By Stefanos Evripidou
THE TWO sides in the Cyprus peace process are closer than ever to securing mutual agreement on one of the world’s longest disputes. While there is still some way to go on the big issues, the view from within is that the road may be long and winding, but it’s a one-way street.
Ironically, the intricate details being worked out behind closed doors and the need to present progress in a comprehensive, non-piecemeal manner are making the public image of the process one of the biggest threats to its successful fruition.
While the mood within the negotiations remains high, the same cannot be said of external perceptions of the process. Before breaking for their annual trips to New York, the two leaders met last Monday. No major breakthrough was announced, no new convergences revealed, and no progress recorded on the previously announced confidence-building measures (CBMs) that appear to have hit a snag.
Instead, the public was informed that the leaders had reviewed past meetings in their last meeting and planned to hold more meetings more frequently in the future.
This, despite the fact one source close to the negotiations described the meeting as “very positive”, saying it concluded at a “constructive point”.
There is now a growing feeling among observers that something has to give on the public relations front or the real momentum in the talks may be lost to the creeping suspicion surrounding them.
Clearly, Anastasiades and Akinci have turned the Cyprus problem on its head, defying expectations to play the blame game, while breaking long-held taboos and official narratives on what went on in the island’s recent history.
Akinci called a spade a spade when he said 1974 was a war. Some still like to think of it as a peace picnic, particularly those who profited from it.
Anastasiades stated the obvious when he said the 1960 treaties did not establish a Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus, though this may have come as a surprise to those born after 1974 and raised in the Greek Cypriot education system.
According to numerous sources of the Sunday Mail, the two leaders have developed a rare symbiosis in their efforts to iron out differences and reach agreement, working to assist rather than antagonise each other.
The negotiations process is in a unique situation where the two sides not only like each other, but are working together to solve a multitude of complex problems, often thinking ‘out of the box’. In stark contrast to past efforts, the two teams recognise the validity of each others’ problems.
While some of the biggest issues remain to be agreed, sources say the gap is narrowing day by day.
“The negotiations are going well. We do have difficulties but this is part of the process. There is an appetite for discussion and finding solutions. We feel there are prospects,” said a Greek Cypriot negotiating team source.
Regarding the apparent disconnect between the mood in the talks and public perceptions, the source said: “The turning point for public opinion will be in November because by then we will either have real progress or a real problem.”
Multiple sources confirmed that the two leaders will be much more actively involved in the negotiations from November, working on a list of disagreements for each chapter, with a more strategic awareness of each other’s limitations.
Sources do not rule out big announcements in the same month, possibly in a joint press conference of the respective spokespersons. Breaking the back of the property issue will be considered a “major breakthrough” for the entire process, and a major component of a future peace deal. One could even argue that once that’s in the bag, the peace process will have passed the point of no return, at least in terms of getting to an agreed solution. The referenda are another matter.
A source close to the Turkish Cypriot negotiating team said “significant progress” has been achieved in four of the six chapters (governance, EU affairs, economy and property) while views were exchanged in the last two (territory and security).
The remaining differences in the first three chapters are considered bridgeable while on property, 22 categories of property ownership have been locked in. The sides are engaging in a “healthy discussion”- without the usual “exchange of fire or vicious circles”- to devise a system that allows for the deeply complex property issue to be tackled in a clear, concise manner within a reasonable timeframe.
Whereas before they couldn’t agree on nearly anything, there is now agreement that the final result should respect individual property rights, bearing in mind that legal owners do not have a monopoly on those rights. Current users, from both communities, also have rights. All will be provided with various remedies, hopefully within a year or two. The aim is to create a mechanism that’s easy to understand, and provides a fast remedy, while finding the right balance overall between the various remedies. A motivating factor for both sides is to make it clear and simple enough for people to know exactly where they stand before a referendum, since property is considered a key decider in a vote.
On compensation, the aim is not to have outlandish figures (scaring off potential international donors) but to ensure they are satisfactory enough to encourage both communities to support the mechanism.
“The important thing is both sides see eye to eye on the end result,” said one source.
The agreed mechanism needs to be in line with the principle of full recognition of individual rights without limitations. At the same time, it must not cause unnecessary levels of social disruption, i.e., massive population exchange.
There is a sense that the sides will try to figure it out in a way that respects people’s rights without destabilising either side, in other words, seeing the wood for the trees.
Another shared objective by both sides appears to be the view that the international community needs to put its hand in its pockets to bring stability to a chaotic region of the world. The UN’s Espen Barth Eide also gave it a mention before leaving the island last week.
Funding for a solution is key to its support. The Greek Cypriot side is keen to stress that funding is not only about paying compensation for properties that will not be returned. It’s also about federal structures and development opportunities like Varosha.
The Turkish Cypriot source argued that financing was not an issue that Cypriots could solve alone. It’s no good saying this is an international problem with international implications and then expect this aspect to be solved locally. “The world has to contribute.”
The campaign to raise funds has already begun with many conversations in international corridors already taking place, spearheaded by the UN and both communities. A number of international institutions are ready to examine the prospect of helping to finance a solution. Meanwhile, Cyprus’ hard-earned recovery from the financial crisis two years ago has helped create sympathy and support for the country, enhancing the willingness to be helpful. The EU, US and even Turkey are expected to do their bit, while private sector interest in investments is also reportedly high.
Security is also another key decider in any vote. Cyprus and Turkey expert at LSE Rebecca Bryant argued that Turkish Cypriots are not as anxious about this issue as they are about property simply because they assume Turkey will have some kind of a security role in a solution, though what kind is open to negotiation.
Her LSE colleague, Cyprus and Balkans expert James Ker-Lindsay argued that the Greek Cypriot position that guarantees are an anachronism was fully understood. However, a ‘yes’ vote is needed on both sides, meaning pragmatism will be needed to overcome the red lines.
He further argued that this may be the last chance for a bizonal, bicommunal federal solution. Not because the UN would give up, but because of the “seismic shifts in the Turkey-EU relationship”. “No one is pretending anymore that Turkey is a serious candidate for the EU,” he said.
So while, Turkey is currently supporting the process by letting the leaders get on with it, it remains to be seen what kind of government will come out of the November elections and how the somewhat prickly Turkish president, Tayyip Erdogan, will react.
According to Bryant, should a Cyprus deal go to a vote, and the result is a ‘no’, there is always the threat of annexation.
On the prospects of reaching a deal, the Turkish Cypriot source was confident: “Everybody around the table feels confident that we will be able to make it, based on what we have achieved until now.
“Both teams are trying to accommodate each other. The spirit is radically different from past negotiations. Both sides feel this is an historic opportunity that must not be missed. Everyone is working with a huge sense of responsibility”.
But the concern among some is that this newfound internal amity at the table has yet to translate into a positive joint communications strategy specifically aimed at overcoming decades of enmity, fear and suspicion.
While working through the difficult chapters to find tangible solutions in the negotiating room, the leaders appear to be neglecting equally significant external pressures, like the need to bring their communities on board, not just at the end of the process before a vote, but during too.
The leaders’ desire to help each other and work together has led them to hold back on sharing specific progress with the public which, if viewed in isolation, could create problems for one community or the other, since gains and concessions have to be viewed in an interdependent manner.
One could argue this has backfired somewhat with the numerous leaks to the press on both sides- this past week a case in point. The details of the negotiations coming out in the press are not always up to date and usually taken out of context.
There is a further point about the leaks. They do not appear to be coming from the negotiations themselves but from people with access to recorded documents. Those involved in the negotiations are aware that not everything agreed is written down. Those outside the process can only know what they read.
But as one communications expert who wished to remain anonymous said, the two leaders can’t expect to maintain the momentum by simply going for coffees or cultural events together. Very soon, they will have to achieve and announce substantive results.
They also need to develop a real communications strategy, preferably together, which takes into account the fact there has been little real encouragement for a solution in recent years.
The respective spokespersons of the two leaders sometimes coordinate responses to attacks on the talks. But there is a clear need for a joint communications strategy as opposed to tactical responses to those who strategically undermine the process. Put simply, you can’t defend strategic attacks with day to day tactics.
There appear to be two choices here: either become masters of communications and delicately hand-pick the information that can be released without upsetting the good vibes between the two teams; or speed up the talks, conclude a deal and start campaigning on the solution’s strengths.
Recent polls suggest Greek Cypriots are more amenable to a solution agreement than before, depending on its final content, while Turkish Cypriot approval for a deal is by no means a given. Many were shocked by the recent announcement of agreement on respect for the individual right to property.
According to Bryant, Turkish Cypriots had always seen their rights as being protected in a communal context. Hearing the words ‘respect for individual property rights’ sent alarm bells throughout the north, as fears immediately surfaced that Akinci had adopted the Greek Cypriot rhetoric on property, implying major upheaval for thousands.
But individual rights are not the sole domain of Greek Cypriots. They are very much part of the western European legal context and apply to all Cypriots.
Incidentally, the brief announcement on property without footnotes served to stoke the flames of the smaller Greek Cypriot parties who fired shots at Anastasiades for supposedly equating current users with legal owners.
The experience left both sides a little shy in announcing new convergences.
One source close to the negotiations said the leaders were aware of the political cost of not sharing piecemeal progress with the public.
“This indicates the amount of determination there is on both sides. We know that the ‘no’ campaigners are filling the vacuum, but for the sake of the long game, we are being patient and taking the hits now. But when the end result is shared, people will soon realise that they were told many lies by those against a solution.”
Even if the leaders overcome the tower of troubles that is property, the emotionally charged security issue, and all the other elements of a workable solution, it is clear they still need to create the conditions for its approval by both communities.
Some may argue it is a little premature to be considering the ‘yes’ campaign, but the current leaders will be judged not just by their ability to reach an agreement, but also by their capacity to jointly promote it, in the process, establishing the practical foundations of a future partnership.