By Jean Christou
New book by former Swedish ambassador offers fascinating observations on Cyprob leaders
‘Notes from the Graveyard of Diplomats’, a book launched this week by former Swedish ambassador Ingemar Lindahl, may appear to have a rather intriguing title for those unfamiliar with the Cyprus issue.
If you’re not in on the joke, the reference to ‘diplomats’ graveyard’ is often used to describe the parade of foreign emissaries, UN and others, who have tried and failed over the decades to assist Cypriots reach a solution.
But Lindahl’s book is way more than a political recounting of the run-up to the 2004 referendum on the failed Annan plan and its aftermath.
Written in diary form from notes taken during 2002 to 2004 in the course of his time as Sweden’s Special Representative on the Cyprus issue, the book offers some behind-the-scenes snippets revealing the frustration of envoys, plus a some rather apt and often amusing assessments of many of the protagonists, a number of whom have since passed on.
But that’s not all. The book is peppered with poetry, family life, Cyprus history, archaeology and culture, well-known artists and poets on both sides and many anecdotes of life and travels around the island, or “The Cypriot Universe” as Lindahl refers to it. This reference might strike some as particularly apt as Cypriots are often described as viewing Cyprus the centre of the universe, not least many of our politicians.
When he took on the role in 2002 as Sweden’s Special Representative, prior to his ambassadorship from late 2004-2012, Lindahl himself was intrigued to take on a “problem of this kind – concrete, complex and historic”, he says. At that point in his notes he, like many envoys before and since, fell for the idea that this time “after almost 40 years of strife and endless talks the issue might finally be solved”.
Even though others had warned him that both sides appeared fine with the status quo, the prospect of EU membership in 2004, was to be the new catalyst for a solution.
A new round of talks was due to kick off in January 2002 between Rauf Denktash and Glafcos Clerides, both now deceased. One of Lindahl’s first tasks was to meet the protagonists
“After a half dozen meetings, I could start dividing people into pessimists and optimists about a solution,” he wrote later that month. “There seemed to be more of the former – they had heard the same song for decades.”
Lindahl described Clerides as “short, rotund and friendly, with an easy laugh” and clear blue eyes keenly observing people and events though he was past 80. Puffing on a big cigar, Clerides had expressed cautious optimism and a good measure of mistrust about Denktash’s “sudden inclination” for direct talks.
Denktash was also described as short and stocky like Clerides but appearing to be cut from a different cloth. “While Clerides has a rather flexible and reasonable mien, Denktash gives a stone-like impression and is relentless in his rhetoric,” Lindahl says.
In other ‘first’ meetings, the former ambassador found then Akel leader, and later president, Demetris Christofias to have “a craftiness in his glance, mixed with a glimpse of insecurity, as if he remains somewhat incredulous with the high position he has reached in life”.
“Even less optimistic was Christofias’ political partner, Tassos Papadopoulos. There is something severe and distant about him, as if he disliked having people too close to him. He is not the ordinary politician who likes to shake hands and rub shoulders, but the kind of man who keeps his newly-bought shoes on even if they make him suffer, and expects others to do the same.”
On current president and then Disy leader Nicos Anastasiades, Lindahl thought he made quite a different impression from the former pair. “Anastasiades seemed to belong to a newer generation with greater openness and a lighter touch. Or did I get that impression just because he was more charming and persuasive? Like Papadopoulos he smoked incessantly, explaining that he suffered from no health problems according to his doctor and that his chain-smoking uncle had died at the age of 100,” Lindahl observes.
He also met former president George Vassiliou who complained to him that there were too many lawyers “creating obstacles rather than solving problems”.
On the future Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, Lindahl quotes him as saying: “’Well, you see how tricky this persistent problem has become. Fortunately, I am married to a psychologist who sets me straight’. He thereby echoed Kissinger who said about attending the UN General Assembly as Secretary of State: ‘First I see the Greek ambassador, then I see the Turkish ambassador, finally I see the Cypriot ambassador and then I go to my shrink’.”
Next on the list of people was UN Special Adviser Alvaro de Soto “bald with two penetrating eyes, a well-tended beard and an elegantly checkered shirt, has the reputation of being one of the bright aces of the UN”.
By March 2002, Lindahl recalls that the talks were not going well and then UN secretary-general, the late Kofi Annan, stepped in with a visit to the island but did not have much success. There was another meet-up with the UN chief in Paris in September that year that kicked off the race to reach a deal before the EU Council summit in Copenhagen in December 2002. By then, Denktash was in hospital for heart surgery and Turkey’s government had changed with Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP party now enthroned, and with Ankara appearing ready to deal, with or without Denktash.
A draft of what was not yet known as ‘the Annan plan’ was ready “but it was obvious the only hope of getting the two sides to sign would be under pressure”, says Lindahl.
Yet, it all came to nothing. “The non-participating Denktash had the last laugh, at least for the moment,” he added. “Unsurprisingly” he arrived in Copenhagen “as late as was decently possible… When he finally appeared, he refused to discuss the Plan at all and instead used the opportunity to attack the UN and the EU”.
In January 2003, Lindahl again met the Turkish Cypriot leader as a new deadline of February had been set that Denktash was not happy about. “When I referred to his healthy appearance he said: ‘Yes, I’m fine, though a lot of people wished that I would have died. It’s quite a pleasure to spite one’s adversaries’.”
Later in the month during a meeting with de Soto, the UN envoy compared the AKP government with the cat in Tom & Jerry, always outrun by the mouse. “Nevertheless, he predicted, the day was approaching when the Turkish Cypriot leader would run out of luck and be swallowed by the cat.”
In February 2003 things changed again with the election of Tassos Papadopoulos as president, and things just went downhill from there, culminating in Denktash’s intransigence at talks in The Hague in March. That diary entry was swiftly followed by this one: “It’s all over… The new Turkish government was unable to control the old man.”
Britain’s Cyprus envoy Lord David Hannay, according to Lindahl, called Denktash “a hopeless character” and “was not much more enthusiastic about Papadopoulos”. “With his usual wit he resembled them to two drunkards emerging from the pub and trying to prop up each other in their mutual negativity.”
Fast forward, on the Cyprus issue at least, to a year later, early 2004, and the whole atmosphere had changed after pro-solution forces led by Mehmet Ali Talat who had become ‘prime minister’ in the north. Lindahl recalls it had shifted from general pessimism to optimism, which was shortly followed by Turkey’s sudden willingness to negotiate, and things were up and running again. Events were speeding up with Cyprus’ accession to the EU only months away on May 1.
Back in February, Annan had called Denktash and Papadopoulos to New York. They went “more like two squealing pigs on the way to the slaughterhouse than two statesmen intent on solving a historic conflict”, writes Lindahl.
Indeed, Clerides told him that Papadopoulos “to the very last minute had believed that Denktash would find a way to escape Erdogan’s agreement with Annan. So, when it became clear that Denktash would sign on to it he [Papadopoulos] got quite stressed”.
Then came the Burgenstock negotiations in March 2004 during which Papadopoulos took the opportunity “to escape” to the EU summit in Brussels after only a day at the Swiss conference, “as if the regular EU event was more important than the future of Cyprus”.
“Sadly, the worst predictions were confirmed” in Burgenstock even though with Talat designated proxy, Denktash was not there to scupper the talks. Papadopoulos was the one to shun contact with the other side “blockading himself in his hotel suite”.
Ditto the referendum on April 24, another big disappointment for the pro-solution campers with the Greek Cypriot rejection of the Annan plan. “The outcome is tragic,” Lindahl wrote when he learned the results.
Lindahl met finally with de Soto as the latter was packed and ready to leave the island, and the UN envoy told him it was the intricacy and absurdity of the Cyprus problem that had first attracted him, but that it had finally worn him down ‘as he lamented that a solution of the Cyprus problem seemed more difficult to find than the Holy Grail’”.
Amen to that.
For some of us, especially journalists, Lindahl’s book is a trip down memory lane, bringing back into focus what happened 15 years ago this year, along with some quirky new insights to file away for future reference. For newcomers to the Cyprus issue it is great primer with a ‘fly on the wall’ flavour from someone who clearly took the time to get to know and enjoy the island and its peoples over a decade and who didn’t just bury himself under a pile of dusty Cyprob files, if you pardon the pun as it relates to the title of this book
Notes from the Graveyard of Diplomats: Cyprus 2002-2004 By Ingemar Lindahl Heterotopia Publications ISBN 978 9925 7359 3-8 (2019)