By Elias Hazou
THE STAGE design and execution of last night’s first encounter of the two leaders bore – at least outwardly – all the hallmarks of a strictly social event.
The dinner, which started around 9pm, was hosted at the residence of UN Special Representative Lisa Buttenheim in the UN-controlled buffer zone at Nicosia Airport.
Apart from the two leaders and their wives, it was attended by UN Special Representative in Cyprus Lisa Buttenheim and her husband and the UN Secretary General’s Special Advisor for Cyprus Alexander Downer and his spouse. An interpreter also accompanied Eroglu to assist him with his English.
President Nicos Anastasiades and wife Andri were the first to arrive, at 8.30pm sharp, followed by the Eroglu couple some 15 minutes later.
Cameras were allowed brief entry inside the dining room. Live footage showed the leaders, their spouses and the UN officials huddled around a small table with lighted candles, chatting casually.
And for those who might read anything into it, the mood appeared laid-back, the atmosphere cosy, although the seating arrangements had Anastasiades and Eroglu seated at opposite ends of the table. The diners topped off with a delicious strawberry mille–feuille, the state broadcaster reported.
The leaders departed around 11pm, after which Downer came out to read to waiting newsmen a brief statement that had been agreed by the two leaders.
“We have had a very good evening. The dinner went very well,” Downer said.
“The leaders of the two communities are pleased at this opportunity to meet, and are committed to the peace process which aims to find a solution acceptable to both sides.”
The UN official did not take questions.
The soiree was shrouded in controversy from the outset, with the government at pains to drive home the message that it was nothing more than a social event and that the two leaders would not be talking shop.
The meet was originally proposed by Eroglu for April but the UN decided it would probably work better if they hosted it.
Anastasiades had threatened not to turn up unless UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon could provide assurances that the dinner would not turn political, arguing that he did not want to enter into substance on the peace talks until economic conditions stabilise.
Though he never got Ban’s personal assurance on the matter, the UN chief’s director of office did speak with the Cypriot diplomat in New York in a manner that appeared to provide some form of satisfaction to Anastasiades.
In his letter to the UN chief, the President also complained that Downer had tried to turn the dinner into a political event despite having given assurances to the contrary.
Commentators speculated the Presidency’s aggressive posture was designed to placate his hawkish coalition partners DIKO who have long labeled Downer a persona non grata and have been calling for his replacement.
The opposition here has been sounding the alarm, warning that international players are pushing for a political settlement now that Cyprus finds itself in weak spot due to the financial crisis. They have been turning up the heat on the President not to commit to any process or a timeframe for talks at this juncture.
The frenzy gripping the media led some outlets to speculate as to whether Downer would yesterday brief the UN Security Council on Cyprus before or after the dinner.
Should Downer’s briefing happen after the dinner, media commentators said, that might be construed as a sign the leaders discussed something substantive that was then worth reporting to the UN.
As it turned out, Downer held a conference call with New York just before the dinner. Reports said that Downer had to keep his briefing to the UNSC short (about 30 minutes) and then excused himself to join the two leaders.
Previously, Downer had said the UN has set no date for the resumption of negotiations, adding that Nicosia thinks the preparatory work could be completed sometime between September and October.
Last night’s meeting may have played out as rehearsed – an informal affair – but not all observers are convinced that nothing is afoot. Earlier yesterday Eric Rubin, US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, held a one-hour meeting with Anastasiades at the Presidential Palace. Rubin, who was joined by US Ambassador in Nicosia John Koenig, did not make statements to the press afterward.
Citing its sources, the state broadcaster said Rubin reiterated to Anastasiades the US government’s continuing interest in the Cyprus peace process and Washington’s readiness to assist.
The US diplomat later held a working lunch with foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides.
Meanwhile Turkey’s EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis was yesterday quoted by Turkish Cypriot media as saying that Ankara is ready to “say yes” to any solution agreed by the two sides on the island.
The Cyprus problem was the largest obstacle in Turkey’s path to EU accession, Bagis reportedly said.
“The main thing is that the two sides find common ground. As far as we are concerned, there is only one prerequisite: whatever the solution, it must be based on political equality [of the two communities],” said Bagis.
“Let us not be forced, after withdrawing our troops from the island, to send them back. The island’s security lies in political equality.”