The conference on Cyprus may be open-ended, as Espen Barth Eide said during his news conference on Friday, but the premature ending of the Geneva procedure on Thursday night did not bode well. The conference had started on a positive note with each participant presenting his positions on security and guarantees in a relatively balanced way before the scheduled break for lunch.
By the time the conference was to resume in the early evening, Greece’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias took it upon himself to publicly announce a break of the conference for 10 days after which technocrats from the foreign ministries of the three guarantor powers would have put together questions and positions regarding security and guarantees. He had apparently discussed this possibility with his Turkish and British counterparts but made it public without having secured their agreement or informing them.
Worse still, he had not bothered to consult or inform President Anastasiades about the break he had proposed (so much for the close co-operation between Athens and Nicosia). And to add insult to injury, Kotzias had excluded the Cyprus government from the technical committee that would discuss security, restricting participation to the three guarantor powers. Only after Anastasiades raised objections was it agreed that the two communities would also participate in the technical committee.
The overriding impression was that Greece’s foreign minister had his own agenda which he pursued in a rather clumsy way that threatened to wreck the process. First, he had known 40 days ago that the Geneva conference on security and guarantees would have taken place on January 12. How could he have gone there unprepared and without adequate technocratic support? Did he think he would go to Geneva to read a statement and then return home?
As for his decision to announce a 10-day break without having secured the agreement of anyone, it defied belief. His Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, would have felt he had been duped by Kotzias. This is no way to build trust with a fellow foreign minister whose good will and co-operation would be needed in the search for a compromise on the difficult issue of security and guarantees. Cavusoglu showed his discontent by refusing to attend another session on Friday morning while President Erdogan went on the offensive of Friday, accusing the Greek side of avoiding a solution and reverting to a hard-line position on guarantees.
Kotzias’ biggest disservice to the peace process, however, was that he ensured the loss of momentum created by the exchange of maps and ruined the positive climate with which the conference started. The other participants in the conference were prepared to engage in negotiations, with the support of teams of technocrats, with the aim of achieving some kind of breakthrough in Geneva. It might not have been the final deal but it could have been real progress that would have created the conditions for the leaders of the guarantor powers to have met a little later and finalised an agreement.
There was an opportunity that was missed and the process went backwards. Kotzias has proved untrustworthy and unpredictable, appearing more concerned with building up his personal profile in Greece, as a nationalist, than contributing positively to the Cyprus peace process. He also had the audacity to boast that “we had averted the planned failure of the conference,” a failure for which he would have been largely responsible.
His behaviour is reminiscent of the Eurogroup antics of Greece’s self-centred former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, whose obdurate refusal for months to reach a deal exacerbated the Greek economy’s woes. In Geneva, Kotzias appeared to have been playing a similarly reckless game to that of Varoufakis at successive Eurogroup meetings, the disastrous outcome of which we all know. There is now a risk of wasting the best ever opportunity for a settlement for the sake of Kotzias’ self-aggrandisement. It is no coincidence that since Friday all the rejectionist parties have been praising Kotzias to high heaven – he offered them hope that the process could be derailed – just as they praised Varoufakis’ antics in 2015.
President Anastasiades chose not to say anything about Kotzias pursuing his personal agenda in Geneva, instead assuring everyone at his Friday news conference that there was no discord with the foreign minister and that Athens and Nicosia were working closely together (regardless of the fact that Greece’s foreign minister had kept him in the dark about his spoiler).
Perhaps the president knew all along that Kotzias would not be returning to Geneva when the conference re-convenes in a week or two. A non-paper issued by Tsipras’ office on Friday night said the Greek government was “determined to protect and make the most of significant dynamic created” for a settlement and, more importantly, “looked forward to the continuation of the work of the Geneva conference, with the participation of the prime minister.”
Hopefully, the damage done by Kotzias was not irreparable.