In a democratic country, should negotiations for a Cyprus settlement be held in secret or should the public have a source of accurate and responsible information?
This question has come up repeatedly in recent months with respect to leaks from the National Council, the demands by the opposition to be informed, and the fact that lack of information creates public disquiet and leaves the public susceptible to interpretations by politicians eager to provide information supporting their positions.
On the basis of my 30 years of experience in various aspects of the Cyprus talks, my response is that in a democratic society, where the final decision will be taken by the population in referendums, there has to be a balance which still allows secrecy for proper discussion of the very difficult issues to be resolved but prevents politicians from playing to the crowd.
The decision is correct to have secret negotiations in Switzerland next week on the crucial issue of territorial adjustment. That is the area within the boundary line between two provinces envisaged in a Federal Republic of Cyprus that will be administered separately by the two communities. It is of great importance that decisions on the territory of the provinces are taken without outside pressures, whether that be from foreign powers, political opposition, or people concerned about their property and their future.
From 1997 until 2004 I was officially part of the negotiation team established by President Clerides representing the Greek Cypriot side, with the help of colleagues in the Lands and Surveys, Planning Bureau and Statistics Department. With the support of Stella Soulioti who was the organisational and underlying influence in the Greek Cypriot negotiation effort from 1959 to at least 2008, we set up the information and computerised data base for the Cyprus talks. Their main aim was to clarify issues relating to the crucial but difficult territorial, population and property issues in the Cyprus talks. The system was set up to be able to analyse any idea, scenario or proposal on these issues and produce maps within 40 minutes at a request from the president, or the chief advisor on the Cyprus problem.
Throughout this period from 1997 to 2004 we received telephone calls and visits from respected people in society urging us to include some town or village within the province to be administered by the Greek Cypriot community in the south. These issues cannot be discussed openly, because whatever village or town is left out creates organised opposition while the negotiations are actually proceeding. In view of leaks from within those actually in the negotiation and support teams, exceptional security measures were taken and only those actually involved with territorial adjustment were briefed or involved. Keeping things secret in Cyprus is impossible, but abroad it can be done although exceptional measures are necessary.
This week, however, contacts with people brought home to me that the public is not well informed about the progress in a Cyprus settlement, and tend to be misinformed. I went to my local kiosk to pick up the newspaper and cigarettes, and the owner – a well-educated and knowledgeable man – was upset. “What is going to happen after a settlement with cigarettes. Will there be a border with checks on goods and movement? These packets of tobacco are 40 per cent cheaper north of the Green Line.”
I replied that he should not worry because that issue has been resolved since at least 2004. Cigarette prices in Cyprus, and most of Europe, are mainly determined by excise duties and VAT. Under a settlement all value added and excise taxes will be uniform, and collected by the federal government. That is essential in order that there should be no customs checks on the boundary. After deducting federal costs, the funds are to be distributed to the provinces. To my surprise, he did not believe me, yet I took it for granted that everyone knew about these arrangements.
People should know that if there are to be passport checks or customs authorities on the boundary, or crossing points, there will be no solution. This is clear, and an honest effort is being made by both sides to prevent such obstacles to freedom of movement and trade.
At lunch time I went to pick up the grandchildren from school, and met in the shade with a group of fellow grandparents from various backgrounds and political views. In this group we discuss everything and anything. When I turned up, they asked me whether I thought that a solution may come out of the meetings in Switzerland. I replied that in my view the situation on the ground is very difficult to resolve, but that by finally getting to grips with territorial adjustment we will see whether or not a solution is likely. One said that the key is for Turkey to decide. My response was that view is a simplification, because my understanding is that on issues which do not directly concern Turkey, the views of the Turkish Cypriot leaders are taken into account.
I then explained that territorial adjustment will involve population movement, and the problems will mainly affect the Turkish Cypriot community, settlers from Turkey, and others currently living on Greek Cypriot property. Unless we can address these problems and find solutions, it is unlikely that we can resolve these issues.
Someone said that Turkey will have to finance these measures. Another said that Turkey appears to have stated it wants the $18 billion it has given to the Turkish Cypriot community over the years to be repaid.
I walked away feeling that it is necessary to inform the people on what decisions have been reached, and what they mean, while keeping secret the negotiations on territory, property and security until agreements are reached. The press and media have generally failed in this respect, and the two leaders and UN should proceed to inform the people on the issues of agreement in matters which affect their daily lives. Because in the end it is their vote in the referendum that counts.
Costas Apostolides is an economist and Lecturer at Malta University, and a founder member of Pax Cypria Cyprus Institute for Peace. [email protected]