Cyprus Mail

Integrity in the pursuit of a noble goal

Alvaro de Soto (c) with Rauf Denktash and Glafcos Clerides in 2002

Alvaro de Soto, the former UN Special Adviser to Cyprus from 1999 to 2004, pays tribute to Glafcos Clerides in his account of the events which led to the birth of the ill-fated Annan plan to reunite Cyprus

I am saddened at the news of the death of Glafcos Clerides. But sadness is only one of the feelings that I am experiencing. A few recollections stand out, revealing a true leader who pursued his convictions and led his people with tenacity, integrity and confidence, undaunted by the fear of taking risks. I hope I will be forgiven for my inability to totally dissociate Clerides, the man and the leader, from Denktash the man and the leader who was his nemesis for so long.

De Soto and then UN Secretary-General Kofi
De Soto and then UN Secretary-General Kofi

Almost fourteen years ago, in late 1999, I was launched into yet another UN effort to crack the safe that holds the solution to the Cyprus problem. I was a newcomer to the CP. Many veterans volunteered to decode for me the curious relationship that bound the lives and careers of Clerides, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Rauf Denktash, the longtime Turkish Cypriot leader. Many anticipated an epic confrontation between the two men. As it had been in the past, the dynamic between them was central to the narrative of the 38 months beginning at the end of 1999 and ending with the defeat of Clerides in the presidential elections of 2003 – a defeat which many saw as anticipating the Greek Cypriot rejection, in April 2004, of the fifth and final version of what became known as the Annan Plan.

Late in 1999 there had been a difficult negotiation on the terms of reference for talks between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders. Denktash insisted that he would engage only in proximity talks – the diplomatic formula under which the parties do not meet directly but communicate through someone in between. He added another twist. These talks would not constitute negotiations: their purpose would be “to prepare the ground for meaningful negotiations”.

Clerides recognised these obstacles for what they were: an effort by Denktash to run down the clock. He had no illusions and he did not hide his frustration at the diplomatic shadow-boxing that ensued, but he went along with it, patiently answering my probing hypothetical questions at rounds of talks that alternated between Geneva and New York. A slow minuet unfolded during which UN security personnel ensured that the leaders did not bump into each other. On one occasion, however, Clerides dropped his stoicism long enough to allow me a peek into what he was really thinking. Always unfailingly polite, he said to me in a measured tone, as I probed a point beyond what he thought reasonable, “With all due respect, Mr de Soto, I do not want to negotiate with you. I want to negotiate with Mr Denktash.”

Early in 2000, on return from visits to Turkey and meetings with Turkish Cypriots in the north, I was invited for breakfast at Clerides’ official residence, his team and mine in attendance. As he pondered his worry beads, I reported that I was frequently told by my interlocutors that the Greek Cypriots, now assured of admission to the European Union, had nothing to gain from the reunification of the island and were therefore not prepared for compromise. I asked him to tell me how he would respond to that.

He didn’t have to reflect long. There were three reasons why the Greek Cypriots had an interest in coming to terms with the Turkish Cypriots. The first was that tourism to Cyprus, a major source of income, relied heavily on stability. If that stability was threatened, as Turkey had the power to do, tourists would go elsewhere. The second was that if the problem was solved universal conscription could be abolished. The third was that, with the ongoing settlement of Turks in the north, unless reunification came about soon, the Greek Cypriots would find themselves facing Turkey on the other side of the dividing line instead of Turkish Cypriots.

After a few agonising months in 2000 we took steps to reassure Mr Denktash, even at the risk of imperiling Clerides’ confidence. Secretary-General Kofi Annan carefully outlined to Denktash the case for his ruling that the ground had been prepared for the start of meaningful negotiations. Denktash told him, on the spot, in Annan’s office in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, that he rejected the direction in which he was being taken and that he was leaving the talks.

Attempts over the following months to bring Denktash back were to no avail. Denktash would not budge, and it is not clear that Turkey was pushing him very hard. But one fine day in November 2001 Denktash wrote to Clerides to propose to meet him directly, without intermediaries. Clerides wrote an artful reply, accepting on condition that the UN Secretary-General’s representative was present. A date was set. I quickly flew to Nicosia. On December 4, 2001, I hosted the meeting between the two leaders at the residence of the UN Special Representative in the UN Protected Area, and in a matter of minutes they agreed to start meetings early in 2002 in my presence on the island. Denktash’s conditions for meeting with the Greek Cypriot leader, set over five years before, had fallen by the wayside. Clerides gave up his longstanding reluctance to have meetings on the island.

De Soto with Clerides and Denktash in the background announcing in heavy rain on December 2001 the dinner engagement between the two leaders
De Soto with Clerides and Denktash in the background announcing in heavy rain on December 2001 the dinner engagement between the two leaders

While we waited for the press statement to be typed up, Denktash asked me how long I would be staying. I told him I would be leaving in two days. He asked me whether I would like to come to lunch before departing. I accepted. After a moment, he realised that it wasn’t very polite to discuss an invitation to me in front of someone he wasn’t inviting. He turned to Clerides and asked, “Would you like to join us?” Clerides hesitated only for an instant before replying, “Why not?” His chief of staff was summoned and asked about his schedule. He had an engagement which prevented him from coming for lunch. Denktash persisted, asking, “What about dinner?” Clerides was free; he accepted. The three of us emerged from the residence, and flanked by the two leaders, I read the brief agreed statement to the press, waiting in the rain, two hundred strong.

On the appointed evening Clerides found himself being driven in his private car – and therefore without having to fly the flag of the Republic of Cyprus – past the Ledra Palace Hotel on the way to the Turkish-controlled portion of Nicosia and into Denktash’s residence. Bleachers had been built to accommodate the paparazzi and TV cameramen who had flocked there to record this extremely unusual development.

The meal’s culinary centrepiece was Imam bayildι, requested by Clerides. There followed a two-hour joke-telling duel by the two leaders. The only element of substance in the conversation consisted of Clerides saying, at toast time, “This time let’s see it through, Rauf.” Denktash smiled beatifically but didn’t respond. The importance of the meal which provided the pretext for Clerides to make the bold gesture of crossing into the north was in the mere fact that it took place, and that Clerides had had the courage to accept crossing the line for it. I exaggerated only a little in a report to New York when I likened his gesture to Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. He soon reciprocated Denktash’s invitation to his house in the south.

When the direct talks began in January 2002 it soon became clear that they would not produce the hoped-for breakthrough. In those talks Clerides showed steel. Reacting to a particularly outlandish idea put forward by a member of Denktash’s team, he asked him: “Mr —-, what planet are you from?” This putdown was met with uproarious laughter – including by Denktash.

Denktash did engage in the talks, but he soon lapsed into the old tricks for which he was famous, including – contrary to understandings between the leaders – talking to the press in a manner that undermined the process. Though he presented position papers, they were far from anything that might have facilitated agreements. It soon became clear that if the process was to yield an agreement, the UN would have to put forward a basis on which the parties might work.

My extremely talented team worked very hard to produce formulas that were the subject of in depth consultations with the parties. But negotiation in the conventional sense of give-and-take by the leaders at the table was scarce. During 2002, I can recall only two cases where a sort of agreement emerged in the talks between Denktash and Clerides. The first was when we put forward a suggestion that the federal supreme court should include three non-Cypriots. Denktash asked Clerides, “Do you like the idea of non-Cypriot members of the court?” Clerides answered “No, but I can’t think of another way to break deadlocks – can you?” Whereupon Denktash relented: “All right, then.” Point agreed.

I had set aside a tiny room with three comfortable chairs precisely for the leaders to have meetings in which they could draw on their longstanding bond and speak without a dozen pens taking down their every word in as many notepads. It was in that room that Clerides made his pitch to Denktash: I know you have concerns which must be addressed if we are to solve this problem. I, too, have such concerns. We need each other’s help. I propose that we be frank. I am prepared to set out for you the concerns on which I need your help, if you set out yours.

Denktash did not respond in kind, then or later. But on one such occasion Denktash opened the meeting by referring to the Greek Cypriot complaints, voiced at the previous meeting, that the demographics of the island were being transformed by the immigration of tens of thousands of people from Turkey who had been arbitrarily given Turkish Cypriot citizenship. Denktash explained to Clerides that the Greek Cypriot calculations of the numbers of Turks in the north of the island were wildly off the mark – they seemed to be counting the people who got off the ferries from Turkey but not subtracting them when they left either that very day or shortly thereafter. Denktash reassured Clerides that at most 30 or 35,000 had been given citizenship. Without missing a beat, belying his age and girth, Clerides leapt, cheetah-like, and seized the opening proffered by Denktash: “In that case, we have a deal. We will draw the line at that number.” Another agreed point for the ‘Annan Plan’.

Former president George Vassiliou holds up a copy of the Annan Plan in February 2003
Former president George Vassiliou holds up a copy of the Annan Plan in February 2003

When the original ‘Annan Plan’ was published in full – including in this newspaper – Clerides calmly counselled the public to weigh its costs and benefits. After having done that exercise himself, with his unrivalled experience of the Cyprus problem, he concluded that the plan was a basis for a functional and viable agreement that addressed the core needs of the Greek Cypriots. He would negotiate to improve it – with real success – and he would counsel his countrymen to accept it in its final form.

From the start, Clerides was simultaneously focused on two objectives. One was the short-term objective of achieving an agreement with the Turkish Cypriots. The other was ensuring that such an agreement could be approved in a referendum on the Greek Cypriot side. This bifocal concern was behind his opening pitch to Denktash.

He knew that it would be difficult to rally his people behind a solution, no matter how favourable to the Greek Cypriot side. However, he was confident that he could achieve this as long as the settlement provided for a majority of Greek Cypriots who had fled the north to recover the property they had left behind, either through territorial adjustment or through return of property. I remarked that this might convince those who stood to benefit, but what about those who couldn’t recover their property? He believed that those who couldn’t would rally behind those who could – they wouldn’t want to prevent the latter from realising their dream. Thus if he could only satisfy a majority of Greek Cypriots uprooted from the north in a plan that offered viable government of a sovereign state and ended Turkey’s military occupation, he could carry a majority of the Greek Cypriots. That was the premise on which rested his entire strategy.

As I told him when I called on him to say goodbye, the evidence to support his strategy seemed thin. Under the plan that was submitted to referendums, a broad majority of Greek Cypriots who had left property behind in the north could have recovered it; all those who could not would have been compensated. But that turned out to be irrelevant, because those who held titles to property in the north voted against the plan in the same proportion as those who didn’t. Whatever their reasons for rejecting the plan, the fact that they were forgoing the recovery of their property did not seem to be a significant consideration. Clerides conceded my point.

But it must also be said that Clerides’ strategy was never tested in circumstances where his own stature and leadership would have been fully in the balance. In retrospect, the years 2000 and 2001 were wasted by Denktash’s tactic. It was only late in 2002 that a Turkish government emerged that was determined to push Denktash where he did not want to go. By then, Clerides was almost out of time. And by the time Greek Cypriots were called upon to vote, the historic leader who had secured their place in the European Union and had offered them a real, rather than theoretical, option to reunite the country after decades of painful division no longer sat in the Presidential Palace.

Clerides achieved many things, but was frustrated in his desire to put Cyprus back together again. He has left a legacy of steadfastness and integrity in the pursuit of a noble goal. It remains pending.

de sotoAlvaro de Soto, New York

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