A brief lexicon of the Cyprus issue negotiations

Agora Contributor: Nikos Skoutaris
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

Here we go again. After a hiatus of more than 3 years, the negotiations for the resolution of the Cyprus issue have resumed this week. The Cypriot Bill Murray wakes up to yet another Groundhog Day. The leaders of the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities together with representatives of the three Guarantor States – Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom - meet in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. The aim of this informal conference is to establish whether common ground exists for a lasting solution within a foreseeable horizon. Such settlement should be based on the agreed parameters of a bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality. So, let’s have a closer look on those terms of the lexicon of the elusive solution that have haunted the political discourse of the island for more than 40 years.

Federation: The 1960 constitution of the Republic of Cyprus has been characterised as a ‘functional federation’. The reason behind this characterisation is the following. The Constitution established institutions of a common State where the presence of representatives of both communities was compulsory. At the same time, it guaranteed a great deal of (non-territorial) autonomy for the two ethnic groups by setting up two separately elected communal chambers (parliaments) with exclusive legislative powers over religious, educational, cultural, and personal status matters. Given the territorial segregation of the two communities after the break of the Republic in 1963-64 and Turkey’s military intervention in 1974, it has been agreed that a reunified Cyprus should be based on a more ‘classical’ understanding of a federation. In other words, apart from the institutions of the common Cypriot State, there will also be (two) federated units where the two communities will be enjoying legislative autonomy over an extensive range of issues.

Bi-communality: Prior to the establishment of the Republic of Cyprus, the two major communities living on the island had clearly expressed their conflicting aspirations for their political and constitutional future. The Greek Cypriots were fighting for ‘Ενωσις (Enosis – unification with Greece) while the Turkish Cypriots wanted Taksim (partition). The 1960 constitution expressly forbade partition and union with any other State and asked the two communities to pursue a political project that had never been in their agendas before: independence and mutual cooperation. In that sense, bi-communality i.e. the participation of both communities on all institutions of the common State—was the meeting point of diverging political projects. It ensured that the majority Greek Cypriot population would not exercise a determining degree of power over public affairs and, consequently, on the Turkish-Cypriot community. The 1960 Constitution provided for a Greek-Cypriot President and a Turkish-Cypriot Vice-President elected by members of their communities respectively while a 7:3 formula was used for the cabinet and the parliament. Similar formulas have been used so far and are expected to be included in every settlement plan.

Bi-zonality: While bi-communality has been accepted and recognised as an inherent characteristic of the common Cypriot State, bi-zonality has been the subject of debate and controversy. The UN has defined the term as follows. In the reunified federal Cypriot State, there will be two constituent states – one Greek-Cypriot and one Turkish-Cypriot. Each constituent state will be administered by the respective community which ‘would be guaranteed a clear majority of the population and of land ownership in the area’. Given that more than 75 per cent of the private owned land in northern Cyprus belong to Greek Cypriots, it is unavoidable that the owners of property affected by the current status quo would not enjoy an absolute right to reinstatement. Thus, a possible restitution scheme will combine reinstatement for some dispossessed owners, exchange and/or compensation for some others. And even those Greek Cypriots whose property rights will be reinstated, they might be living under Turkish Cypriot administration. At the same time, the requirement to preserve a clear majority of the population and of land ownership in the two constituent States means that there will be some limitations in the exercise of certain rights and freedoms (enshrined in EU law as well) such as the right to free movement and the right of property. This is the reason why the Annan Plan included certain derogations from EU law.

Political Equality: Lately, the debate in Cyprus has been about the divergent interpretations of the two communities on ‘political equality’. The UN has clearly explained that although ‘political equality does not mean equal numerical participation in all federal government branches it should be reflected in various ways’ including the effective participation of both communities in all organs and decisions of the federal government; the requirement that the federal constitution could be amended only with the consent of both communities; in safeguards that the central government will not have the power to adopt measures that harm the interests of one community; in the equality of the two constituent States.

None of those elements should be particularly controversial given that they have been part of the 1960 constitution of the common State. For instance, the Greek Cypriot President and the Turkish Cypriot Vice-President enjoyed absolute veto power over decisions by the cabinet or the legislature in the fields of foreign affairs, defence and security. In that sense, it is somehow paradoxical when some members of the Greek Cypriot negotiating team question the possibility of the Turkish Cypriots to enjoy similar powers in a reunified State.

At the same time, the recently elected leader of the Turkish Cypriot community has made clear that, according to him, the solution must be based on ‘sovereign equality’ and not just ‘political equality’. In public international law, this term describes the concept according to which every sovereign state possesses the same legal rights. In the context of the negotiations of the Cyprus issue, the use of such a term could be seen as a codification of the long-standing ambition of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot nationalists for a two-states solution.

Such fundamental divergence in the interpretation of one of the agreed parameters makes a possible settlement even more elusive. But it is not surprising. Peace negotiations always take place between “enemies” with conflicting aspirations about their political and constitutional future. The role of the negotiators is to create an agreement that bridges, but does not eradicate, their differences – at least in the short term. The task of a peace settlement is not to make the conflicting sides love each other and sing Kumbaya together. The aim is to create robust and lasting institutions, through which the enemies of the past will be constantly negotiating their common future with political tools instead of violence.

In the process of reaching such a settlement, both the Greek Cypriot and the Turkish Cypriot communities have every right to try to improve their negotiating position. In fact, their political leaders are obliged to negotiate the most favourable arrangement. What they cannot do is to pretend that there can be a common Cypriot State outside the agreed parameters that sketch what may be an acceptable compromise. The price for not reaching a mutually agreed settlement is their geographical segregation.

*Nikos Skoutaris is an Associate Professor in EU law at UEA. His website focuses on Secessions, Constitutions and EU law. Follow him on Twitter at @NikosSkoutaris.

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