Talks reach point of no return
By Elias Hazou
Given the experience of the past few months, the auguries are less than auspicious for the sequel to the Geneva conference on Cyprus opening on Wednesday. Success or failure likely hinges on two factors: Turkey offering an interesting deal on security, and which side of his Jekyll-and-Hyde act Nicos Anastasiades unravels.
“There’s an off chance of a breakthrough…though I wouldn’t bet on it,” Hubert Faustmann, professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia, told the Sunday Mail.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since January’s Geneva conference.
In its wake, the already wobbly peace talks broke off in February, when parliament in the south voted to introduce an annual commemoration in public schools of the January 1950 ‘Enosis’ (union with Greece) referendum. An angered Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci said he would not resume negotiations until Greek Cypriots took “corrective action”.
Around the same time, Anastasiades drew a new line in the sand – the issue of the four freedoms in Cyprus for Turkish nationals, which was raised publicly by a Turkish government official.
It turned out that this was not about opening the door to Cyprus and the EU to 70 million Turks, as the Anastasiades administration claimed; rather, the issue of ‘equal treatment’ had been discussed in the past and envisaged that the same number of Turkish nationals and Greek nationals would be allowed to work in Cyprus.
Anastasiades’ attempt to turn this into a problem for the EU came to nothing.
In early March, senior Greek defence ministry sources leaked to journalists supposed concerns over a ‘hot incident’ being sparked by Turkey in Cyprus’ territorial waters in the summer, coinciding with the start of exploration drilling by Total in offshore Block 11.
When asked about this, government spokesman Nicos Christodoulides said Nicosia was not considering such a scenario. He said also that he spoken about the issue with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and was reassured that Athens was not working on this assumption.
Yet not a fortnight later, speaking to two Greek television networks, Anastasiades kept a fire lit under the ‘heated incident’ narrative, musing that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan might try to cultivate a climate of fanaticism among the Turkish populace ahead of the constitutional referendum of April 16.
And of course there was the whole rhetoric – perhaps not unwarranted – that the talks process would be kept in deep freeze until the referendum in Turkey.
Cut to April, and Ankara issued the first stinging warning on Cyprus’ upcoming hydrocarbons activities. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denounced Nicosia’s “unilateral actions”, saying his country would not stand idly by while Greek Cypriots pressed ahead with gas exploration.
In the same month Turkey reserved parts of the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for seismic surveys, and has been conducting military drills within the Nicosia Flight Information Region (FIR).
On April 2 the two leaders came together for a dinner for the first time since the process stalled.
It was eventually agreed that the talks resume. Anastasiades and Akinci were to subsequently hold four meetings, with the two sides’ chief negotiators also continuing negotiations.
Later, reports in the south suggested that negotiators Andreas Mavroyiannis and Ozdil Nami had agreed everything and all that remained was security and territory which only Turkey could weigh in on.
In the meantime, one report after another surfaced blaming UN special adviser Espen Barth Eide for siding with the Turkish side – with commentators speculating that this information was being fed to the media directly from Anastasiades’ circles.
All this against a backdrop of whispers that the UN had set July as the cut-off for a breakthrough in the talks. The pressure was on.
In May, Anastasiades unveiled a proposal on discussing security and guarantees first at a new Geneva conference as a means to avoid deadlock.
Eide then sprung his manoeuvre, bringing the two leaders together in New York for a meeting with the UN chief Antonio Guterres, on June 4.
There, it was agreed that the Conference on Cyprus would reconvene in Switzerland on June 28 at the political level, under the auspices of the UN secretary-general.
Eide would meantime engage with all participants in the preparation of a common document to guide the discussions on security and guarantees.
The document was delivered to the two sides this week.
At the conference in Crans-Montana, all issues will be on the table and will be discussed interdependently.
For Faustmann, Anastasiades’ performance this year may be split up into two segments: the pre-April and post-April periods.
The analyst thinks the president is correct to insist that substantial progress must be achieved on security before an overall agreement can be hammered out.
“Otherwise, if he first gives on the rotating presidency and power-sharing, what leverage does he have left?
“But the question is, which Anastasiades will we see in Switzerland this June? The one who believes he can get re-elected by delivering a deal acceptable to Greek Cypriots…or the one who will double down, posing as the ‘defender’ of Cyprus by rejecting Turkish intransigence on security and guarantees?”
Anastasiades, who has all but confirmed he will stand for re-election, faces a conundrum: at this late hour in the election cycle, the number one issue for his candidacy will inevitably be the Cyprus problem. It will make or break him, depending also on how he manages the fallout.
Unless he returns with some agreement – or without the blame in case of failure – his chances of keeping the presidency diminish appreciably. Both the hawks and the doves back home are sure to pile on. And Cypriot politics is no stranger to unholy alliances being struck in the runoff ballot, which is almost a certainty.
“Which leads to the other key question: in Switzerland will Turkey budge ever so slightly on security, for example agreeing to a timetable for troop withdrawal? That would be a major breakthrough, paving the way to a framework agreement and really putting the squeeze on Anastasiades,” said Faustmann.
“If security is agreed upon, he can’t blow the deal over the other chapters, like property, territory and the rotating presidency. It would be so bad.”
As for Ankara, said Faustmann, whatever happens at Crans-Montana is a win-win. A collapse in the talks would not give Erdogan nightmares. And on the flipside, should concessions be made on security, angering sections of the Turkish public, Erdogan has two more years to prepare for Turkey’s presidential elections.
“In other words, will Turkey do Anastasiades a favour by taking a hard line, or will they spring a surprise on all of us?”
Alex Christoforou, president and chairman of The Duran, a media outlet focusing on realpolitik news and analysis, agreed that all eyes should be on Turkey.
“Cyprus could be the one ‘bright spot’ in an otherwise miserable Middle East, with the keys to a fair and viable solution remaining in the very unpredictable hands of President Erdogan,” he said in an email.
“Given the chess match unfolding in the region it is hard to predict where Erdogan will fall on the Cyprus settlement. The Turkish ruler is a very unpredictable man. The recent Saudi-Qatar wrangling has taught us that Turkey’s alliances can flip in an instant.”
Christoforou, a regular guest analyst on Russia Today, said a Cyprus settlement would grant Turkey an inroad into the European Union.
“Though with the emergence of the Eurasian silk road project, it is hard to say if Turkey even wants to be part of a dysfunctional and broke Europe anymore.”
The analyst said one should expect a great deal of appeasement to take place in order to get a workable solution on Cyprus.
“It cannot be ignored, or stressed enough, that the upcoming talks are taking place at a time when the entire region is under fire…and Turkey is a key actor in the troubles plaguing the Middle East – specifically Syria, the Kurds and now Qatar.
“Will Cyprus be used as a bargaining chip to further Turkey’s more pressing wants and needs in the region, most notably the Kurds in Northern Syria?”
As for Athens’ role, Christoforou suggested that it is more or less an extra in the proceedings.
“Greece is a non-issue…stripped of its power in this process by its debt lords in Brussels.”