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Our View: After talks collapse uncertainty and tension loom

The ultra deepwater drillship West Capella

BEFORE the start of the conference on Cyprus, Espen Barth Eide, in one of the many interviews he gave, said that if the two sides failed to reach an agreement the Cyprus issue could be deemed ‘unsolvable’ and the UN would give up on its peace efforts. More about the UN’s intentions will come to light after Eide briefs the Security Council in a couple of weeks, but it seems highly unlikely the much-maligned Eide will keep the role of special advisor after this.

Announcing the end of the conference at 3.15am on Friday, a visibly frustrated Antonio Guterres did not rule out the possibility of the UN undertaking other initiatives in the future, because as “a facilitator the UN is always at the disposal of the parties if they want to reach an agreement”. Before this, however, he said “I wish the best to all Cypriots, north and south,” which sounded like a final farewell to the Cyprus issue. This would be perfectly understandable after five decades of failed efforts to broker a deal between the two sides.

Mustafa Akinci saw this as the end of the road, saying on Friday “this opportunity we lost might never come again.” President Anastasiades, in contrast, with his sights set on the 2018 elections was more optimistic, saying on Saturday that efforts would continue to keep the way open and the hopes of a settlement alive. Greece’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias insisted that the “dream and plan for a solution to the Cyprus issue are still open,” while his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu did not completely close the door, although he questioned whether “negotiating within UN parameters” was the answer. The European Commission did not give up, a spokesman underlining its commitment “to supporting both sides to reach a viable settlement in the future”.

How far away this future might be nobody knows. In the immediate future, however, there will be events that might prove critical. Later this month French oil giant Total is expected to start drilling in Block 11. The ultra-deepwater drillship West Capella is on its way and is expected to start work on Thursday. Turkey had repeatedly issued threats against drilling, warning the Cyprus government that it would take action on the grounds the hydrocarbons also belong to the Turkish Cypriot community. When and how it will react nobody knows, but this will have a big bearing on whether there is another attempt at a deal.

Turkey has no legal right to prevent drilling in the Cypriot EEZ and it seems unlikely Ankara would take on a big French company, but nobody can rule this out. It could decide to ignore the exploratory drilling, which will take two or three months, as nobody knows whether Total will discover anything. It would be absurd to cause an incident over nothing, although in this part of the world a country’s actions are not always governed by rationality.

The other critical event will take place in a couple of weeks when Eide briefs the UN Security Council, which could decide that the Cyprus problem is a lost cause and decide to withdraw Unficyp from Cyprus at some point in the near future. This would put tremendous pressure on Anastasiades as it would wreck his re-election plans. He would be seen as the president who, in his quest for zero troops, ensured the withdrawal of Unficyp and the permanent presence of 40,000 Turkish troops on the island. Not many voters would feel secure without the UN guarding the buffer zone.

If, however, the situation remains unchanged – Turkey does not interfere with the drilling and the withdrawal of Unficyp is not finalised – the forthcoming presidential elections could prove the last chance of securing a deal. This would depend on Akel finding someone who would run as a credible, pro-settlement candidate against Papadopoulos and Anastasiades. It would also be a type of informal referendum on whether the Greek Cypriots actually want a settlement based on bi-zonal, bi-communal federation or prefer partition. This could also be negotiated, once voters have ruled out re-unification.

We argued a few weeks ago that the Crans-Montana conference was a case of ‘now or never’ for a Cyprus settlement, but the door has not been completely shut after the collapse. It has been left slightly open but for how long is anybody’s guess. When it was wide open nobody dared walked through, so it may be naïve to think that either side will be prepared to do so now that it is almost closed.

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