By Stefanos Evripidou
NEW TURKISH President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in the occupied part of Cyprus on Monday riding a wave of euphoric exaltation, but the question raised by his successful consolidation of power is how, if at all, will this impact upon the moribund peace talks.
Tradition dictates that the newly-elected Turkish leader makes his first visit abroad to the north, but his arrival at a time when peace talks appear to be dying a slow death has the potential to do one of three things: inject new life to the process; strangle it further with some offensive, off the cuff remark; or nothing at all.
The dire state of the talks was made more evident by the UN’s decision late on Friday to postpone next Tuesday’s leaders’ meeting. The UN released a statement saying new UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide will be in New York next week for consultations with UN chief Ban Ki-moon and other senior UN officials before heading to Cyprus for his first official visit on Friday.
He will stay four days on the island to hold talks with the leaders and their negotiating teams, during which time the Norwegian will consult with the two leaders on an appropriate date for their next meeting.
Given the way the talks ended before the summer recess, with no agreement on content, methodology or confidence-building measures (CBMs), observers had expected work to be done in August to patch up the ailing process so the leaders could forge a path forwards at their next scheduled meeting on September 2.
Multiple sources close to the negotiations told the Sunday Mail the two sides were struggling to reach agreement on substance and form.
ome hoped Erdogan’s visit on Monday would provide a new impetus to the talks; others said they would be happy if he simply avoided harming the process.
Sources close to both negotiating teams said as things stand, the two sides do not have a common understanding on how to move forward with the process. The Turkish Cypriots want to move to the give-and-take phase and adopt a road map setting out a timeframe for referenda before a deal has even been reached.
The Greek Cypriots want to see where they stand on the core issues before entering into a give-and-take process. They argue that Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu has muddied the waters regarding past convergences, theoretically adopting one ‘outdated’ version of convergences while at the same time tabling divergent positions at the negotiating table.
They propose the two sides draw up a document where the convergences achieved to date, near convergences and divergences are put into three separate baskets. Despite Eroglu rejecting this idea, the Greek Cypriot team has nearly completed such a document, in the hope this will identify where the biggest gaps are so the focus can be on reducing the distance between the two sides.
Until the gap on fundamental core issues is narrowed, the Greek Cypriot side is not prepared to move to the next phase.
“It is difficult to see how we can move on. Hopefully, when our paper is made available to (the Turkish Cypriot team), it will be clear that on a lot of things we are not very far. Maybe they can be convinced to engage at least using it as a tool to identify what we can focus on,” said a Greek Cypriot source.
The source added the Greek Cypriots did not expect any significant progress on how to proceed until Eide comes to the island and chairs the next leaders’ meeting.
A Turkish Cypriot source argued that the talks were not just “slow”, they were “regressing”, with past agreements being lost. “Even the issue of CBMs took a big hit after the failure of (US Vice President Joe) Biden’s visit,” said the source, who blamed the current quagmire on President Nicos Anastasiades’ refusal to respect past convergences.
If the leaders agreed on what kind of functional federation they want by converging on the issues of power-sharing, EU affairs and economy, they could then move with greater confidence to discuss territory, property and security, argued the source.
If Anastasiades wanted to change a few points, he could have endorsed past convergences while making suggestions for certain changes. Instead he took a blanket approach, refusing everything and creating a defensive attitude on the Turkish side, the source added.
By doing so, Anastasiades is inadvertently increasing Eroglu’s chances of re-election to the Turkish Cypriot leadership next April. Eroglu can tell his constituency that he did his utmost by respecting past convergences (which he had opposed at the time when Demetris Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat agreed on them), while Anastasiades had gone back on them, said the source.
“Instead of engaging in tactical moves, I would really engage Eroglu, build on what has been agreed so far, suggest improvements on a win-win basis, and rapidly move into real unresolved issues like property, territory, security.”
It’s not clear whether the decision to postpone the leaders’ meeting is a result of this inertia, or has to do with an effort to put some distance between Erdogan’s visit and the first leaders’ meeting after the summer break, thereby lowering expectations on what the unpredictable Erdogan might say or do vis-a-vis the peace talks.
Turkish Cypriot ‘foreign minister’ Ozdil Nami acknowledged the importance and symbolism of Erdogan’s visit to the north on Monday but did not foresee any major development.
He told the Sunday Mail he expected Erdogan “to underline the well known position that the Turkish side wants to see a rapid solution to the Cyprus problem in line with the agreements of the leaders and will give full support to that process. And at same time I expect him to reiterate the great support Turkey gives to the economic development of north Cyprus”.
He added: “Nobody should expect anything that falls out of line with this. Don’t expect big surprises there.”
On the talks, Nami said he found the lack of progress “very discouraging”. He hoped at their next meeting the two leaders would acknowledge past progress, allowing them to concentrate on unresolved issues.
“Right now, the two sides don’t see eye to eye on even how to move forward.”
At his swearing-in ceremony last Thursday, Erdogan received a letter from Anastasiades congratulating him on his election, and calling on him to get personally involved to achieve a Cyprus solution that would benefit all sides.
Erdogan has already made history as the first directly elected president of Turkey. His next declared intention is to transform Turkey’s political system into a presidential one and boost his largely ceremonial role with further powers.
Taking no prisoners, Erdogan clinically sidelined his predecessor Abdullah Gul to ensure the faithful Ahmet Davutoglu was elected head of the ruling AKP, and subsequently appointed prime minister. It is widely understood that with this set up, Erdogan maintains full control over government and party. Davutoglu will be replaced at the foreign ministry by the mild-mannered outgoing EU affairs minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Throughout the election campaign, Cyprus barely registered as a blip on the radar. On winning, Erdogan exhibited his readiness to play an active presidential role, announcing the new government’s top priorities. Fighting the “parallel state” of the Fethullah Gulen movement was one of them. So was resolving the long-standing Kurdish issue. Cyprus was not.
The next milestone for the AKP government is the June 2015 national assembly elections where the party needs to win a significant majority to change the Turkish constitution and realise Erdogan’s dream of running a powerful presidency.
According to a government source, the fact Cyprus did not come up during the election campaign is positive as it means the island is no longer considered a big impact issue in internal Turkish politics. In theory, this frees Erdogan to push ahead with constitutional changes and the Cyprus problem in tandem as movement on the latter should no longer be a limiting factor for him.
Another source said the government has been led to believe by the US that there will be movement on the Cyprus problem after Turkey’s presidential elections.
“The Americans and the Turks know that the next three months will see very important developments in the energy field, and the Turks do not want to be left out the picture. So the Americans have been saying to them, ‘you have to do something on this’,” said the source.
The Americans know Erdogan has the power to influence the peace process, but find him to be unpredictable, preferring instead to deal with Davutoglu. The latter may have just received a promotion, but the one thing everyone agrees is that it’s Erdogan who’s running the show, ushering a “new Turkey” into a “new era”. Whether Cyprus is part of that remains to be seen.