By Ilker Girit
Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots could face the biggest decision of their lives this year if current peace talks lead to their divided island's reunification.
However, as the Cyprus logjam is set to be discussed at this week's World Economic Forum in Davos, cagey negotiators mostly talk in general terms about the country's future.
However, Anadolu Agency has spoken to Cypriots and outside experts to answer one practical question – what could a 'new' Cyprus look like?
“Two autonomous regions, one federation,” says Prof. Ahmet Sozen.
A professor of political science and international relations at Northern Cyprus-based Eastern Mediterranean University, Sozen – who has spent 20 years on the Cyprus conflict – talked to Anadolu Agency.
Sozen described the reunification of the divided island as a “partnership” between the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also “power sharing”.
“If we do not take into account a new Cyprus’s foreign policy and security matters, Cypriots would continue to live in a similar manner within their communities”, Sozen said.
In other words, everyone on the island would be citizens of a united federation; however, they would be educated in their own schools in their mother tongue and live under their own autonomy.
It should not be forgotten that Turkish Cypriots have been living under embargo over four decades – only Turkey has legally recognized the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).
However, in 2004 the Greek Cypriot administration joined the European Union (EU) meaning its citizens have the right to trade and travel freely among EU member states.
Therefore, the island’s unification would bring more gains for Turkish Cypriots than Greek ones, because Turks would be EU citizens in the end.
TRNC President Mustafa Akinci said in late December last year that parliament had mostly incorporated EU regulations into its own laws, making a future transition easier.
The Turkish side of the island would use the euro [official currency of the eurozone which consists of 19 of the EU’s member states] instead of its current currency, the Turkish lira.
Akinci said in late 2015 that “Northern Cyprus would change … currency within one year after unification”, adding that the legislative process had already begun.
The EU has previously experienced currency transition within member states which shifted from their own national currencies to the euro.
Lithuania, which joined the EU in 2004, began to use the euro at the beginning of 2015, with a 2.8 million population.
For an economy of 300,000 Turkish Cypriots to adopt the country’s monetary policies into the eurozone would not be as difficult.
Chairman of the Northern Cyprus Banks Association and CEO of the Creditwest Bank, Dr. Suleyman Erol, spoke to Anadolu Agency about the change in currency after possible reunification.
“Northern Cyprus’s economy has a structure that Turkish lira and foreign currencies have been running jointly for a long time,” Erol said.
The senior banker also highlighted that foreign currencies in the banking sector made of 50 percent of assets in Northern Cyprus.
Therefore, Erol thinks that “there will not be major problems” after a currency transition because current trade and bank credits are mostly provided in foreign currencies, like the euro and the U.K. pound.
However, households living on the northern side would be affected due to a price rise in food, cleaning products and textiles after the currency transition, as happened before in those countries which changed to the euro, Erol said.
Erol underlined that Southern and Northern Cyprus share basic laws dating from pre-1974 and no major legal amendments are expected to happen in the north.
Moreover, an “individual pension system has not developed and all pension systems have been only carried by public institutions [in the island’s north],” Erol stated.
Erol added that pension payments and related obligations would most likely lie with constituent states of a new Cyprus.
However, other traditional sources of economic conflict – between owners and organized labor – are largely absent in this case. “There is no big difference on labor and business laws [between Southern and Northern Cyprus] … in the case of reunification they would not present technical difficulties,” Erol commented.
President of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, Fikri Toros, who is also a businessman in Northern Cyprus, talked to Anadolu Agency regarding the economic dimension of the current talks.
“The island’s domestic economy, which is limited by local funds, would be attractive and steady after unification,” Toros claims.
“The main problem of Cyprus is a brain drain of young entrepreneurs and professionals who could not find proper jobs on the island.”
Toros claimed that Cyprus’s employment capacity would rise sharply after unification, especially in tourism – the island’s main source of income.
A total number of 4.2 million tourists visited both sides of the island in 2015 even though Northern Cyprus is restricted in terms of international air traffic; the TRNC received 1.2 million visitors through Turkey over the past year.
According to Toros, after unification, tourist numbers will double in a short period of time and would reach 10 million annually in the medium term.
These improvements in tourism – and related sectors such as construction – would lead to a decreasing unemployment rate, keeping young people on the island.
Until now, there were various peace efforts between the parties to solve the four-decade puzzle, but no solution has been reached.
Prof. Sozen highlighted that there has been no similar unification process, where two communities with different religions and languages came together under one state.
German reunification in 1990 cannot be an example for Cyprus, because it was a single entity in both cases.
However, there are two entities, two different religions and two languages in the Cyprus issue, so if talks are successful “the solution would be good example for all conflicts in the world that face religious and sectarian conflicts,” Sozen said.
The last significant solution attempt, backed by the United Nations, was in 2004. Known as the Annan Plan, Greek Cypriots voted ‘No’ to the deal by 75.83% in a referendum.
However, experts say that this time round a solution is closer.
Fikri Tosun, who is also a contributor to the recent negotiations at civil society level, said that “the leaders of two communities, Akinci and [Nicos] Anastasiades, are strong-minded enough to establish a permanent solution based upon political equality of two sides within one federation”.
Akinci and Anastasiades recently came together to send out a New Year message to all Cypriots, Turks and Greeks, in a television address.
Tosun adds that NGOs and peace groups from inside and outside the island have got involved the talks for the first time.
The Cyprus Dialogue Forum, facilitated by the UN, has worked for structured dialogue and knowledge-sharing among the two communities.
NGOs from Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities are working together, encouraging the peace process.
Constantinos Tsiourtos, a representative of the Cyprus Neuroscience & Technology Institute – part of the dialogue forum – talked to Anadolu Agency.
Tsiourtos described the forum’s atmosphere: “It is not part of the official negotiations. However, I consider its influence [will] grow as it comprises significant actors of society from both sides.”
“We exchange views in a fruitful and constructive manner as to co-create a common vision about the country we want the day after [unification].”
The convergence of the communities in one base would bring quick integration on the island, further forcing politicians and officials to get a result.
This time, despite their difficulties in talks, Cypriots have more hope of living together without borders, fences, observation towers and no-go areas.