By Jean Christou
WHILE ORDINARY Cypriots from both sides have managed to pull off an historic confidence-building event for a Good Friday church service in Famagusta, politicians and diplomats have been slugging it out all week over the return of Varosha.
The historic event – the first Easter service at the Ayios Georgios Eksorinos church in 57 years – is a testament to what can be achieved in Cyprus away from zero-sum games such as the tug-of-war over Varosha.
Famagusta Mayor Alexis Galanos, who was instrumental in securing the Good Friday service, told the Sunday Mail that kind of grandstanding was the reason he left politics.
A former MP and House President, Galanos said he had wanted to do his bit for the Cyprus issue away from the “poisonous party politics” that lead nowhere. He has developed a rapport with Famagusta’s Turkish Cypriot municipal representative Oktay Kayalp, and they are working together on a joint vision for an integrated town.
Galanos sees their cooperation as a means of creating momentum for the return of Varosha, the fenced-off area within Famagusta. “What is happening now is that our ideas are gradually being adopted,” he said.
If the flurry of diplomatic activity during the week is anything to go by, there is plenty of movement in the push for Varosha’s return but whether there is a realistic chance of it happening is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t know,” said Andreas Mavroyiannis, the Greek Cypriot side’s negotiator at the talks when asked what the prospects were. “The Americans are willing to help but it remains to be seen how it will go,” he told the Sunday Mail.
Galanos said he had spoken with US officials. “It seems they’re determined to push ahead,” he said. “We expect to see some developments.”
The Americans, always fond of buzz words like ‘gamechanger’, along with grand gestures and their own role in orchestrating them, are in a hurry. This was evident from statements during the week by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rubin.
Like most diplomats, Rubin has the knack of saying a lot without saying very much at all, but several times mentioned that for the US this was the year they wanted to see movement on Cyprus. As for the grand gesture, as soon as news emerges that Secretary of State John Kerry is coming, then something will be afoot. It may not be as big as the return of the ghost town but could consist of allowing experts into Varosha to conduct a feasibility study, funded by the US.
The US is of course looking at the bigger picture of regional stability in terms of natural gas but how long they are willing to commit their resources to achieving movement on Varosha remains to be seen.
Having said that, US support for the initiative is vital as the UN, burned in 2004 for its ‘interference’, is staying clear of the Varosha package lest it be accused of promoting the interests of one side or the other.
That the abandoned fenced-off area would be returned in the event of a solution has always been a given but it’s no secret that the current peace process is not going well, and a comprehensive settlement is no closer than it was when the last round of talks ended in mid-2012.
This is why the Greek Cypriot side is insisting the Varosha initiative runs parallel as a confidence building measure (CBM).
“We want it now,” says Mavroyiannis. “The Varosha package is both a CBM and a gamechanger. We need it before a settlement. Under a settlement we were always going to get it but we want it now to give a boost to the talks.”
Both Galanos and Mavroyianns said there was logic to the demand. Giving back Varosha now would indicate to people in both communities that a settlement was possible. It would also make it easier for
President Nicos Anastasiades to sell a solution to Greek Cypriots by showing that the Turkish side was serious this time around, they both argued.
“It’s important because it gives people hope,” said Galanos.
But unless the Turkish side suddenly shifts its stance or is somehow persuaded by the US, the prospects don’t look promising.
The Turkish Cypriots see the Varosha initiative as a way for Greek Cypriots to distract from the talks.
But for them, the faster the talks, the sooner Varosha is returned. In a way they are also possibly testing Greek Cypriot commitment to the overall negotiations. “We cannot make any concessions purely for the sole purpose of encouraging the Greek Cypriot side towards a solution,” Turkish Cypriot negotiator Kudret Ozersay was quoted as saying on Thursday.
“The concern for the Turkish Cypriots is that the Greek Cypriots will take it and run,” said analyst Fiona Mullen of Sapienta Economics. “The trick for Greek Cypriots is how to persuade Turkey that Varosha is the gamechanger that they say it is.”
Another analyst, James Ker-Lindsay believes the Turkish Cypriot side might have a point in that the Varosha issue could distract from the talks. “I have always been rather sceptical about the place of CBMs. Far too often they have become an unwelcome diversion from what should be the main topic: a comprehensive solution,” he said. “Worse than that, debates over CBMs have often become so heated that they have actually done more to destroy goodwill and confidence than to build it up.”
But Mavroyiannis disagreed the initiative would overshadow the main negotiations he is conducting with Ozersay. “I have not talked with Mr Ozersay about Varosha,” he said. “They [Turkish Cypriots] don’t want to give Varosha before the end, the final stage of negotiations, because it’s their best card.”
The question remains then is what would be acceptable to the Turkish side as a quid pro quo, because the ‘Varosha package’ which offers in return the opening of Famagusta port to international trade under EU supervision, implementation of the Ankara Protocol for Cypriot air and sea traffic, and the lifting of Cyprus’ veto on a number of Turkey’s EU accession chapters, is clearly not tempting enough.
“For me that’s more than enough for the return of Varosha,” said Mavroyiannis ruling out any other concessions.
Ker-Lindsay said it was hard to say what the Greek Cypriots would be willing to offer that the Turkish Cypriots would accept. What the Turkish Cypriot side craves most is recognition. Ker Lindsay said over the years, the Greek Cypriots have been “absolutely determined” not to allow any measures that would give any sort of legitimacy to the Turkish Cypriot breakaway state, he said. “But this has been exactly what the Turkish Cypriots have been after. Unless one side is now willing to moderate its position, it seems hard to see what sort of meaningful concession could be given in return for what would be a pretty monumental decision by the Turkish Cypriot side.”
It may be a contradiction in terms that it should be such a struggle to achieve a confidence building measure, given the very meaning of confidence building. But in Cyprus it’s rare that the two sides ever want the same thing at the same time and more often than not one side or the other will reject something simply because the other side wants it even if they don’t want it themselves.
Just like in Aesop’s fable, Varosha is the proverbial dog in the manger.