By Stefanos Evripidou
A CYPRUS solution is “very difficult” but not impossible, said outgoing UN Special Adviser Alexander Downer yesterday.
Downer, who came to Cyprus for a final farewell before taking up the post of Australian High Commissioner to London, reminisced on his last five and a half years as a UN facilitator at the Ledra Palace hotel in the buffer zone yesterday.
Speaking to reporters in what will likely be his last press conference before stepping down, Downer acknowledged he was just one of many diplomats unable to square the circle that is the Cyprus problem.
“I think I’m right in saying there have been 24 UN Special Advisers and Special Representatives for Cyprus and by definition, over 40 years, during the tenure of none of them has there been a final agreement reached. So I suppose I’m just one in a long line.”
When approached by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott late last year with a new job opportunity, Downer said he decided, after five and a half years as UN Special Adviser, that it was time for a change.
He noted that his tenure as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s adviser has been “hard work but I think on the whole it has been pretty successful in building a framework for what eventually can be an agreement here”.
Downer highlighted “the important achievements” of the last five years, including “convergences between the two sides on a large number of issues” between 2008 and 2012 which represents “at the very least a strong foundation for the talks”, and a series of confidence-building measures (CBMs).
Regarding the current state of play, the Australian said the process was “in good shape”, adding that the leaders can now build on the “positive momentum” at their next meeting on Monday.
“On the basis of what I know about the positions of the two sides, this is a deal that can be done,” he said adding that whether or not it will be done “we don`t know, but it can be done”.
Downer argued that “neither side has a position which has the potential to destroy the talks” while each side is thinking about the other`s positions on a whole range of issues.
“I know that it is a hugely difficult task but people should not despair and people should not be defeatist about it,” he said, adding that the two leaders have the courage, commitment and strength to be able to do it. “And my sense of the public in Cyprus is that the public are urging them on to reach this agreement,” he added.
Asked to comment on his relationship with President Nicos Anastasiades which deteriorated considerably on the latter’s election to power, Downer said the two have had their differences, but also built up a very good friendship.
He described Anastasiades as “a very effective politician and a very seasoned, intelligent and able politician”.
“I think the international community should put a store in him as someone, with Dr (Dervis) Eroglu of course, who could achieve an agreement here,” he said.
Following the glowing reference, Downer also mentioned Eroglu’s positive traits.
“He is a good politician as well, he has a very good sense of his own community, a very good feel for his community. He is very good with people and that is an important skill for a politician, and I think he can carry his community with him as well.”
Anastasiades has virtually taken credit for Downer leaving his post, reportedly angry with the UN official for failing to adopt and promote his proposals for heavy duty CBMs like the return of Varosha, and a greater EU role in the talks.
He also reportedly did not find Downer’s decision to work part-time and long-distance helpful, particularly during efforts to conclude a joint declaration.
For his part, Downer insisted that modern communication services allowed him to have “a huge involvement in the development of the joint declaration”.
In a possible dig at the US State Department and their representative in Cyprus, the Australian said after the joint declaration was reached, “a lot of hands went up” to say they played a role in this. “And good on them. I’m glad everybody says that. I want everybody to happy about it.”
Another, perhaps more cynical reading of Anastasiades’ recent criticism of Downer, with whom he had a good relationship over the years, is that the newly-elected president figured the Greek Cypriot public would never back a solution agreement with Downer in the mix, given the intense criticism the UN official has attracted over the years from the minority, yet most vocal parties in parliament.
On the non-stop condemnation he’s received over the years, Downer said it was not his role to play the politician in Cyprus, so people could say what they like, highlighting that Cyprus truly enjoyed freedom of speech.
“Everyone in my position without exception has experienced the same reaction from similar if not the same people.”
Asked why it is so hard to reach agreement in Cyprus, Downer referred to the “complexity and political sensitivity of the issue”, noting “the history is such that to build the trust between the two communities” and for the two leaders to work together and run a federal government is “hard”.
He referred to the many “very difficult and complex issues” like property, territorial adjustment and guarantees. Ultimately it’s about domestic politics and the need for the two leaders “to navigate through that political environment”.
In a broad sense that is “why it’s very difficult to achieve a solution but not impossible”.
However, Downer said the circumstances are different now, “in that the focus on the tough economic times helps people to understand more clearly the benefits that would flow to Cyprus from reunification”.
Particularly for Greek Cypriots, with GDP falling and a big rise in unemployment, “reunification becomes all the more appealing,” he said, adding: “People can do the maths. They see if Cyprus were to reunify, it would have the potential to lead to substantial investments to the island,” give a huge boost to tourism and provide opportunities to develop an economic relationship with Turkey.
Downer will deliver an “end of assignment” report to Ban before stepping down, probably on April 20, which will not likely be made public.
In a dig at the media’s close relationship with the political leadership in Cyprus, he speculated that the report might get leaked at some point: “Cyprus, I have never known a place where things leak quite so much…you guys are incredibly well connected.”