By Stefanos Evripidou
NEW UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide arrived in Cyprus on Friday with a “very strong personal mandate” from the UN Secretary-General, but who is this man from Norway and how did he end up in the ‘diplomat’s graveyard’?
Eide was appointed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon last month to replace Alexander Downer who bowed- or more likely skipped- out of the scene last April. The first choice replacement, former US and UN diplomat Lynn Pascoe, was effectively vetoed by the Greek Cypriots.
Lisa Buttenheim, the UN’s deputy adviser, managed to keep the peace process alive in the intervening period, but Ban’s comment that Eide was taking over at a “promising moment” seemed a bit of a stretch even for the undying optimists out there.
Even Eide, in his first exchange with the local media, indirectly adopted the widely held view that progress in the talks since last February’s joint declaration has ranged from minimal to negative.
However, Ban appeared to put the “long-overdue” Cyprus solution on a new footing on Thursday when he described it as a “strategic priority” of the UN and international community, pointing out the great turmoil in the region made it “more important than ever” to reach a lasting settlement.
It is the rapidly changing regional developments- both the chaos permeating through the Middle East, the Ukraine crisis and the recent discoveries of natural gas- that have got a leading member of the international community, the United States, more interested and involved in the peace process.
US Ambassador John Koenig recently stated that America was looking forward to working with Eide on the Cyprus problem. But go back a few years, and US officials were not entirely sure how to read the Norwegian diplomat.
Before serving as defence minister and then foreign minister between 2011 and 2013, Eide worked as deputy defence minister for Norway’s Labour government, headed by Jens Stoltenberg, who incidentally takes up the post of NATO Secretary-general next month.
According to US diplomatic cables from 2008 and subsequently leaked by WikiLeaks, Eide played an influential role in the Norwegian government’s decision to purchase US F-35 warplanes from the Joint Strike Fighter programme, instead of the Swedish Saab Gripen, in a multi-billion dollar sale by US defence contractor Lockheed-Martin.
The cables, written by then US Ambassador to Oslo Benson Whitney, paint a picture of a “powerful politician” who punches above his weight and has ambitions to work in UN peacekeeping or the EU.
The American diplomat found Eide to be amenable to US interests, though not entirely reliable, noting that some US officials found him to be “weasily”.
In one diplomatic cable, dated July 21, 2008, before Norway had made its crucial decision on the US fighter jets, Whitney describes Eide as “one of the most experienced and influential government figures” in Norway, despite his deputy minister portfolio at the time.
The ambassador rightly predicted that his ties to the Norwegian foreign ministry, think tanks, NGOs and the UN would result in either a ministerial position in a future Labour government (he got two) or a high-ranking UN or EU position.
“In his relations with the Embassy, Barth Eide has been difficult to characterize. Barth Eide is a skilled and subtle interagency player who is largely pro-U.S. but should not be trusted to reliably uphold U.S. interests,” said Whitney.
The US diplomat found Eide to be “helpful” on several important issues, such as helping to prevent a Norwegian veto of NATO plans for missile defence, intervening on “touchy real estate issues” affecting the sale of land to the US government for the construction of a new embassy building, and pushing for Norwegian deployments to Afghanistan.
Whitney acknowledged that on several occasions Eide gave the Embassy “good advice” on how to approach the Norwegian government.
“However, some very senior U.S. officials have felt that he has been hard to pin down on several issues of concern and characterised Barth Eide as ‘weasily’. Senior Norwegian officials, with strong pro-U.S. instincts, have also told the Embassy in private that Barth Eide is not to be relied upon to promote U.S. priorities,” said the ambassador.
Whitney pointed out that a key test of his inclinations would be the Norwegian defence ministry’s recommendation on which fighter plane to purchase, the US F-35 or the Swedish Saab Gripen.
Norway eventually chose to purchase over 50 US fighter planes, at a cost of US $10 billion.
A diplomatic cable dated October 29, 2008, suggests Eide gave private signals to the US government that the F-35’s would win the bid before an official announcement had been made, though the Norwegian government denies this.
It transpires from the cables that the US put great importance on Norway’s decision to purchase the fifth-generation fighter planes as approval or rejection would have a significant impact on whether other NATO partners and allies would also put in orders.
As it turns out, the US now has orders for F-35s from Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, the UK, and with more planned from Canada, Israel, Japan and Korea.
Six years have passed since those cables were written and a lot has gone on in the world.
Compared to the usual fare WikiLeaks has given us, the cables are not exactly ‘scandal’ material, though they do establish a basis for the relationship between the new UN envoy and the US, now considered to be in the driving seat on the peace process.
Eide is portrayed as a professional, capable operator with significant knowledge on peacekeeping who leans towards the Americans and is a committed European with a pro-NATO bias.
The fact he was appointed, not elected, to his posts suggests he may not be the kind of charismatic or flamboyant peacemaker Cyprus has been used to in recent years. But he is seen as someone serious who can cut to the chase in a careful manner, avoiding offensive remarks without avoiding what is difficult.
As one observer put it: “I don’t see him solving the Cyprus question. But who can?”