Maronites and limiting religious services in the churches in the north, ceasing the activities of bi-communal committees, and denying entry at Cyprus airports of non-EU tourists planning to stay in the hotels in the north, are poisoning the public sentiment and damaging any remaining prospect of solution.
The UN Secretary General has been very clear about the conditions of supporting another effort in Cyprus. He stated that there should be joint determination and willingness by the sides to take up the core issues in a package approach with the aim of reaching a strategic agreement. However, instead of paving the way for a successful return to negotiations, both sides have been setting preconditions that are likely to discourage the UN from taking any initiative.
Moreover, any positive outcome in Cyprus would depend also on Turkey and Greece and their broader Greco-Turkish relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces challenging parliamentary and presidential elections in November 2019 after his narrow victory in a referendum on a new constitution in April 2017, which abolished the role of prime minister and gave extensive powers to the presidency. Therefore, it is questionable if Ankara would be willing to make a move on Cyprus before the knife-edge elections.
Meanwhile, the demographic change that is altering the composition of the Turkish Cypriot community, mushrooming hotels and casinos in the hands of Turkish capital, increasing socio-cultural and religious pressure, increased dependence on Ankara, and direct involvement in education, civil society and media through the Turkish embassy in Nicosia, will alter the conditions in the north in such a way that federation will ultimately practically not be possible in the near future.
As the north will be absorbed demographically, economically, socially and politically, the progressive Turkish Cypriots seeking unification will grow weaker, whilst those seeking partition will grow stronger.
The only way to reverse the trend toward permanent partition is to erode the status quo by actively promoting dialogue, empathy and understanding between the communities; encouraging economic cooperation and interdependence; and establishing a sense of partnership and coexistence in every field of life, so that the conditions are created for the people to demand solution from their leaders.
We will either let go of our fetish of a comprehensive solution and embrace a very active evolutionary approach towards a federal solution or we will sail in uncharted waters until partition is finalized.