UN talks seek ‘common ground’ for Cyprus future

A Greek Cyrpiot protester takes part in a march for peace in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, April 24.(AP Photo / Petros Karadjias)

The United Nations will host informal talks this week to “determine whether common ground exists” on the future of Cyprus nearly four years after previous peace negotiations held in Switzerland collapsed.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres will host the three-day talks at the Palais de Nations from Tuesday to discuss the ongoing conflict that has split the island between the Greek Cypriot South and Turkish Cypriot north in 1974. The talks will bring together both Cypriot parties, along with the three guarantor nations, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom, and the UN.

Past talks which have sought to reunite Cyprus under a two-zone federal umbrella have been unsuccessful, with the 2017 meeting in Crans-Montana falling into disarray. Since then, Northern Cyprus has called for a two-state solution - a suggestion that has been rejected by Greek Cypriots who claim it implies Turkish Cypriot sovereign authority.

According to the UN, the informal talks this week aim to find a way forward so that formal peace negotiations can resume. However, with both sides having said they are unwilling to compromise ahead of the meeting, hopes for a solution in the near future appear slim.

Why is this important? Cyprus was split between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south in 1974 after Turkey invaded the island in response to a coup which sought to unite the island with Greece.

The Republic of Cyprus, which is the internationally recognised authority over the whole island and an EU member since 2004, cannot enforce its jurisdiction in Northern Cyprus, which Turkey recognises as an independent state. At present, there are around 40,000 Turkish troops stationed north of the border which divides control between the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) recognised by Ankara.

The divided island is a major source of tension between NATO members Greece and Turkey, who have come to blows in recent years over issues such as gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, which erupted in 2020 when Turkey sent vessels into waters claimed by Greece and Cyprus.

Disputes have also frequently erupted on the island, most recently exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In February 2020, Greek Cypriots announced the temporary closure of four border checkpoints for the first time since the crossing between the two sides was eased in 2003, with both sides imposing different health requirements.

Ahead of the talks, thousands of Cypriots from both sides marched in the capital Nicosia this weekend calling for peace in the country, as well as the reopening of the checkpoints to allow the regular interaction between the two communities that has become the norm.

What do both sides want? The likelihood of progress seemed slim in the run-up to this week’s meeting, with leaders from both sides having stated they will hold to their respective positions.

Tahsin Ertuğruloğlu, foreign minister of breakaway northern Cyprus, has said that talks of reunification under a federal umbrella have been a “total failure” and that a two state solution is the only viable way forward. Greek Cypriots and the international community, he said, must accept the “undeniable reality” or “two separate national entitled, two separate states, two separate democracies, two separate peoples.”

Speaking ahead of the meeting on Monday, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar said he hoped the two-state solution will bring a “new vision” to the talks. The solution is also supported by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said this was the only way to resolve the dispute. "There is no longer any solution but a two-state solution," said Erdogan in February. "Only under these conditions can we sit at the table over Cyprus. Otherwise everyone should go their own way.”

However, both Nicosia and Athens have rejected the ideas of a sovereign northern Cypriot state and have reiterated calls for an agreement in line with UN resolutions calling for reunification as a federation. This solution was considered by Tatar’s predecessor Mustafa Akinci, but negotiations collapsed in Switzerland over a dispute regarding the removals of Turkish troops from the island.

But Tatar, who is a staunch supporter of Erdogan, has said that although he understands the Greek Cypriots are unlikely to accept the two-state solution he was unwilling to compromise, and that the UN should be realistic about the possibility of future talks.

“We expect the United Nations to be honest and sincere and come out and openly say so at the end of this: is there common ground or not?,“ he told the Financial Times.

Tatar, who rejected an EU request to attend the talks as an observer, claiming it could not be objective due to the Greek Cypriots’ membership of the bloc, has said he would continue to make the case for a sovereign TRNC even if it is rejected at the talks.