October 13, 2008
Representing the Elders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lakhdar Brahimi, and I visited Cyprus, hoping that our expression of interest would encourage the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders in their effort to resolve the long-standing dispute over the division of the island. I was involved in this challenging diplomatic task even before becoming president in 1977. In 1974, the Turkish army had invaded the northern part of the island (only 40 miles from Turkey and almost 500 miles from Greece) and occupied about 37 percent of the land area. As a candidate, I promised to do everything possible to resolve the dispute, and when I was elected the church bells rang both in Greece and Cyprus. Despite our best efforts, however, no real progress was made because there were four incompatible parties involved: Turkey and Greece plus the Turk and Greek Cypriots.
The Turkish Cypriots declared their independence but were recognized only by Turkey, while the Republic of Cyprus (controlled by the Greeks) was internationally recognized and subsequently accepted as a member of the European Union.
Under Kofi Annan's leadership as U.N. Secretary-General, a major effort was made and after extensive and tedious negotiations the "Annan Plan" was drafted (9,000 pages) and presented in referenda to the Greek Cypriots in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north. It was accepted in the north (65 percent yes) and rejected in the south (76 percent no). Until recently there was no further progress, until both Cypriot communities elected leaders, Mehmet Ali Talat in 2005 and Demetris Christofias in 2008, who had been close friends and allies in their younger years as dedicated communists and who felt that they could conduct fruitful peace talks.
Our purpose was to become as familiar with the situation as possible, to encourage the negotiating leaders, to let the Cypriots know that the world was supportive of peace, and to share our experiences in South Africa, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, where compromise and flexibility brought peace. One additional option might be to visit the three "guarantors," Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, and we would be prepared to assist in the unlikely event that we were needed in the future.
Our itinerary was carefully planned by Elders' CEO Mabel van Oranje and her staff. We first met with a group of about 40 high school students, half from each community, who were eloquent and unabashed. They expressed their friendship for one another and their desire for peace and unity. Some from the north were attending school in the south, and they were frustrated with the need for visas to cross the U.N. buffer zone. They were also critical of the incompatibility of cell phones and other means of communication (phone calls are routed through Turkey). We urged them to be bold and active in expressing their views.
We had a thorough briefing from the U.N. representatives, Alexander Downer from Australia and Tayé-Brook Zerihoun from Ethiopia. They monitor and facilitate the peace talks but are careful not to interfere because the Greeks are especially averse to outside "interference." (The Turks have the opposite view, believing that the international community might support their stand on issues). The leaders hadn't met for three weeks, but did so on October 10, and plan to meet weekly in the future. Mr. Downer has obligations at home until December but will try to make more time available.
The ambassador from Slovakia had arranged for inter-community monthly sessions with almost all the political parties, six Turkish and eight Greek, where they discuss their mutual interests, make joint excursions both to the north and south, and meld their common commitments to unification. During our meeting with them we noted that it was difficult to distinguish Turk from Greek. This relative harmony can bode well for future progress. We also had a session with about 50 civil society leaders, heard their comments, and answered their questions. Overwhelmingly, they expressed support for the peace effort and many of them represented NGOs working full time to achieve this goal.
Hosted by U.S. Ambassador Frank Urbancic, we had a productive meeting with about 50 ambassadors stationed in Cyprus. A complicating factor is that (although still divided) Cyprus is a member of the European Union, while Turkey's application for membership has little prospect for approval in the near future. With a consensus required, the (Greek) Cypriot vote is a major factor in decisions relating to Turkey. The diplomats made it plain that the rejected Annan plan was anathema to the Greeks.
Our separate meetings with the two leaders were pleasant, encouraging, and informative. Both emphasized their longtime personal friendship, but each was critical of negotiating policies of the other. Both agree that there should be a united Cyprus with a federal system of government, two communities, a bicameral legislature, with equal civic rights for everyone. Having a 4:1 population majority, the Greeks want a strong central government, while the Turks prefer more autonomy for the two communities. Greeks want a fairly rapid reduction of Turkish military forces to a minimal number (perhaps 650), plus recovery of territory and property. The Turks are afraid that their people will be dominated in the future and even lose their cultural identity. Negative public statements have reduced harmony between the two leaders that was derived from their previous philosophical/political alignment.
Turkish Cypriots emphasize that they are isolated from the outside world, and can communicate and travel only via Turkey. There is no relation between the north and south police forces or judicial systems, and their universities cannot associate with those in the south. There is an EU embargo along their coast (and Turkey reciprocates against Cypriot ships). Predictably, there are some ingrained suspicions on both sides. Greek Cypriots enjoy the advantages of full EU membership, but feel that the Turks inherently prefer their separation, a confederation of two almost equal states and a weak central government. Some suspect that the Turks may ultimately secede from the union with their own sovereign government (a la Kosovo) once they achieve political equality.
There are two different modern histories, with the Turkish beginning in 1963 (when the majority Greeks took over the island and moved to unite with Greece) and the Greek history dating from 1974 (when Turkey invaded and occupied the northern portion of the island, taking the private property of many Greek families who lived there).
I have been familiar with these same prevalent arguments for more than 30 years, which now have their best chance to be resolved. The universal advice to us was that outside governments or political leaders should not interfere, but give full and balanced support to the two dedicated leaders who are striving to work out the differences.