The international conference on the reunification of Cyprus ended Jan. 12 without a deal. The parties, however, agreed to establish a working group to continue the discussion. The negotiations between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot officials took place in Geneva between Jan. 9 and Jan. 11. On Jan. 12, the two sides were joined by the foreign affairs ministers of Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom — the three countries that guarantee security on the island. Representatives from the European Union and the United Nations attended the final day of the talks as well. The working group is expected to start dialogue on Jan. 18 and the Greek government said a new multilateral conference would take place Jan. 23.
Since 1974, Cyprus has been divided between an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish Cypriot north, which is recognized only by Turkey. To reunify the island, the two communities would have to agree on how much territory each group will control. There was some progress on this issue during talks this week, and the two sides presented proposals for territorial distribution. Connected to this is the issue of compensation for those who lost their property in the north after the Turkish invasion. Monetary compensation seems more likely than the actual return of the lands and properties lost four decades ago. The two communities also need to agree on how a reunited island would be governed. The Turkish Cypriots would like to establish a rotating presidency between the two communities. The Greek Cypriots, however, have so far rejected this proposal — likely because they would be the majority on a reunited island.
The most sensitive issue is the presence of foreign troops in Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriots want some of Turkey's roughly 30,000 troops to remain on the island, a position that Ankara backs. But the Greek Cypriots and the Greek government want all Turkish troops to leave and an end to the tripartite scheme in which Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom act as guarantors of the island's security. The United Kingdom has said it would give up roughly half of the territory it controls in Cyprus, but London is not willing to abandon its military bases on the island.
Any agreement to reunite the island would face a number of challenges. In Cyprus, it would have to be ratified by separate referendums in the two communities. This is not the first time reunification talks have reached this advanced stage: In 2004 a plan agreed to by the two governments and foreign guarantors was later rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum. Politics in the guarantor powers also impact the process, because the Turkish government will likely want to ensure that it preserves some degree of influence over Cypriot affairs. The administration in Ankara would prefer to avoid being perceived by Turkish voters as having somehow "lost" Cyprus.
Russia, which was not present during the Geneva summit, will also play a role. A reunited Cyprus would ease tensions between Greece and Turkey, represent a significant diplomatic victory for the European Union, allow for the exploitation of natural gas resources in Cyprus, and open the door for the island to potentially join NATO. Russia has cultural, political and economic ties with Cyprus and will probably try to use them to influence developments on the island. In the event of a referendum, Russia could support groups opposed to reunification and use social or mass media to campaign against the measures. In 2004, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution on Cyprus.
Cyprus is a small island with a little over a million people. But because of its strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean, the prospect of reunification attracts the interests of governments well beyond its borders. Even if the current negotiations end in a compromise, the referendum campaign will create new opportunities for the process to be derailed.