Establishing the United Federal Cyprus? A Preliminary Diagnosis

Gregoris Ioannou and Giorgos Charalambous

5th November 2016

The process ahead leading to a possible agreement between the community leaders and submission to separate and simultaneous referenda is expected to be neither smooth nor easy. Although the outcome – partition or reunification – is still far from certain, since September the final phase of this process has been signaled. On Monday the two leaders will meet in Switzerland to discuss the land issue. Put differently, the final phase began at the time when the two leaders could no longer proclaim another stalemate. The conjuncture may be favorable as it has been before in the recent past, yet the broader context vaguely defined can fool the passing observer. The constellation of political, economic and ideological interests and forces opposing the reunification of Cyprus remains formidable and this will continue to be so until the referendum day. In view of a necessary and inevitable political battle on the ground, here we will attempt to outline and discuss the basic obstacles to the establishment of the United Federal Cyprus at the current conjuncture. 

 

The rejectionist forces

Rejectionism has been present in the Greek Cypriot party system since the latter’s very consolidation in the late 1970s, but there are today two distinct strands among the rejectionist political parties. On one level, there are those parties, mostly new and claiming a movement-type profile, which espouse Greek nationalism and articulate their opposition to all attempts to resolve the Cyprus problem on the basis of the so called Cyprus’ ‘Greekness’. These parties include two of the newest entrants into parliament – the National Popular Front or ELAM, archetypical of the European far right party family and the Movement for Solidarity, a breakaway party from DISY acting as an umbrella for the illiberal sections of the right – and mobilize on the basis of racism, xenophobia and national pride. 

On another level, there is Greek-Cypriot nationalism, as expressed by the traditional parties of the ‘centre’, Democratic Party (DIKO) and the social democrats (EDEK), as well as the newly formed Citizens Alliance, led by establishment politician, Giorgos Lillikas. Here, opposition to a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation is more nuanced through legal(istic) arguments that are premised on the technical details of the establishment, autonomy and durability of federal and the two constituent states. This is accompanied by a rhetoric about human rights, the so called ‘racist’ nature of bi-zonality (seen as disadvantaging the Greek Cypriots) and Turkey’s violations of international law. Overall, the centre’s rejectionism ostensibly evokes a sort of liberal kind of nationalism, nevertheless based on an ethnocentric narrative and dressed in patriotic and humanitarian colors.

The rejectionist camp has expanded since the 2016 elections in terms of the number of institutionalized political actors with linkages to the state. If one includes the Greens, then currently ‘the centre’ οr the ‘in-between space’ is occupied by five nationalist or quasi-nationalist political parties. Adding to that the extreme rightist ELAM, makes 6 parties with a total of approximately 130,000 votes that position themselves, either implicitly or explicitly, against the Bi-zonal, Bi-communal Federation as a solution to the Cyprus problem. Beyond this politically institutionalized rejectionism, a considerable number of voters from DISY are also rather conservative and nationalist, while AKEL provides a roof for an ‘easy’ and verbal anti-imperialism, which can be (and has often been) reproduced as the vale of a dangerous ethnocentrism. If one is to contemplate a worst case scenario, then in the current conjuncture such stance is likely to be triggered also by the uncomfortable situation in which leftists (and especially the older generation) may find themselves in supporting a right-wing government’s initiatives on the Cyprus problem.

Although important sections of the Greek Cypriot bourgeoisie seem to favor this time a re-unification of the island, something that was not the case in 2004 on the occasion of the Annan Plan referendum, the reasons that led many among the business circles to oppose re-unification in the previous decade have not vanished. In fact the fear of Greek Cypriot capitalists losing their competitive advantage in the sectors of tourism, commerce and real estate and their privileged connection with the state for offshore activities and taxation issues is probably now enhanced by the deeper penetration and take-over of the Turkish Cypriot economy by Turkish capital. 

On the other hand, the economic crisis in the Republic of Cyprus has wiped out or brought to their knees many small firms and has produced a large pool of unemployed and under-employed citizens. If amongst the winners of the crisis, consisting largely of accumulated capital, the key is the degree of their confidence with respect to the forthcoming competition in the more open national and regional markets after the country’s reunification, amongst the losers of the crisis the transition to a united Cyprus carries less anxiety and more expectations for better days amidst reconstruction and labour market expansion. Some sort of economic development will be an inevitable result of the reunification process. The question that remains open, however, is the form that this will assume in conjunction with the actual costs of financing reunification. How the various classes, class fractions and occupational interests perceive the process and position themselves within it remains uncertain. What is certain is that their mobilization and agency can and will affect the outcome today and set into motion the dynamics that will shape tomorrow the socio-economic realm of the united Cyprus.

Nationalism, in its various forms and gradations remains a strong force in both communities of Cyprus. The inter-communal conflict and the distancing of Greek and Turkish Cypriots have become entrenched in the social structures reproducing for more than two generations imaginaries of ethnic superiority, narratives of victimhood and symbols of division. Although nationalism is diffused in both societies, overcoming it to a degree sufficient for allowing the re-unification process to proceed is probably more difficult in the Greek Cypriot community. In spite of the latter being more accustomed to the experience of independence from the ‘mother land’, the idea of an ethnic superior claim to the ownership of the country (historical, cultural, demographic etc) remains hegemonic and obstructs the idea of power sharing and communal equality as enshrined in the model of the Bizonal Bicommunal Federation.

Although Cypriot-centrism has won the identity battle against Helleno-centrism in the ideological contest of the last decades, the Greek Cypriots’ Cypriot-centrism is not bi-communal and does not include the Turkish Cypriots as a significant part of its self-conceptualization. The educational system, the established media and the continuing influence and institutional strength of the Greek Orthodox Church have been instrumental in this. Within the context of an abundance and diversity of material resources, the Church has sustained an important level of social capital that equals or exceeds that of parties, parliament or government, even amidst a superficial religiosity on the island and remains a significant actor in the rejectionist camp. 

 

The geopolitical framework and the external dynamics

In terms of the international context, there are both continuities and changes with respect to the major powers in the area and the interrelations and balances that constitute the current geo-political nexus. The EU remains interested in consolidating its presence and influence in the eastern Mediterranean and the US continues to view a Greco-Turkish understanding in Cyprus as a stepping stone for a broader understanding concerning the relations between the two NATO member states. Both the EU and the US consider the resolution of the Cyprus problem as a “normalizing” moment that will neutralize a diplomatic and legal anomaly. Although at this conjucture they seem to retain their preference for a federal solution because it is diplomatically and legally easier, less risky and beneficial in terms of political profile, their commitment to federation is not of a political sort. If a compromise on a federal model is not feasible, the option of the formalization of the current partitionist status quo remains open for them. The increasingly volatile current regional and international conditions, where fluidity, uncertainty and realignment are the norms is a sufficient factor pushing and enabling this eventuality. 

Russia’s positioning in the region is also more secure than a decade ago, after the US has proved unable to control the Middle East and after Russia managed to withhold the quasi Cold War, Western, multi-level and multi-area pressures against it; there are signs that this is being acknowledged by the Western powers. The fact that the suggestion for a NATO security framework has been shelved and a multi-national one including Russia is currently being discussed is not only due to the Cypriot Left’s firm opposition to this but also an understanding by the West that Russia can neither be ousted from the Eastern Mediterranean nor ignored.  

The natural gas resources that have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean and the various designs as to how to make their extraction politically possible and economically profitable constitute a new and significant parameter driving the current peace process. Cyprus and the Cyprus natural gas is to be sure a detail in this and there are no certainties, nor inevitabilities as to how the imperialist and micro-imperialist dynamics will shape the alignments and competitions of the major players and powers, multinational corporations and major and regional states. 

What is directly relevant to Cyprus and the Cyprus peace process, are the conceptions of the Greek and the Turkish states concerning their own national interests. Although Greco-Turkish relations have been slowly but steadily improving in the last decades allowing the idea of a possible co-operation to mature among the elites and the peoples of the two neighboring countries, there are still fundamental divergences of interests and antagonistic frames with respect to how these interests can be pursued while militarist rationales and nationalist mentalities are still operational in both states and societies. 

This leaves the question of the natural gas extraction and the demarcation of the Exclusive Economic Zone of the two states an issue whose resolution will be pushed in the future and that will be subject to a variety of factors and dynamics internal to the two states as well as international. What is important from the Cypriot point of view is to secure the respect of Cyprus’s independence and relative autonomy from the broader dynamics of Greco-Turkish relations. A reunited island will render more difficult the export of further Greek and Turkish nationalism into Cyprus and the use of Cyprus as a bargaining piece or as a field upon which tensions can be directed, used and abused. 

The first actor from the ‘near outside’ to take a negative stance on the Bi-zonal, Bi-communal Federation has been the Greek Communist Party. It reformulated its opposition to the proposed solution, seeking an ‘advantage’ in the debate on the Cyprus problem in Greece. Its explanation is labeled anti-imperialist, in solidarity with the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot working classes and anti-nationalist. In concrete terms, the KKE supports a single state solution, which will be established through popular, bottom-up mobilization, rather than intra-imperialist alliances and contradictions involving a key role by the EU and NATO. 

Yet, the Greek communists seem to forget how complex the nationalities question was in one of their main reference points, the former Soviet Union, itself a federation, in fact based on the political institutionalization of the multiple ethnicities into autonomous constituent republics. Accommodating ethno-national heterogeneity more often than not requires institutionalizing ethnicities as constitutive elements of the state and its citizenry, and this is not a requirement operating only in capitalist countries but also in centrally planned economies. Quintessentially, the structures of the single state failed in the past in Cyprus because they did not manage to co-opt the ethnic narratives of the two main communities. They will fail today because ethnic identities are not only even more socially and anthropologically consolidated but also deeply politicized, carrying their recent antagonistic orientations and the legacy of their conflict.  

 

In terms of method, there is nothing constructive in KKE’s proclamations that can offer a convincing formula that will obstruct the further reinforcement of nationalism, evade foreign intervention and overturn the de facto partition. The Cyprus problem is embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist alignments and this cannot be overturned by any kind of popular mobilization, let alone through verbalism, selective consideration of historical determining parameters and idealizations that confront not only political realism, but the political reality itself. In other words, in the short- and medium-term the incorporation of the Cyprus problem into the existing geopolitical dynamics cannot be substantively undone and must be taken into consideration in order to support progressive goals such as reunification rather than used as excuse for inaction and withdrawal, thus allowing others to shape the course of events. 

KKE’s analysis is, to say the least, superficial in confusing analytically the concepts of partition and federation both in terms of the lead up and in terms of the outcome of the peace process. This is because it comprehends partition as a consequence of the establishment process of the United Cyprus Republic viewing the legal and constitutional arrangements statically in terms of the current conditions and as producing political results, rather than dynamically and as being the result of the political act of the inter-communal compromise agreement. Politically, its understanding of both the Annan Plan and the current agreed framework as confederal and therefore as a priori unacceptable, places the party in terms of its argumentation squarely within the rejectionist forces represented in Cyprus by the traditional ‘centrist’ Greek Cypriot parties. These deny the Turkish Cypriot community both the right to autonomy and power sharing, as well as communal agency, viewing the Turkish Cypriots effectively as inherently, inevitably and irreversibly the extension of Turkish imperialism.


Conclusion

A political battle on the ground is necessary and inevitable and it is already unfolding between politicians and citizens in the public sphere, the social media and the streets. If arguments in favor of the federal reunification mobilize effectively and if the main foreign and international players continue to support the process avoiding what could be taken as provocative statements in an already nationalist climate, then a solution may be possible. The number of changes in social, electoral and political dynamics since the referendum of 2004 must not be forgotten, as they will determine several parameters of what is to follow. 

Although the battle will primarily be a partisan one, interests will also mobilize beyond partisan lines. Parties are not as strong as before and party allegiances have been significantly eroded in the past decade or so, increasing the distance between the voters and their parties. High abstention, especially among the youth, a public outcry for corruption practices and political disaffection are now the key characteristics of public opinion among Greek Cypriots. The same applies in the north, although there pro reunification forces have less of an uphill road ahead of them than their Greek Cypriot partners. It should not be neglected that where ultimately public opinion sways in the end over the Cyprus problem negotiations may be driven less by political allegiances and more by emotional appeals and ideational arguments and discursive frames. 

Nevertheless, the reunification prospect presupposes the effective and widespread deconstruction of rejectionist argumentation, the neutralization of the narrow ethnocentric mentality and the containment of conservatism and the micro-interests of the anti-reunification forces. This is a different conjuncture in comparison to 2004, a different climate and with different stakes. If the negotiations are successful, it still remains a question as to whether the referendum will have a positive outcome; at least for the time being.

Gregoris Ioannou teaches social science at the University of Cyprus and Frederick University. His research interests lie in the areas of employment relations and the sociology of work, trade unionism and social movements, media and the public sphere in Southern Europe and Cyprus. His recent publications have dealt with Cypriot trade unions and politics across the dividing line, the labour market in the crisis, urban activism and media framing.

Giorgos Charalambous teaches political science at the University of Cyprus and is Senior Research Consultant at the Cyprus Centre of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. His research interests lie in the areas of political parties and ideologies, left radicalism, the domestic politics of European integration, southern European and Cypriot politics. His latest book is a co-edited volume on 'Party-Society Relations in the Republic of Cyprus: Political and Societal Strategies' (Routledge, 2015).

Rejectionism has been present in the Greek Cypriot party system since the latter’s very consolidation in the late 1970s, but there are today two distinct strands among the rejectionist political parties.

In terms of the international context, there are both continuities and changes with respect to the major powers in the area and the interrelations and balances that constitute the current geo-political nexus. 

A political battle on the ground is necessary and inevitable and it is already unfolding between politicians and citizens in the public sphere, the social media and the streets. If arguments in favor of the federal reunification mobilize effectively and if the main foreign and international players continue to support the process avoiding what could be taken as provocative statements in an already nationalist climate, then a solution may be possible.

The reunification prospect presupposes the effective and widespread deconstruction of rejectionist argumentation, the neutralization of the narrow ethnocentric mentality and the containment of conservatism and the micro-interests of the anti-reunification forces. This is a different conjuncture in comparison to 2004, a different climate and with different stakes. If the negotiations are successful, it still remains a question as to whether the referendum will have a positive outcome; at least for the time being.

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