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Keeping the audience baffled

UN special advisor Alexander Downer said farewell this week

By Stefanos Evripidou

FORMER US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld put it perfectly when he said there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

He was making the case for the Iraq war of course but one could easily apply his impeccable assessment to the current status of the Cyprus peace talks.

There are things we know we know: the two sides don’t really want to live together but at present can’t see a feasible alternative to marriage, so vacillate between affected demureness and outright chauvinism as they begrudgingly inch towards the altar where the UN awaits, spent flowers in hand.

There are things we know we don’t know: like the total commercial quantities of natural gas in Cyprus’ EEZ, or the Cyprus problem endgame.

And then there are things we do not even know that we don’t know: this is where the analogy ends.

The point being that some things are extremely predictable and recognisable in the Cyprus peace process, like the predilection for endless negotiation.

And other things are harder to identify, such as the true goals of the main players, and the impact of the multitude of interplaying factors that comprise the process, which include: the internal dynamics within each community and of major players Turkey, the US, UN and EU; changing economic conditions; geopolitical and strategic factors like the discovery of hydrocarbons; and even seemingly peripheral factors like Crimea.

Add to these constantly changing variables the incessant ‘communications’ game played by all sides and you have all the ingredients for keeping an audience baffled.

Take the departure of UN Special Adviser Alexander Downer for example. President Nicos Anastasiades would have us think that the Australian is leaving Cyprus after the Greek Cypriot side gave the UN and US a nudge and a wink, subtly informing them he is no longer wanted.

One of his reported sins is that he didn’t do a good job passing on the message to Turkey about returning Varosha, which raises another confusing aspect of the peace talks, confidence-building measures (CBMs). Should people really start to believe the statements from Cypriot and even American leaders that the fenced area of Famagusta could actually be returned before a solution?

Could Varosha really be returned before a solution
Could Varosha really be returned before a solution

Regarding the claim Downer failed to deliver the message, a source close to the talks argues this is simply untrue. Downer did go to Turkey and did push the issue as early as April 2013. And he had a follow-up meeting too.

But the response from Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu was – uncharacteristically for Cyprob standards – crystal clear: No.

So instead, Downer reportedly tried to engage the Turkish FM in a conversation about aspects of implementation, noting Greek Cypriot grievances in 2004 with the way the good parts of the Annan plan would not be applicable until long after a solution.

Davutoglu listened and a discussion was held on ways to enable a big step to take place prior to a referendum in the event of substantial progress towards an agreement.

So, here we have a scenario where the pantomime villain Downer is believed to have raised the prospect of Turkey returning Varosha after a political agreement has been reached but before a referendum.

What initially looks like a big gamble for Turkey is in reality a very practical step. Should the Greek Cypriots vote ‘no’ again, they still get Varosha, but almost certainly at the cost of permanent partition.

Going back to the known knowns, unknowns and you never knows, the real scenario could be something in the middle: Downer got tired of the Cyprob and opted for the charming, amenable to his wife, post as Australian High Commissioner to London.

The international community, recognising Downer’s increasingly toxic presence in Cyprus gave the thumbs up and Anastasiades sought to capitalise on the move, upping the anti-Downer rhetoric on the eve of his departure.

But as Downer put it at his farewell press conference this week, it’s not the dozens of UN special advisers or special representatives appointed over the decades that have failed to bring a solution: “Ultimately the responsibility for success depends on the Cypriot people and the Cypriot leaders themselves.”

In any case, despite press reports to the contrary, Downer feels strongly that he’s leaving with his head held high, having had a “huge involvement” in the formulation of the joint declaration agreed between the two leaders. His most significant contribution came in the form of navigating the two sides through the ‘single sovereignty’ impasse.

Tomorrow, the two leaders will meet again for the first time since fully-fledged negotiations began on February 11. In the intervening period, statements from both sides have typically differed on how the talks are going.

Turkish Cypriot negotiator Kudret Ozersay says if the two sides are ever going to agree on a solution, they have to start the give-and-take process now, indicating a desire to get things moving.

Anastasiades has made it clear the two sides are still miles apart in their positions. The Greek Cypriot position in general is that it’s going to take some time to close the gap, so let’s not be too hasty here and make a mistake which could add fuel to the fire of secession.

As one analyst put it, Cypriots (on both sides) by nature negotiate cautiously and defensively, looking for leverage while simultaneously conducting a war of attrition for external consumption.

If we buy into the theory that Greek Cypriots are slow off the mark, one could speculate that they don’t put much store in the chances of reaching a deal with Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu.

His predecessor Mehmet Ali Talat has always been much keener on the idea of a federal solution and would likely be a contender in the 2015 ‘presidential’ elections in the north, clearly a preferred interlocutor for Anastasiades.

But the flaw in this assumption is the notion that Eroglu would lose the election.

As Downer put it, Eroglu has “a very good feel for his community”. And his skillful manipulation of the political scene could see a united front of the two main right-wing Turkish Cypriot parties getting behind his candidacy next year.

And for all the criticism against him, Eroglu did end up agreeing to the joint declaration, with a little gentle tug from his surrogate mother Davutoglu.

One diplomatic source described it as a “landmark statement” that limits the focus on the outline of a solution. Getting a deal on that statement involved multiple factors coming together, something the Greek Cypriots should not squander, waiting for the end of 2015, he said.

He further argued, despite the bizarre turn of events in Turkey’s municipal election campaign, all indications are that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) will win a substantial share of the vote, setting them up for the presidential elections in August.

And since the AKP is seen as pro-solution, Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is naturally adopting a more anti-solution line.

The AKP will want to highlight its pro-solution credentials ahead of the August elections, meaning there is scope for progress, though a final agreement is unlikely before then, said the source.

“So the Greek Cypriots have good reasons to stay tuned, since the dynamics residual from the joint declaration are in their favour as Turkey heads towards elections.”

For those still not convinced of the marriage, there’s always the recent suggestion by the Istanbul branch of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. The ICG proposed the two sides contemplate negotiating an agreed partition where the northern state automatically accedes to the EU as a full member with full freedoms (of movement and settlement) applicable. In return, the Greek Cypriots get full control of their gas, generous territorial concessions, Turkish troops out, two thirds property compensation and a pass on power-sharing, among other things.

Of course even if the two communities were agreeable to the idea, the chances are they would still spend a few good years negotiating the ins and outs.

A seasoned diplomat described the proposal as nothing new in terms of model scenarios bandied about from time to time, but somewhat theoretical and “utopian” in its assumption that all 28 EU members would agree to making a part of the island “the size of a basketball court” a new member state.

Like it or not, the modality of the peace process very much remains a federal solution, he said.

“Nobody deserves to live with each other more than the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.”

So there you have it. Now you know what you know, you don’t know and what you might never know.

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