NICOSIA – A feud over Cyprus’ troubled history on Thursday led to the abrupt halt of reunification talks between the ethnically split island’s rival leaders, with confusion and much finger pointing over who walked out on whom.
It’s unclear what this means to the 21-month-long process that’s made significant headway on a deal reunifying the small island as a federation. But both Mustafa Akinci, the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades said they don’t want negotiations to completely collapse.
Tensions have been running high this week following strong Turkish Cypriot protests against new legislation making the annual commemoration of a 1950 vote for union with Greece compulsory in Greek Cypriot schools.
Cyprus gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960, but was split 14 years later when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north.
Anastasiades said that Akinci and his retinue left the U.N. compound at the defunct Nicosia airport where talks are being held during a short break after telling the Turkish Cypriot leader that his fears over the legislation weren’t justified.
Anastasiades said that Akinci’s departure appeared to be a “pre-determined decision” and a “pretext” in order to justify the Turkish Cypriot side’s harder stance as talks reach the problem’s most sensitive, core issues and to furnish Turkey an excuse to evade its obligation to help the process.
“I don’t accept that it’s possible after two years of intensive negotiations and progress for the process to halt for an insignificant matter, something that’s understood by everyone,” Anastasiades told reporters.
Akinci, though, said Anastasiades gave a “bunch of excuses” and appeared to give short shrift to Turkish Cypriot sensitivities before storming out of the meeting first and slamming the door behind him.
Akinci said what triggered Anastasiades’ anger was U.N. envoy Espen Barth Eide’s suggestion that something had to be done to fix things. Anastasiades said he rebuked Eide for casting doubt on the Greek Cypriots’ commitment to a peace deal.
Akinci said it’s up to the Greek Cypriots to get negotiations back on solid footing.
“We’ve reached this point, but I don’t want to close all the doors to the negotiations,” Akinci told reporters.
According to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said that the Greek Cypriot legislation “is not acceptable to Turkey or to Cypriot Turks.”
Turkish Cypriots see the Greek Cypriot bid for union with Greece that culminated in a 1955-59 guerrilla campaign against British colonial authorities as being the root of the island’s current woes.
Akinci said that the legislation on commemorating the event, proposed by the far-right party ELAM, fanned concerns among Turkish Cypriots over their security and bolstered mistrust. On Tuesday, Akinci said that he called on U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to intervene and get the legislation rescinded.
Anastasiades said that celebrations and commemorations aim to pay homage rather than signal any policy shift away from reunifying Cyprus as a federation. But he expressed disagreement with “aimless and unnecessary decisions or statements” that would enable either Turkey or Turkish Cypriots to “avoid the responsibilities that weigh on them.”
More than 95 percent of the majority Greek Cypriots voted in favor of union with Greece in the 1950 plebiscite which is already taught in Greek Cypriot schools.
Greek Cypriots celebrate the start of the 1955-59 guerrilla campaign each year with school parades on its April 1 anniversary, which is also a public holiday.