Bicommunal action: A critical actor for peace in Cyprus

Bicommunal action: A critical actor for peace in Cyprus

Neophytos Loizides*
In the past few months few informed pundits on the Cyprus problem would cite any positive developments at the political level; the Cypriot stalemate is deepening further each day. Yet at the grassroots level bicommunal activity on the island is emerging as the critical actor in the reunification process.

In September 2014, the Greek Cypriot side withdrew from negotiations after a Turkish frigate began seismic exploration activities south of the island.  Surprisingly, this interruption in the Cyprus negotiations offered an opportunity for civil society leaders to seek alternatives in their attempt to resume the peace process. February 2015 has been the month of civil society engagement in Cyprus. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was the first Greek PM to meet with bicommunal NGOs in his inaugural visit to Cyprus, while the following week President Nicos Anastasiades held a well-received press conference with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot journalists. But much of the civil society engagement receives little media or public attention. Last week the two Cypriot chambers of commerce from the communities of the island launched a successful event in London hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, while the Greek-Turkish Forum met in Athens to discuss confidence-building measures. 

At the same time, the Cyprus Academic Dialogue (CAD) was co-organizing a flagship conference in Ankara, the first bicommunal event to take place in the Turkish capital after half a century of Cyprus conflict. My home institution, the University of Kent, co-sponsored this event and I witnessed first-hand three major strengths of Cyprus-based academic and civil society practitioners that could prove catalytic for the settlement.

First, civil society can take risks governments cannot afford, especially during times of crisis. Organizing a bicommunal conference in Ankara was not an easy undertaking. A year of preparation between Nicosia and Ankara mediated by the Australian High Commission in Nicosia, the British Institute at Ankara and the University of Kent could have led to nowhere if any of the sides withdrew. Last minute problems are not unusual after decades of conflict and escalating tensions in the region. 

But taking risks also pays; the event was warmly welcomed at the USAK House, one of Ankara’s leading think tanks, and attracted 17 academics and NGO leaders from both communities in Cyprus. Even more impressively, on the Ankara end it included 10 ambassadors, 33 officers from 24 different embassies (representing the U.S. Embassy and 15 EU member states, as well as the EU Delegation in Ankara), six officers from Turkish state institutions (including three from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs), 11 researchers from nine think-tanks, 29 academics from nine different universities and 10 reporters from five different media agents (including Reuters, France 24 and the Anadolu News Agency). It also brought together participants from the Turkish industrialist association and the country’s largest conglomerate, Koç Holding. This is only just one example of what is happening at a smaller scale elsewhere. Such events are critical in rallying political support for change at the government level.   

Moreover, the event brought together two high profile speakers: Former Prime Minister of Greece and the President of Socialist International George Papandreou and former Turkish minister of Foreign Affairs and spokesman of the Turkish parliament Hikmet Çetin. [For the live video link to the keynote addresses click here

Leaders with vision and influence across the Aegean could be a great asset in the struggle to reunify the island. But there are limits to what politicians can do without the support of their citizens, especially with governments in southern Europe preoccupied with the management of the debt crisis. In such an environment, the future of Cypriot mediations will depend largely on the signals citizens send to their leaders; social media has now brought the peace process to the hands of every Cypriot, Greek and Turkish citizen.  

Civil society action is changing the world today but to be effective it should emphasize its strengths. Cypriot academics and NGO leaders increasingly speak a shared language in bicommunal events, hence they tend to be more convincing. Thinking outside the box and reframing the Cyprus question is easier for civil society leaders than governments. Participants at the Ankara event did not speak in Greek or Turkish terms, but rather repositioned issues in humanitarian and scholarly terms, reaching out to different audiences particularly with regards to refugee, property and missing persons issues. Speaking on the same wavelength (despite disagreement on issues) makes a highly convincing case for reunification. For those observers recently suggesting partition, the best response comes from joint bicommunal action. 

Finally, bicommunal groups are becoming increasingly more professionalized, having worked jointly for decades across the divide. The scholarly work presented at the Ankara conference provided tangible examples of what could work in a future settlement not only in Cyprus but also in other comparable cases. When negotiations restart, academics and civil society practitioners will be in a position to make the best practices for the settlement of the Cyprus problem available to all sides. 

* Neophytos Loizides is a Reader at the University of Kent and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow for 2014-5.