On July 20, 1974, Turkish troops responded to the coup in Cyprus by invading the island nation. By August 18, 40% of the island was under their control. UN intervention, enforced with peacekeepers who had already been on the island for a decade, led to the creation of a buffer zone at this border. On November 15, 1983, the Turkish zone declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This entity is not recognized by any country or international organization outside of Turkey, which maintains a garrison in the TRNC.

Özdil Nami has served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since September, 2013. Born in London in 1967, he graduated from Boğaziçi University in 1988 before completing his masters at the University of California, Berkeley in 1991. Previously, Nami has represented the business interests of the people of Northern Cyprus in several roles: as Chairman of the TRNC Chamber of Commerce from 2000-2001 and as Chairman of the Cyprus Turkish Businessmen association from 2001-2003. Before being appointed to his current position as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he has grappled with the politics of Cyprus as a Political Advisor to the Presidency of the TRNC from 1997-2000, as a representative at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 2005, and as the TRNC President’s Special Representative at the new round of Cyprus negotiations between 2008 and 2010. He has served four terms in the parliament of the TRNC.

The political situation in Cyprus is still unresolved.

The Politic: It’s been a little over a year since your appointment as the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. How has your daily life changed since your appointment? What has been your greatest challenge so far in the job?

The life of a minister is always busy and hectic. As a foreign minister in particular, you are required to do quite bit of traveling. My new assignment took me to places that I have never been to before like Western Africa, Southern Africa and Central Asia. Now, I frequently visit New York and Washington.

I have been involved with the Cyprus issue for a long time, having been a politician for more than ten years. But even before that, I was an active participant in the business community of Northern Cyprus, as the chairman of the business association there. So, I finds myself often talking about how to solve the Cyprus issue. In that respect, I was doing the same thing as a minister: thinking about how to solve Cyprus issue.

However, the portfolio of the minister of foreign affairs is not limited to the Cyprus issue. My job also involves promoting trade, as well as cultural and sporting exchange, among Turkish Cypriots and the rest of the world. So it’s quite demanding. I have the unique title of being the Minister of Foreign Affairs of an unrecognized country, which may sound like an oxymoron. It makes the job more challenging, definitely. However, no matter what you do in life, challenges await you. I see it as only one more challenge that I need to overcome.

The Politic: In his book “The Cyprus Problem: What Everybody Needs to Know”, James Ker-Lindsay describes the Cyprus issue as a “diplomat’s graveyard”. As a diplomat working on this issue, do you concur? If so, how have you avoided this “graveyard”?

I certainly hope that my career does not end up in that graveyard! We all hope that our efforts will finally result in a peaceful resolution of the Cyprus issue. James Ker-Lindsay is right in making that assessment: the Cyprus issue has been on the agenda of United Nations Security Council for fifty years: half of a century. The first peacekeeping troops arrived on the island in March 1964. Their mandate was to “contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions”. Despite their half-century presence on the island, we still do not have these normal conditions.

Many diplomats have come and gone, and unfortunately their efforts have not produced a comprehensive settlement. But the other side of the coin is that their efforts resulted in a very important body of work at the United Nations. We can now refer to these established parameters for a solution. Without the efforts of the past fifty years, and all those careers that went into the graveyard so to speak, we would not have the basis of a solution today. If we say the Cyprus issue can be resolved, we owe it to their efforts. The parameters of a solution are well defined, and it is a matter of political wills whether we can give life to those parameters and establish this partnership.

The Politic: What do you think of the appointment of Espen Barth Eide? What advice would you give him to better fulfill his new role as UN Special Adviser for Cyprus?

Espen Barth Eide used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, and is a former executive chairman of the Geneva based World Economic Forum. He is a well-rounded diplomat with a lot of experience in striking deals between different parties, and in handling difficult negotiations. Yesterday, I met with him in New York. Before that, we had a meeting in Cyprus. He strikes me as a very energetic, extremely sharp, determined, and focused person. He is a very quick learner. He has clearly studied his files diligently in a rather short period of time. He is definitely ready for the job.

Soon after his arrival in Cyprus, he earned respect from both sides. After our meeting with the UN General-Secretary Ban-Ki Moon, it was clear that the Secretary General trusted him fully. Consequently, Mr. Eide injected a new positive energy into the negotiations. I advised him, based on my experiences, to remain equally distant from both sides, and to always protect his impartiality. There will be lots of pressure on him from inside Cyprus and from outside world. He will have to protect his impartiality under any condition.

When it comes to dealing with the technical issues of the Cyprus issue, a structured, disciplined, and results-oriented approach is what is needed at the negotiating table. If one loses sight of this mentality, it is very easy to get derailed, go off on a tangent, and find oneself in endless rhetorical debates without achieving positive results. I think he will exert himself at the negotiating table by putting forward a structured design to tackle the difficult issues. Finally, earlier on I mentioned that there is an important United Nations body of work that must be utilized in order to build on what has been achieved so far. I think he will try his best to secure respect for the achievements of the past diplomats, and won’t try to start from ground zero.

The Politic: In your interview with The Washington Times, you said that the Cyprus issue could be solved in a “matters of months”. Could you explain why you believe the current political climate is more conducive to a solution than it has been in the past?

The answer is very straightforward, actually. As I have said, we have been negotiating about the Cyprus issue for the past fifty years. All aspects of it have been thoroughly taken up; there is not a corner left untouched, a stone left unturned. We all know where the necessary compromises lie. This has been consolidated and confirmed on several occasions. The most important of these occurred in 2004, when the UN produced a comprehensive settlement, so-called Annan Plan. It was a comprehensive plan that touched on all aspects of the Cyprus issue in a concise manner.

This plan was put to referendum on both sides. The document had the support of UN Security Council, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom: the guarantor states. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the Greek Cypriot leadership gave their support to the plan until the final moment, the minute they secured unilateral membership to European Union, they changed their minds. At the last minute, they reverted to voting no instead of yes, thinking that EU membership gave them important leverage. Ten years have passed, and this expectation that they can use EU membership as leverage against the Turks is no longer there. As you know, in the past decade, the Greek Cypriot economy has collapsed. The Greek economy has collapsed. The European Union in its entirety is experiencing great economic difficulties. Yet the Turkish economy boomed, and the Turkish Cypriot economy is doing better than the Greek side of the island in growth terms. Therefore, I think there is currently a more realistic approach in the Greek side about their expectations.

This, coupled with the existing work that has already been done towards brokering a solution, gives me optimism that we can achieve a settlement in a matter of month not in years. If — and this is a very big if — if there is a political will. We have demonstrated that we do have this political will. Now, it is up to our Greek Cypriot counterparts. If they are for a balanced and just settlement, the work is there in the form of the Annan Plan. We can fine-tune it and go to a referendum without necessarily negotiating for another forty years.

The Politic: To add to that, would you include the discovery of energy sources around Cyprus as a contributing factor to solving Cyprus issue in a matter of months?

It is definitely one of the external factors. I have already mentioned internal factors; for example, the economic crisis in the south, and isolation of the north from the rest of the world. Externally, the discovery of hydrocarbons offers many potential benefits both to the island and to the region. The most cost effective and least risky way of utilizing these natural resources is by solving the Cyprus issue, then building a pipeline from Cyprus to Turkey, and exporting that gas through the infrastructure which already exists there to reach the main market: the rest of the Europe. It is estimated that this venture would require around one billion dollars of investment. The alternative is to liquefy the gas off the shores of Cyprus, and then try to sell it with tankers to the rest of the world. That alternative requires about ten billion dollars.

Additionally, it is never a good idea to go into the natural resources business in an area where you only have a ceasefire agreement, not a political settlement. Therefore, I think that there is a growing awareness that a comprehensive settlement is definitely needed — not only for the unrecognized and isolated Turkish Cypriots, but also for Greek Cypriots who are experiencing a very deep economic crisis. The only way out of this crisis is by achieving a jump in economic growth, which can be wrought through comprehensive settlement.

The Politic: What are the duties falling on each side of the conflict, the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, while working to achieve a successful solution? 

As I have said, what is needed is the political will to finalize the issue. The important work has already been done, it just needs to be fine-tuned. Then it needs to be put to a simultaneous referendum on both sides. We need political leaders to convince their people that time has come for a solution. In order to achieve this end, both sides must be ready to make compromises. Politicians from both sides must demonstrate the benefits of a solution to their people. People, by default, are afraid of change, as they are worried about the risks associated with it. So, when in doubt, people always say “no” to change. Therefore, a strong and passionate leadership that can put forward a vision on the issue is needed for peace and reconciliation.

Respecting past agreements is another important element. If one side attempts to disrespect the process, the other side responds in kind. This creates a vicious cycle and a need to start form scratch, which must be avoided. Therefore, day-to-day interactions must be encouraged. We must teach our children in schools to gather and speak the language of peace instead of exchanging aggressive rhetoric and engaging in extremist, nationalistic behavior. I will give you one particular example. Last week, a Greek Cypriot soccer player decided to accept an offer to play with a Turkish Cypriot soccer team in the north. He was to be the first Greek Cypriot to play in the Turkish Cypriot soccer league. He was criticized heavily at home by right-wing extremist on the Greek Cypriot side. Such extremism should have no place in Cyprus anymore. The political leadership must act very swiftly to address such fanaticism. Leaders must encourage (cultural) exchange in sports and education. There are various improvements that can be done at the political level, and at the popular level, to bring both communities on the island together.

The Politic: Finally, what advice would you give to young Cypriots interested in solving the issue? What should they do differently from previous generations?

Young Cypriots should work actively to form bridges among themselves, and with their peers on the other side of the border. This goes for both communities. I personally sent my son to a high school on the Greek Cypriot side so that he could mingle and socialize with his Greek peers. I would encourage Greek Cypriot parents to follow my example. Additionally, these interactions among young generations can be done through NGO, folkloric, and sporting activities. Young generations should also put pressure on their politicians to build avenues of cooperation and exchange between two sides. Young people should not simply concentrate on their material gains, or solely on their careers. You may be able to make money, but you will be living in Cyprus. And you have to do something about (the Cyprus issue) as well because Cyprus is a beautiful island in its entirety.

They (Young Greek and Turkish Cypriots) should not be afraid to get together; they should actively seek contact. The United States is promoting a program called Cyprus Friendship whereby each year fifteen Greek and Turkish Cypriot high schools students are coupled together. They are sent to United States to stay with an American family for a month. All their cell phones and Internet access is taken away: it is a total electronic detox. They learn about each other and become friends. More young people should show interest in participation in such programs. As for us, we must create more programs in the same fashion. Personal relationships are of the utmost importance. Once you lose human touch, whatever you read in books will determine your views, and they may be biased (as a result). Young generations have to have their own personal experiences in order to build their future.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *