A lull followed the disappointing end (or should we say suspension) of the Geneva conference on Cyprus three weeks ago despite the gathering of technocrats a few days later. The early break in the conference did not take place under the best conditions although all sides appeared committed to keeping the process going. There may have been some unhelpful public statements and exchanges of mild accusations but these were inevitable given that the conference failed to produce a breakthrough of any kind.
President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci have since had a meeting at which it was decided that negotiations would focus on closing all the chapters on which differences remained such as governance and property before the conference was reconvened, to deal with security and guarantees. It made perfect sense, while raising questions as to why a conference with the participation of the guarantor powers had been called before outstanding issues on the internal aspects of a settlement had been agreed.
Had UN Special Advisor Espen Barth Eide, who had been in consultation with the governments of Greece, Turkey and Britain about security, believed there would have been an agreement in principle in Geneva that would have encouraged the two sides to return to Cyprus and resolve differences on internal affairs? If so, it was a miscalculation. Perhaps he had misread the signals from Greece and expected foreign minister Nikos Kotzias to have been ready to engage in substantive discussions about security.
In Cyprus, the explanation advanced by government circles was that Turkey was not ready for an agreement because President Erdogan had his mind on the April referendum that would change the constitution and set up a presidential system of government. According to these circles, Erdogan was not ready to make any concessions for fear these would be used by nationalists against him in the referendum campaign. This was supported by the drive to close all chapters before reconvening the conference on security – Erdogan may have felt more comfortable to make some concessions on troops and guarantees if political equality and power-sharing had been agreed.
Last Wednesday, however, after the meeting of the two leaders with Eide it was suggested that the Geneva conference would be re-convened in March. The UN has placed this in the first half of next month, while Eide was in Athens of Friday where he met Kotzias and was also expected to fly to Ankara as part of the preparations. Was there an expectation the two sides would have closed all the chapters regarding the internal aspects of a settlement by then? They have four weeks in which to achieve this and many issues are already agreed but whether they would be ready by March is anybody’s guess.
Chancellor Merkel made it very clear during her visit to Turkey last week that she wanted to see a speeding up of the process and an outcome because this was an “important issue for the EU” as well. The EU wants to see a deal on Cyprus not only because it wants a success story after the terrible year it has endured but also because it believes it could help repair strained relations with Ankara. Its support for and active involvement in the process could have a positive impact on efforts and Merkel is absolutely right in wanting to things speeded up.
There are risks to allowing the process to drift. Not only would the momentum be lost – some has been lost since Geneva – but outside factors could affect it. The build-up of tension between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean island of Imia fired by a war of words in the last week or so cannot be helpful to the Cyprus peace process. These are the two countries expected to work constructively together to find a compromise on security and guarantees.
How, could this be achieved when Greek and Turkish officials are exchanging threats and accusations on a daily basis? The process could be derailed for reasons that have nothing to do with Cyprus. Hopefully the tension would ease in the next few weeks because if it does not there would be little point in having a conference, because it is highly unlikely Greece and Turkey would put aside their differences for the sake of the Cyprus talks and adopt a constructive approach in Geneva.
Regardless of the Greece-Turkey squabbling, the two sides in Cyprus need to work at closing all the chapters over the next few weeks so that the Geneva conference in March would focus on security and guarantees. The process cannot afford another inconclusive conference because the risks of a complete collapse would multiply.