Cyprus has been ethnically divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north to prevent a Greek military coup that aimed to unite the island with mainland Greece. The division of the island between Turkish Northern Cyprus and the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus has been the subject of decades of debate, and a major concern for the UN, whose attempts at instigating a reunification have repeatedly failed. There have been numerous peace talks, most recently at a Swiss resort in 2017, but none have succeeded at initiating the bizonal, bicommunal federation that the UN was initially advocating for. Nevertheless, the Cypriots are preparing for new talks in the coming week.
On Tuesday May 4th, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will facilitate three days of discussions between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders. The group will be joined by foreign ministers from Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Guterres has declared that “the purpose of the meeting will be to determine whether common ground exists for the parties to negotiate a lasting solution to the Cyprus problem within a foreseeable horizon.” Unlike previous meetings, which only sought to address reunification, it seems that this conference will have a more general aim. Guterres’ spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, has urged the sides to “come with creativity” to the meeting. This fresh, informal approach may prove to be more effective than the formally structured meetings of the past, since neither region has been inclined to accept the UN’s model federation for their own government.
While normally such talks would be preceded by well-wishing and optimism, the atmosphere this week is remarkably tense. The Cypriots’ views on what the final peace deal should look like seem to be in increasing conflict with one another. Last October, Turkish Cypriots elected Ersin Tatar as their president, who insisted it is time to give up on forming a bizonal, bicommunal federation, and split into two states instead. The UN is not permitted to pursue a two-state solution, unless it has been requested by both sides and sanctioned by the Security Council. While Tatar has the support of Ankara, he most certainly is not in agreement with Greece. This March, the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis reaffirmed his stance on the matter, claiming that “the solution can only be found in the context of a bizonal, bicommunal federation – one sovereignty, one nationality, one international representation, including, of course, the departure of occupying armies and abolition of the Treaties of Guarantee.” This places Tatar and Turkey in direct opposition with Cyprus and Greece.
A diplomatic source in the UN has shared that “the General Secretary doesn’t want this to be a purely theoretical exercise. He wants to know, do we have a chance of success or not?” The nature of the divide in Cyprus makes it a potential source of conflict, especially with new leaders advocating for change. It is imperative that future peace talks produce a viable, long-term solution, but considering the disparity between the Greek and Turkish visions for Cyprus, it is unlikely that a single meeting will be successful in solving what five decades of negotiations could not.