This is one of a series of articles from our new feature ‘Background briefing: The Divided Island‘. It is a comprehensive interactive information guide on the Cyprus problem .
By Jean Christou
Like all Cyprus peace processes, Crans-Montana opened on Wednesday June 28 with lots of smiles, handshakes, photo-ops and positive statements by all and sundry even though behind the scenes, lurked long-standing and entrenched positions that it appeared would be more difficult to overcome than moving a mountain, and as it turned out, actually were.
Barely had anything happened, on the second day, Turkey sought to gain an early tactical advantage with its foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu telegraphing to the Greek Cypriots they should forget about the scrapping of foreign guarantees or full withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island post-settlement. He called it a “dream that Greece and the Greek Cypriots should awake from”. Was he already setting the stage for failure?
On June 30, Day 3, the participation of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appeared to give the proceedings a bit of a boost. He called the conference an historic opportunity. “The road back to Switzerland has not been easy, but the path to lasting peace never is,” he said. After the conference the phrase was slightly adjusted to refer to an historic lost opportunity.
By July 3, after the weekend, a downbeat President Nicos Anastasiades said he wished he could say that the talks were going in the direction he wanted as he left the late-night meeting which focused on each side’s proposals on security and guarantees submitted earlier in the day. The photo of the day was the handshake between him and Cavusoglu.
On Tuesday, July 4, nothing was clear. Day Seven turned into something of a roller-coaster ride, with hints of good news quickly overshadowed by vague statements implying a gloomy outlook. The day started at 11am, with a meeting between the two leaders, and their chief negotiators. Exiting the session, Anastasiades revealed that there had been a “glimmer of hope” in the meeting with Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, which was later “overturned”. It later emerged that Guterres would return to Switzerland on Day 9, Thursday July 6 to try and avert what appeared to be a looming impasse.
Day 9 began with the return of Guterres, and despite the hype, his arrival did not produce immediate progress, but a shift in the tone of the talks was discernible nonetheless though it did not last long.
Akinci told reporters in the morning: “Today is not a day to engage in the blame-game. It is the day to help each other and see if we can reach an agreement. We don’t know whether we will have the same opportunity tomorrow.” Twenty-four hours later he had completely changed his tune.
It was obvious things were not going well when lunch was pushed back and Guterres had to meet separately with the leaders and the different factions. This went on all afternoon. British Permanent Representative to the United Nations Matthew Rycroft said that Guterres “ is straining every muscle to get Cyprus talks over the lines“.
Throughout the day Guterres held successive and separate meetings with Anastasiades, Akinci, Cavusoglu and Greek foreign minister Nicos Kotzias.
The bilateral meetings paused shortly after 9pm, followed by a second round of meetings between Guterres and the two leaders before the working dinner hosted by the UN chief. The conference proper had been called off due to the run-over of the separate meetings.
Reports said sometime after the break and before the start of the dinner, Guterres again met one-on-one with Anastasiades and then Akinci in the UN chief’s hotel suite, in what was seen as “a frantic attempt at seeking compromises.”
During their tete-a-tete, the UN chief sounded out Anastasiades as to whether, if foreign guarantees should be scrapped, he was willing to be flexible on the sunset clause or the review clause – the guarantor powers maintaining foreign troops on the island but agreeing to review their status after a certain number of years.
The indications emerged that Turkey was considering relinquishing intervention rights vanished however when the Greek side asked for that commitment in writing, sources said later. Anastasiades also reportedly insisted on full withdrawal of troops within a fixed timetable.
Reports said the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey had been authorised to make decisions on the so-called sunset clause – an end-date for the withdrawal of all foreign troops – without the need for Alexis Tsipras or Tayyip Erdogan to attend the conference.
Reuters reported a source saying there was fault with the Turkish side being “a bit greedy” and “overplaying their hand”, but also Greek Cypriots, who possibly made a tactical error in asking for a written commitment from Turkey relinquishing its intervention rights before a deal had been agreed.
“Tonight’s dinner was a disaster and he [Anastasiades] was behaving really badly,” the source said.
During its main evening bulletin earlier in the night, Cybc, citing Turkish sources, reported that the UN had a draft framework ready for a political agreement that could even be announced that very evening. This was followed by the news that the main evening session with all parties had been cancelled so that was another bad omen, and the working dinner was put off until 10pm Cyprus time.
Even by midnight, the talks could still have gone either way as all reports suggested there was a hair’s breadth between what was left to agree, or else total collapse. By 2am Cyprus time, the dinner stopped for a break, another bad sign. But it was not all over quite yet.
By 2.50am, some contradictory media reports suggested on the one hand that there had been no substantial progress and on the other, that the only remaining issues on the table were the rotating presidency, the withdrawal of troops and the monitoring of the implementation of a solution.
Fifteen minutes later, reports started coming in from multiple media outlets that the dinner was over. By 3.20am, the UN announced that Guterres would speak to the press, which he did at 3.45am saying he was “deeply sorry” that the conference closed without an agreement. Guterres’ news conference lasted only 3.5 minutes. He said he could not isolate a particular issue as the death knell for the talks, but was firm that the conference was over and he wished “the best for all the Cypriots north and south”. No other participant attended the news conference.
Then the real fun began, statements, rumours, innuendo and the ubiquitous blame game. Both sides accused the other of being responsible for the gigantic failure of the talks that had seemed to swing between ‘almost there’ to ‘never there’ from day to day.
UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide tweeted on his way out of Crans-Montana on Friday July 7: “Close, but not close enough: A somber mood as delegations leave #CransMontana, after 10 days, without agreement”.
Cavusoglu who tweeted within minutes of the collapse said “unfortunately” the Greek Cypriots’ ‘zero guarantees, zero army’ red line could not be overcome. He even suggested that negotiating within UN parameters might no longer be the answer for Cyprus. Kotzias posted on Twitter that “Turkey’s intervention rights on the island could not be made acceptable.”
The perspective from diplomatic circles surrounding the talks was different. One diplomat in Crans-Montana lamented that the sides had come “so, so close” to succeeding. Indications which had emerged that Turkey was considering relinquishing intervention rights vanished when the Greek side asked for that commitment in writing, it said.
A UN source said: the dinner was a disaster and that Anastasiades “was behaving really badly”.
Each side blamed the other for weeks over a long, hot summer, waiting for Guterres to put the other straight in his eventual report, which came on September 30.
The carefully-worded verdict: A historic opportunity was missed in Crans-Montana and no blame was assigned. So, the Swiss negotiations like all those before them were consigned to the dustbin of Cyprob history, and another special envoy has gone to the diplomat’s Cyprob graveyard.