Despite concerted efforts to downplay the significance of the week-long no-holds-barred negotiations in Mont Pelerin, Switzerland on the territorial adjustments to be made as part of an agreed settlement of the Cyprus problem, which the two sides on the island have expressed commitment to try and reach by year-end, their outcome is likely to determine whether the talks continue into the final stretch immediately thereafter or fall apart altogether, with unknown consequences in the foreseeable future.
The reason all sides are pretending the end-result of the Switzerland sessions is not a binary situation is understandable: the Greek Cypriots have developed a severe allergy to deadlines – or ‘asphyxiating timeframes’ as they have entered the Cyprus problem vernacular – as a direct result of the infamous New York agreement of February 2004, which afforded then-UN secretary general Kofi Annan the right to arbitrate points of disagreement between the two sides into a final settlement plan, if such points could not be bridged by March 31, 2004.
It was no surprise, thus, that UN special envoy Espen Barth Eide, addressing the Economist conference in Nicosia earlier this week, declared that the Mont Pelerin talks will “not be the end of the road” – although he was referring to more work that would need to be done, even if the Switzerland talks proved an unmitigated success, the statement was locally interpreted as a general rebuttal of hard deadlines.
Nor were any eyebrows raised when government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides, speaking on state TV CyBC on Friday morning, repeated that the talks will not be interrupted, should the Switzerland exercise fail to produce progress. Both statements were as unsurprising as they were – at least partly – false.
Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci has warned more than once that this round of negotiations is the last stab at a solution “by this generation”, and that if it were to fail, “something else” would be the object of future talks. His general demeanour actually reflects the sense of urgency this contention projects. He was first to set the end of 2016 as a soft, if-possible milestone for arriving at an agreed settlement, and has been insisting on moving forward at a pace much faster than the Greek Cypriot side is comfortable with.
Akinci is also said to be bringing Turkish officials with him to Mont Pelerin, which he would have no reason to do unless aiming for real progress – the absence of Turkish delegates would be a perfect excuse for refusing to commit to anything in Switzerland. In fact, the presence of Turkish officials could be one of the key reasons the talks are being moved overseas, as they would be easily spotted at Nicosia airport, the normal on-island meeting venue.
But there is another, more alarming variable at play. Apparently, Akinci has informed President Nicos Anastasiades that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to take drastic steps towards annexing the Turkish-occupied part of the island if year’s end comes and goes without a Cyprus deal. This timeline was the compromise struck by the two men – Erdogan and Akinci – over the summer in exchange for the Turkish government easing pressure on the Turkish Cypriot leader to issue some citizenship to 26,000 settlers living in the north of Cyprus, a demand that subsequently disappeared quietly from public discourse. This arrangement, along with the transition in government following next week’s US presidential election, as well as the UN secretary general’s term, which expires at the end of 2016, is why the two sides are, in fact, working to a deadline much harder than they let on.
It is against this backdrop that the Greek Cypriot side argues that failure to achieve progress at Mont Pelerin this week “won’t be the end of the road” – it may technically not signal the end of the talks, but it will have triggered serious processes that could impact future talks.
“[Failure to achieve progress in Switzerland] won’t signal the end of the talks,” Christodoulides said.
“If there is unsatisfactory progress in Switzerland, what will change in our perception is that this stated goal of a solution within 2016 will no longer be achievable. But the process will definitely go on.”
Meanwhile, Greek Cypriot opposition parties have been stressing the need for the Turkish Cypriot side to commit to producing its proposed map during discussion of territory in the Switzerland sessions. This is rejected by the negotiating team as a nonsensical demand. According to Christodoulides, “let’s say we demand they present a map, and they give us a map that shows only Famagusta and the buffer zone under Greek Cypriot administration. Would we start discussion on such a map? Of course not.”
Instead, Christodoulides argued, discussion first needs to focus on the criteria for territorial adjustments – including the number of displaced individuals to return to their properties, the extent of territory and coastline to be relinquished to Greek Cypriot administration, and the status of significant cultural and religious landmarks – and if these are agreed, then maps reflecting them can be tabled. In any case, both the government spokesman and Anastasiades have explicitly stated that without an agreed map the talks cannot graduate to the final stretch.