By Ingemar Lindahl
Sometimes History makes unexpected turns. Who would have imagined in 2004, after the rejection of the UN plan for the solution of the Cyprus problem that the two communities some ten years later would choose as their leaders Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, two men who have made a solution of the Cyprus problem the goal of their political career?
However, it is not the first time the two sides have pro-solution leaders in power simultaneously. In 2008 the UN decided, after careful consideration, to restart the negotiations for the reunification of the island, as the newly elected president of the Republic of Cyprus, Demetris Christofias, the leader of a staunchly pro-solution party, would have as his counterpart Mehmet Ali Talat, with the same credentials. After three years of talks their effort failed, Talat being replaced by Dervis Eroglu, leader of a party which supported a confederation and minimal power sharing with the Greek Cypriots.
What lessons can be drawn from the half century-long history of UN-sponsored negotiations? Certainly, that it is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition that both communities are represented by pro-solution leaders. Moreover, that the two “motherlands”, or more precisely, guarantor powers Greece and Turkey, must also have pro-solution governments – and not only governments who pay lip service to a solution but are ready to act as midwifes for it. However, the Talat-Christofias period demonstrated that it wasn’t enough to have pro-solution governments in Athens and Ankara and community leaders in the island who had pledged to solve the Cyprus issue. Something more was needed: the capacity to convince the majorities of the two communities of the benefits of a joint federal state.
If Talat had been reelected in 2010 the prospects of a solution would naturally have increased even though he had considerable problems to handle on his side: a fairly strong anti-solution lobby at home and a government in Ankara which was still under some influence from the military and the nationalist opinion. He experienced that when he tried to put Famagusta on the negotiating table and was called to Ankara to rescind it.
The Erdogan administration’s interest in a solution has also varied over the twelve years it has been in power. In the early days of Erdogan’s premiership he acted determinedly to promote the UN plan, contrary to the objectives of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and the Turkish army leadership. Since then he has somewhat vacillated, depending on the state of Turkey’s relationship with Europe.
Lord Hannay, UK’s Special Representative for Cyprus, used to say that a solution is only feasible as long as Turkey sees a prospect of eventually joining the European Union. A settlement of the gas issue in the Eastern Mediterranean, with some direct or indirect benefits for Turkey, might add to, or replace, the meandering EU membership process as an encouragement for a deal on Cyprus. Christofias’ pro-solution ambitions fell victim to domestic politics in the republic. Instead of building a one-issue alliance with DISY, and trying to prevail over the diehard opponents to a negotiated solution in the small parties DIKO and EDEK, he appealed to them in vain for support of his policies.
Against this background – what are the prospects of the new solution effort which started just over a week ago? Not very bright, taking into account decades of fruitless talks and the ensuing vested interest on both sides in continuing the status quo. For his part, Akinci has the same “red lines” as his predecessors, with the questions of territory and property which entails the displacement of people, as the most sensitive in the north. Moreover, he will have to negotiate in close cooperation with Turkey, whose main focus is security. This means concretely that he has to reestablish a good working relationship with Erdogan with whom he has had some issues in the past.
Anastasiades, on the other hand, will have no difficulty in rallying the support of Greece, who for a long time expressed its desire to relinquish the role of guarantor power. His problems are basically domestic. He has to avoid falling into the same trap as Christofias, allowing the small non-solution parties to act as arbiters of the interests of the Greek Cypriots at the expense of the majority of the community. Traditionally, Greek Cypriot public opinion has been divided with in 25 per cent staunchly against a federal solution, 25 per cent staunchly for it, and 50 per cent in between – the latter to be swayed by the political party leaders and the president. In 2004, President Tassos Papadopoulos was able to fully exploit this circumstance to get a “no” in the referendum, despite the fact that the pro-solution parties AKEL and DISY usually garnered a support of 60-70 per cent in the parliamentary elections.
A solution proposal – if the negotiations ever result in such – will necessarily be a work of careful compromise, like the UN plan in 2004. At the time it was wrongfully named the Annan Plan, as if the secretary general personally tried to impose it. The plan consisted of the positions of the two parties, which had been presented during a year of negotiations, and was subsequently modified several times in accordance with the wishes expressed by them. This means that there can only be a compromise plan to present at the final referendum, if the negotiators manage to reach that far.
The art of compromise is not well rooted in the Levantine culture, rather allowing the mentality of the bazaar to prevail in political negotiations. This mentality does not admit any win-win opportunities. If the adversary accepts your offer it means – according to this logic – that you have asked for too little and should withdraw it and ask for more. As a deal on the Cyprus issue demands compromise, it can only be reached if this mentality is replaced by rationality and mutual trust.
Any compromise deal will immediately (even before it is presented) be opposed by the non-solution parties on both sides and can only succeed in a referendum by strong leadership at the helm on both sides. Consequently, they must be prepared to bring their proposal at an early stage directly to the citizens and avoid becoming hostages of the non-solution political parties and opinion makers.
It goes without saying that confidence building measures can play an important role in creating a pro-solution atmosphere among the population. The two leaders will be accused of being sell-outs by some, but they must believe that the solution they propose is to the benefit of the majority of the population living in the island as well as for coming generations.
At this point Mustafa Akinci has that kind of popular mandate, as he was recently elected as an independent and defeated the candidates of the established parties. Nicos Anastasiades position is more complicated, considering the various turns of his political career since 2004, but he has strong credentials as a dedicated supporter of a solution of the national problem. As the ambassador of Sweden to Cyprus 2004-2012, I had several times the opportunity to visit former president Clerides in his retirement house at Meneou. When I asked him, sometime around 2010, if he thought that Nicos Anastasiades should be a candidate in the next presidential elections he answered that he thought he should stand only if he had a good chance of winning, since he believed that he was the only Greek Cypriot politician who was strong and persuasive enough to lead the country to reunification.
Ingemar Lindahl served as Sweden’s ambassador to Cyprus between 2004 and 2012