Interview with Toumazos Tsielepis, former member of the Greek Cypriot negotiating team
Toumazos Tsielepis was born, in 1956, in the occupied village of Prastio (in the Famagusta district). He studied law at the University of Kiev and specialised in Public International Law. He is a leading member of Akel and he is in charge of the team handling the “Cyprus problem”. He was a member of the Greek Cypriot negotiating team in the period 2003-2004 and 2008-2013. He retained his position as a member of the team supporting the Greek Cypriot negotiator until the Crans-Montana conference. Over the years, he has served various sub-committees and as a member of the National Council. Toumazos Tsielepis is a low-key politician, who enjoys wide respect for his serious and responsible approach in dealing with a sensitive issue that is shaping the political future of Cyprus.
Mr. Tsielepis, there is little doubt that we are at a critical stage of the process of shaping the future of Cyprus. Greek Cypriot politicians give the impression that they are “at a loss”. On the one hand, the President of the Republic is suggesting the reassessment of the Cyprus problem from a zero-basis, the leading opposition party insists on a bicommunal, bizonal federation while the smaller opposition parties keep themselves at a distance by arguing that the President has a duty to position himself and to be ready to defend his proposals. And all this at the time when the Secretary General of the United Nations states that time is running out. The prevailing climate points to a catastrophe. Do you share my pessimism?
Definitely, the situation in Cyprus is very worrying. Time is running out. I do not know who is “at a loss” but this is the first time we are debating so extensively a solution that is different to that of a bicommunal, bizonal federation. Akel has always supported the view that, if we abandon the goal of a federal arrangement, we will not end up having a unitary single state but, instead, we will legalise the partition of Cyprus. The developments following Crans-Montana prove the validity of this contention. For the very first time “other alternatives” are being discussed and, clearly, these “alternatives” are not pointing in the direction of a unitary single state. This option is simply not available. We are not going to allow ourselves to be dragged into supporting arrangements that are based on the partition of Cyprus and those who favour such arrangements must bear in mind that they will need to seek the approval of the people of Cyprus, against our opposition.
Some political observers claim that the primary responsibility for the state of our country rests with the Greek Cypriot politicians, who are lacking political vision, courage and ability, confining their efforts on blaming Turkey for “intransigence”. Given that Turkey’s behaviour is consistent and, therefore, predictable, why do we persist in showing similar and probably greater rigidity? At Crans-Montana, projecting the absolute position of “zero troops, zero guarantees” is viewed by many as an example of Greek and Greek Cypriot intransigence. Surely, a small contingent of Turkish soldiers, operating under internationally controlled conditions, would not have been the end of the world. By posing the rigid condition of “zero troops, zero guarantees” we may have managed to marginalise the Guterres Framework, particularly when we rejected the proposal of the Turkish Cypriot leader to use the Framework as a basis for further discussion. To what extent have we lost another opportunity to solve the Cyprus problem?
It is a fact that the positions taken by Turkey have consistently been a basic obstacle in reaching a solution. I would remind the reader that over an extended period of time, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots have been aiming at a two-state solution. The question is what can we do to overcome Turkish intransigence? Unfortunately, our handling of the problem was not always the most appropriate.
As to what really happened at Crans-Montana there are two diametrically opposed versions of the story. The first one is that of the Presidency, according to which the collapse of the negotiations was the result of Ankara’s insistence on retaining the guarantee arrangements, intervention rights, presence of the Turkish army in Cyprus and the establishment of a Turkish military base. The version of the Secretary General, as set out in his reports to the Security Council, is that the three guarantee powers were positively disposed in respect of the issue of security and guarantees and that the responsibility for missing this historic opportunity rests with the two Cypriot leaders. Similar messages have been transmitted by various European officials, such as Ms Mogherini. A similar position was recently adopted by Alan Duncan, the British minister of state for Europe and the Americas. Specifically, after pointing out that he was personally present at Crans Montana, he said that “the stand taken by Turkey in these negotiations was very constructive”. Having been there myself, I obviously have a view on what really happened. However, these are things of the past and we need to focus on the future.
It is a well-known fact that Michalis Dountas, the Greek ambassador to Cyprus in the critical 5-year period that followed the invasion, was an advocate of the maintenance of the (then) status quo. According to him, whatever would follow would not have been worse than what we were then (in 1988) called upon to “sign”. In retrospect, Michalis Dountas’ assessment proved to be wrong. However, how do you explain the fact that, today, many Greek Cypriot leaders, having seen the “turkification” of northern Cyprus reaching an advanced stage, insisting on adhering to his school of thought? May I remind you that even Demetris Christofias, who was presenting himself as a strong advocate of the reunification of Cyprus, at the end of the day he backed-off with the celebrated “we say ‘no’, to cement ‘yes’”.
The time that has intervened between then and now has proven that Dountas’ assessment was grossly incorrect. As you rightly point out, the “status quo” is not static but it changes over time, at our expense. Just think of the situation that was then prevailing and compare it with today’s situation. The nature of the Cyprus problem is such that the Greek Cypriot arguments for the return of territory and properties and the withdrawal of settlers are fading with the passage of time. I cannot explain why Greek Cypriot leaders appear not to understand this simple truth. At the end of the day, what counts are the catastrophic consequences of this mentality.
As to the stand taken by Demetris Christofias, what I would say is that a democratic debate was held within Akel at the time. The debate culminated in a congress that was attended by some 1,500 members of the party. An extensive discussion led to a vote of 60:40 in favour of ‘no’. The congress was monitored by the mass media and the respective positions of each one of us are well known. In a large organisation you have the obligation to respect the opinion of the majority. Talking about comrade Demetris, allow me to remind you that despite our different views at the time, when he was elected President of the Republic he sought my participation in the negotiating team. Nobody can ignore the fact that during his 5-year term in office, a series of very important convergences was reached. These are set out in a document titled “Convergences 2008-2012”, which was compiled by (UNSG’s Special Envoy) Mr. Downer.
With the ideas that are shyly advanced, is Rauf Denktash solemnly vindicated, given that he prophetically predicted that the time will come when the Greek Cypriots will be actively seeking the partition of Cyprus?
You will recollect that a few days ago we met at a gathering of trade unionists, at the Chateau in Nicosia, where you asked me to give you this interview. The meeting was attended by politicians coming from both communities. I must admit that I felt that the tables were being turned around, when Mehmet Ali Talat came out, along with all the other Turkish Cypriot politicians, and unequivocally stated that the Turkish Cypriots were aiming for a federal state, which would have a single sovereignty, one international personality and one citizenship and, then, he added that they reject the position held by Greek Cypriots who favoured a confederation. I sincerely hope that the impression of Mr. Talat to the effect that Greek Cypriots are aiming at a confederation is incorrect. That such thoughts are shyly placed on the table by various players is something we have noted ourselves.
It would appear that, today, we are finding ourselves – for the umpteenth time – in a deadlock situation. In your opinion, what do we need to do to get out of this mess, beyond the wishful thinking and the blank cartridge shots of our politicians?
The only way forward is for all parties to accept the reconvening of the negotiation process in a meaningful manner. The point has been pointedly stressed by the UN Secretary General. He has explained, in very specific terms, what he has proposed: Continuation of the negotiations from where they were left at Crans-Montana. From the point of view of substance, the Secretary General is asking for the retention of all the convergences attained, the acceptance of his Framework (which abolishes the guarantees and the intervention rights from day one, imposes a drastic reduction of the occupying forces, also from day one, to be followed by a fast completion of their full withdrawal, save one issue which remained pending for further negotiation concerning the fate of the Cyprus Greek Regiment (Eldyk) and the Cyprus Turkish Regiment, and expects Morphou to be returned), as well as the mechanism that would secure the proper implementation of the solution arrived at, which excluded the guarantee powers. As to the procedural part, the Secretary General insists on two negotiating tables, exactly like Crans-Montana, thus facilitating the parallel negotiation of the international aspects of the problem at one of the tables and of four basic internal issues at the other table, on the basis of a “package deal”. If the above are accepted, the Secretary General believes that we will have a strategic common understanding that will facilitate the resolution of the remaining pending issues.
There are good reasons as to why the Secretary General is proposing the above approach. Without exception, all the “chapters” of the Cyprus problem have reached an advanced stage of convergence. Only certain specific issues are still pending in each “chapter”. This is something which now permits a kind of a cross-negotiation approach. It was already evident that the further negotiation of “chapters”, on a stand-alone basis, had exhausted its prospects. As a consequence, it became difficult to cover the last remaining mile. By adopting a cross-negotiation approach we will overcome the perpetual problem of what we discuss first and what should follow while we will stop losing ourselves in small details.
The fact that, to this moment, it has proved unfeasible to re-launch the negotiation process has been confirmed by the Secretary General. Despite the verbal assurances given by the two sides, he has not been convinced, as yet, that the two sides are ready to forge ahead on the basis of the procedures that he has proposed.
On a going forward basis it would appear that the indefinite prolongation of the Cyprus problem is not one of the options we have. It follows that the Greek Cypriots have two basic options (a) a federal Cyprus or (b) a partitioned Cyprus. Could it be that the talk about a “loose” federation is intended to pave the road for expropriating northern Cyprus to Turkey? I would remind you that, in the recent past, the Archbishop came out in public in favour of two separate states (irrespective of the fact that the following day clarified his position by stating that he was expressing a “personal opinion”). Do you anticipate that the European Union would accept two Lilliputian states as full member states or that the partition of Cyprus would lead to the defenestration of Cyprus from the Union?
I agree with you that Greek Cypriots have two basic options: a federation or partition. Today, this assessment appears as valid as it has ever been. As I have already mentioned, the soundings concerning a change in the agreed federal framework intensify. The alternative which is being discussed behind the scenes is not the unitary state but some form of a partition. The Archbishop was at least honest by appearing as a strong advocate of a two-state arrangement. What is, of course, strange is that the President declares that they are in harmony between them. The European Union has a serious obstacle in accepting a second Cyprus state as one of its members. Thus, while I do not anticipate the formal recognition of the pseudostate, it can easily be upgraded from an “illegal” entity to an “unrecognised” entity. We all remember the efforts exerted shortly after the 2004 referenda for allowing the north to directly engage in international commercial activities. We have no doubt that we will experience a similar behaviour in the event of a failure to re-launch the negotiation process and we will end up being branded as co-responsible for the failure. This is what happened after Crans-Montana in the Secretary General’s reports while Turkey was effectively “absolved”.
At least one political party leader holds the view that by setting clear objectives and by securing unanimity as to what those objectives should be, is sufficient for attaining the ambitious goals we will set for ourselves. Clearly such a position suggests a childish naivety. The more ambitious your targets are, the easier it is to convince the voters to accept them but the more difficult it is to attain them. Do you agree that such an approach inevitably leads to a trap into which many Greek Cypriot politicians have fallen in the past? Securing a unanimous consent among the political forces of Cyprus is, in principle, a desirable objective; but it is an unrealistic objective, which, in the past, has often led the process into political inertia and a stalemate. In Cyprus, we have a political system that affords small parties the possibility of imposing their choices on the majority, in respect of vital issues. These small parties – often shamelessly – claim the right to “shift the balance” in the one or the other direction. Do you share the view that this is a grossly undemocratic arrangement, which allows small minorities to effectively control the political scene and to dictate the political tempo of the country?
If subscribed to, the view that the bicommunal, bizonal federation has proved to be an unfeasible goal and, therefore, we need to revert to the goal of a unitary state, does, indeed, indicate childish naivety. How on earth, is it possible to conclude that a federation is unfeasible while a much more favourable to the Greek Cypriot positions target is deemed feasible? Yes, a unanimous consent is desirable but it is obviously unfeasible, if we cannot agree on what our goals should be. All of us, who consider a federal state as the only available option we have for seeking and achieving the liberation and the reunification of Cyprus, have great difficulty to find a common modus operandi with those who reject such a solution, either directly or through the imposition of clearly unacceptable to the other side conditions. If we agree with them, we will become accomplices to the partition, which will follow.
You are right, the small parties in Cyprus, do exploit the possibilities offered by our Presidential system of utilising their small electoral power for entering into pre-election or post-election alliances. Thus, on many occasions, they succeeded in gaining effective control over the government. This is a feature common to many democracies. However, we, in Akel, will not compromise our positions on the Cyprus problem in order to enhance our strength. We have proved this in the last presidential election.
In the very recent past, the President of the Republic has posed the dilemma between a “loose” and a “tight-knit” federation. It has transpired that the gist of the dilemma (if, in fact, there is a dilemma) is not readily comprehensible. There is absolutely no doubt that securing the cohesion of the state and the severance of the political umbilical cord connecting northern Cyprus with Turkey entail the assignment of certain powers to the Federal government. These powers cover the currency and monetary policy, taxation, the exploitation of natural resources, the guarding of the external borders of Cyprus, international relations and, in general, whatever is linked to the premise of having a single sovereignty, one international personality and one citizenship. Beyond this, if, for example, certain taxes (such as property taxes and municipal taxes) shall come under the jurisdiction of the federal states is – unquestionably – a matter of secondary importance. You represent the principal opposition party: What are your views on these vital issues?
In today’s world one comes across decentralised as well as centralised federations. This has to do with the reasons that prompted their formation and the process that was followed in establishing the federations. For example, the classical federations of the 19th century (USA, Germany, Switzerland) commenced operating as decentralised federations because they originated from confederated structures. The same applies to federations that were established to address national issues (Belgium). The remaining federations are fairly centralised (a good example is the Latin American federations). Whether a federation is centralised or decentralised depends on how competences are divided between the centre and the peripheries. If what we are discussing in our case is the transfer of certain agreed upon powers from the centre to the constituent states, the President must, at least, specify what he is referring to. The fact is that in all federal systems, certain powers (basically those you have identified in your question) are universally allocated to the centre. If we assign such powers to the constituent states, then we cross the red line between a federation and a confederation. And if we cross the red line, then the turkification of the occupied area will be completed and will become irreversible. Please allow me to pose a legitimate question myself. Given that the President declares that he accepts the UN Secretary General’s Framework and the SG’s position that we should pick up the process where we left it at Crans Montana, why did the President choose to open a fundamental, otherwise agreed upon, issue, at a critical time, when what is at stake is whether the negotiation process can be re-launched or not?
Mr. Tsielepis, thank you very much for a particularly interesting and informative interview.
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail and Alithia