The Blog

Overcoming Ethnic Divides: Is Cyprus Ready for Success?

By Yeshim Harris-Feridun


Katie Clerides

What really accounts for the transformation of conflict into peace? What are the vital ingredients for change? The history of positive outcomes over the past few decades - whether it is the Nuclear Arms Treaties between superpowers or the examples like Northern Ireland and South Africa seems to indicate that certain type of leadership, combined with the ripeness of the process, gives peace a massively improved chance in even the most entrenched conflicts.

While disastrous 'hot' wars rage in Syria and beyond, bringing devastation to millions in the Middle East, Cyprus is in the 'deep freeze'. With a long history of attrition going back to the 1960s, countless efforts for resolving the problems of this divided island in the Mediterranean have collapsed. Hopes were raised with the Annan Plan in 2004, but it became another dead end. As the heap of unsuccessful attempts grew, public trust plummeted and energy faded.

The different quality of the negotiation talks this time round seems to be indicating a shift. With the right leadership and the right timing on both sides, perhaps Cyprus could actually find itself in the right kind of 'de-freeze'?

Stars Lining Up Finally?

With the election of Mustafa Akinci in 2015 as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, the Cyprus peace process gained a new momentum. Akinci was the Mayor of Nicosia in the 1980s. Those were the days when all official relations between the two parts of the island had been suspended and no crossings were allowed. Yet, Akinci showed the courage to cooperate with his Greek Cypriot counterpart on issues of the divided capital, such as the Nicosia Master Plan. When he was elected in 2015, not only those on his side of the partition, but many in the south, also celebrated.

What has lined up with Akinci's election, is the leadership of another brave man; his Greek Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades. Compared to his predecessors, Anastasiades has shown a different level of openness towards a federal system and towards an understanding of the 'other'. Like Akinci, he had also been a YES campaigner during the referendum for the 2004 Annan Plan. These two men were born only about a year apart, in the same town, Limassol. Anastasiades has repeatedly said that he and Akinci represent the last chance to bring this conflict to an end as the generations after them have no experience of living together.

This good chemistry between the leaders has coincided a time when the peace process is perceived differently both within Cyprus and beyond:

Internally, the potential economic benefits are now being seen in a new light by Greek Cypriots, following the financial crisis in 2013. A successful outcome would mean increased investment on the island, would open the doors for joint ventures in Turkey as well as the Turkish-speaking Republics of the former Soviet Union. For Turkish Cypriots too, full participation in Europe would come as a gift, as they have suffered from international embargoes over the recent decades.

Externally, the international community has been taking an increasingly closer interest in the talks. This is firstly because political stability is vital in order to put the energy resources around the island into production and export. Secondly, a successful outcome of the peace process may be of potential benefit to Turkey's relations with the EU. Thirdly and more importantly; ending this conflict would mean one less problem in the Middle East. At a time when the turmoil is causing great insecurity in the region, Cyprus offers a real opportunity to be a good example of overcoming ethnic divides.

Can Cyprus Deal with a Success?

The end of a conflict means new possibilities, as well as new challenges and unknowns. There are many questions Cypriots are asking themselves:

What will a possible agreement bring to Cypriots and to others in the region?

After many years of enmity between the Greek Cypriots and Turkey, what will their relationships be like?

How will the current institutions in Cyprus (e.g justice and education) be reformed in order to adapt to a new Cyprus?

More pertinently, how will the relations between the two communities on the island be rehabilitated?

Despite 20 years of work by various NGOs and activists, culminating with the opening of the first checkpoints in 2003, and despite successful initiatives like the interfaith dialogues and intercommunal events, many people are still not able to buy into the idea of compromise, big or small. The majority of people on both sides continue to take an all-or-nothing approach. Each side feels itself to be the victim of the violence and blames the 'other'. As in many other conflicts, in Cyprus, this image has become a part of the identity; attributing all responsibility to someone else and the refusal to recognise one's own share has become the norm.

There is no doubt; the climate has recently improved considerably in Cyprus. The present leaders and negotiators are currently embracing the idea of crossing the divide in a way that has not been experienced before. Sharing a morning coffee in public spaces or attending theatrical performances together were unheard of previously. The leaders making reference -albeit guarded- to the responsibility of their own side was unthinkable in the past. Administrations on both sides now openly recognise the need for reconciliation (even though very little has been done systematically at the official level, so far). More significantly, the current leaders are more aware of the sensitivities and the needs of their own community. They understand that they need to negotiate not only with the other side; but also with those who hold less moderate views on their own side.

There is a lot of work to be done however, as good developments brings out hope; but at the same time fear too. Both communities persistently need reassurance that this rapprochement doesn't mean that either leader condones what happened. Nothing is forgotten; no one is disloyal to their own people who have suffered; nor fails to honour those who lost their lives. All it means is a realisation that the past will never be different and that taking a share of the responsibility may help understanding the other side of the story.

Lessons from Elsewhere

Each conflict has its unique history and challenges and therefore has its own unique answers; but there are always experiences of success and failure that provide important lessons for Cyprus. Northern Ireland and South Africa are good examples to look at.

Even during the peak periods of tension between the political parties in Northern Ireland, there was interaction between the trade unions, churches and other organizations. These acted as the pillars for appeasement during and after the Good Friday Agreement. Similar cases can be seen in South Africa, where national, regional and local structures that drew the communities together to address issues of justice and peace were created. Despite their limitations the initiatives like CODESA and MPNF (Multiparty Negotiating Forum) helped contain violence and offered the concept of public ownership and accountability, which then ultimately strengthened pressure for signing of an accord.

Unfortunately, segregation among social groups and sectarian/ethnic conflicts still continue in both countries today and will do so for years to come. Despite this, the agreed system have not collapsed and, on the whole the situations are continuing to improve. This is firstly due to the prior work of preparation and secondly, the quality of the on-going work for dialogue, reconciliation and community re-building. These are the two most significant lessons that Cyprus could benefit much from.

Right now there is an on-going peace process in Colombia to end five decades of violence. After so many failed attempts at resolution, this time the determination of the players appears to be of a different quality. For example, in recognition of the need for preparation, there is already a 'Ministry for Post-Conflict Security and Human Rights' established solely to respond effectively in the critical days following the signing of the accord. Could Cyprus perhaps look at establishing a similar body?

How To Prepare For Peace?

What more can be done now? The two leaders continuing to appear together in public, in social settings, will reinforce a case for a negotiated agreement. They need to explain the importance of the joint technical committees (e.g. on education) and their mandates. They need to create a joint media policy and a joint strategy for informing and reassuring the public.

The political parties and NGOs from both sides need support from their leaders, to create platforms to explain to the communities what a new Cyprus will look like. The public needs positive but equally honest and open information about the outcome of a possible accord; not in the abstract but in the tangible, especially in terms of both economic and social benefits and challenges. More urgently, both administrations and NGOs need to intensify their work to broach the issues of acceptance of responsibility and reconciliation. Things do change but it takes time to bring about a true transformation, where a sufficiently large number of people create the critical mass that can tip the balance. Reaching out for an understanding is both a political and a personal choice and they are intertwined. The individual experience is as much a process that each community member goes through over time.

There are many theories about how conflicts are processed and at what point they are ready to have a breakthrough. Perhaps Cyprus is finally approaching this point. Perhaps enough time has passed for the Greek Cypriots, who endured killings and humiliations in 1974; and for the Turkish Cypriots, who experienced the same in the 1960s. Perhaps the leadership and the timing is now right for a successful outcome. If that is the case, the two leaders will be entrusted by a mandate from their people to take Cyprus to the next step and to steer her through the transition period into a new Cyprus. By no means this will be any easier. The post-conflict environment will be highly sensitive and fragile and will have a new set of challenges. With a new era begins the real hard work. Thankfully, there are many examples around the world to look at and be inspired by.



Yeshim Harris-Feridun is a Turkish Cypriot peacebuilding practitioner and trainer. The dialogue initiatives she led in Cyprus hosted some institutions and individuals who have never taken part in such communication before, due to the conservative nature of their views. Her work with Northern Irish and South African negotiators led to the launching of Cyprus Civic Dialogue Forum. Having worked with politicians, civil society and business leaders, she is well versed in Multi-Track Diplomacy.

Katie Clerides is a Greek Cypriot peace activist, politician and one of the pioneers to open up her political party towards developing a better understanding of the Turkish Cypriot community. She established the Bi-communal Relations Bureau within her party at a time when all official relations between the two parts of the island had been entirely suspended. To this date, she has a leading role in the efforts for reconciliation and solution of conflicts between the two communities on the island. She is currently the President of the Governing Board of the Glafcos Clerides Institute, a think tank for the promotion of public dialogue and research.

(The authors extend their thanks to: Harvey Jones, Catherine Mitchell, Mark White.)