Twenty sixteen was the year the Cyprus problem reclaimed its crown as the most talked about issue after three years where most of the focus was on the economy.
What remains to be seen is whether 2017 will become the year when nothing else will be talked about.
The last time there was this much excitement – for some of us anyway – was in the run up to the Annan plan referendum in 2004.
It would not be an exaggeration however to say the current talks between President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have been the closest yet to a solution despite the lack of fanfare and drama we associate with 2004.
That’s not to say things have been rosy. The leaders failed to meet an unofficial timetable for a solution by the end of 2016, something we kept hearing either as a positive or a negative – depending on who you were – for almost the entire past 12 months.
Despite being low-key and mainly positive, with the leaders shunning the usual blame game for the most part, the year was not without its stumbling blocks, most notably at the end of November when the discussions on territory collapsed dramatically at Mont Pelerin in Switzerland.
Those talks were to lead subsequently to a multilateral conference on security and territory including the guarantor powers, Greece, Turkey and the UK. Instead they temporarily led to uncertainty though no one who has watched Cyprus negotiations come and go for decades saw it as being the end of the line.
Barely two weeks later, much to the chagrin of the rejectionists – who spent the year railing against each and every positive development – Anastasiades suddenly announced he and Akinci had agreed to a multilateral conference in Geneva on January 12, 2017.
Just short of a year earlier Anastasiades and Akinci stood together on a platform at a joint panel event at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and issued a plea for international financial support for a settlement.
“Without intending to create unrealistic expectations, I believe that 2016 could be the year…,” Anastasiades said at the time. He said this almost every time he spoke after that, while Akinci was even more fixated on it as a deadline.
As Anastasiades battled Greek Cypriot hardliners who claimed all year he was keeping them in the dark – which he was so that he could avoid leaks and negotiate unfettered – the Turkish Cypriot leader was hit in April by his own domestic upheaval with a sudden change of ‘government’ not too keen on a solution. They suddenly stopped their whining following a visit from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who obviously quietly signalled Turkey’s support for the talks process.
By April the talks had slowed due to the Greek Cypriot parliamentary elections in May. Akinci said he expected intensified talks after May 22, and indeed five days later, then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on the two sides to intensify efforts.
That call took place in the wake of a furore over the surprise attendance at a dinner in Istanbul by Akinci the same week as part of the World Humanitarian Summit. Akinci also met with Ban on the sidelines, which infuriated Anastasiades.
Anastasiades had been taking part in the summit as president of the Republic of Cyprus and so felt he could not meet Akinci there. He left Istanbul a day early, cancelling scheduled meetings in Cyprus with Akinci and UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide. He blamed the UN for ‘the mess’.
The feeling was that Eide had tried to pull a fast one and get the two leaders in the same room with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. The UN had to kind of grovel by repeating the status of the RoC as a UN member state to appease the Greek Cypriots, an entirely meaningless gesture but no one – except the rejectionists – really wanted to see Espen’s head on a plate.
Anastasiades said Ban’s statement “remedies certain attempts that were made”. It was a bit of a bitch-slap to either Eide or Akinci or both. The Turkish Cypriot leader said he understood up to a point the “storm in the teacup” but also believed he was right to go to Istanbul as Erdogan had invited him to dinner.
The Istanbul incident was the first serious upset in the talks but the leaders got back on track a week later at the beginning of June, meeting up at a bi-communal children’s event where they played at finger painting and tug-of-war. Intensive talks began soon after.
With summer soon passing – except for that little coup attempt in Turkey in July – the leaders took only a short break in August and the intensive meetings continued until the UN General Assembly and the will-they-won’t-they or why should they meet Ban in New York, and could there be a meeting of a president and a pseudo-president at an official UN gathering? The usual stuff. They both did meet Ban on September 25 after the official close of the assembly… recognition problem solved.
But they appeared to have walked away with slightly different takes. Anastasiades said he was “completely satisfied” that there was no timetable, arbitration or road map but Akinci, though he said he was “satisfied”, the New York meeting could have been “more satisfactory” if the Greek Cypriots had not been so timeframe averse. They did agree to re-intensify talks in October to close gaps in all six chapters and move on to territory, which Akinci wanted discussed out of Cyprus.
He got his way and the leaders moved on to their first joust in Mont Pelerin in early November. A week of crisp Swiss air and luxury accommodation failed to produce a territorial map and Anastasiades called for a break, but they went back again two weeks later for a couple of days. That’s when it all ended in tears of sadness and of joy – depending on which side of the fence you were on.
The reason, it was said, was that out of the blue, Greece, of all parties, had gone rogue and wanted assurances from Turkey, before a multilateral conference, that there would be no Turkish guarantee as part of a solution.
The talks crashed and burned in the early hours of November 22. They had looked set to drag on into the night but a sudden tweet from Akinci’s office, followed quickly by other tweets confirmed that the leaders had gone to bed and called it a night.
“The two sides have decided to return to Cyprus and reflect on the way forward,” a UN statement said.
We all thought this reflection period would include Christmas and give us a break but the phone lines were burning up to and from the European mainland and the Atlantic. By December 2, Anastasiades and Akinci over dinner agreed to resume intensive talks on all outstanding issues, and to negotiate in Geneva between January 9 and 11 on territory and maps, to be immediately followed by a multilateral conference on January 12 with the guarantor powers, half the EU top brass and maybe even the permanent members of the UN Security Council.
With much hardline outrage to confront about hated roadmaps and timetables, Anastasiades gave a televised address in which he called for unity and said that considering the current phase of the talks started 18 months ago, but they had really been going on for 42 years, setting dates could not really be viewed as asphyxiating timeframes.
Speaking of time, if a solution is reached and passed in a referendum in 2017, perhaps this time next year the Cyprus Mail’s news team will not be thrown out of a pub in the north at Christmas because they’re one hour ahead and wanted to close while we had just got going.