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Is Guterres playing his final card with Berlin meeting?

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

ANOTHER so-called crucial meeting on the Cyprus problem will take place on Monday at the Adlon Kempinski Hotel in Berlin. Early in the evening Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci will have dinner with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who will attempt to kick-start the stalled peace process, something his envoy Jane Holl Lute had been trying to do, without success, for the last 15 months.

What has happened to persuade Guterres to call this meeting? His latest report to the UN Security Council on Thursday, did not exactly raise great expectations. He said that despite repeated calls to the two leaders “to improve the overall conditions and atmosphere for the process, the climate has deteriorated further due to increased tensions in and around Cyprus and due to the sides disagreeing over the terms of reference, prolonging the stalemate.”

He also wrote that “neither side has made sufficient effort to avoid unhelpful rhetoric which has further reinforced scepticism among the public.” This was a classic example of diplomatic understatement, considering that in the reporting period, both sides resorted to unhelpful rhetoric, cultivating distrust and hostility. Yet, he was still hopeful, as the two leaders agreed to “hold a joint informal meeting with me as a potentially constructive step in trying to find a mutually acceptable way forward.”

The Anastasiades government has been sending mixed signals about Monday’s meeting, initially keeping expectations low before changing tack. Speaking on a radio show, on Thursday, foreign minister, Nicos Christodoulides insisted there were positive signs. If there was nothing positive Lute would not have visited the island twice, nor would have Guterres invited the leaders to dinner, he argued. The UNSG would not be wasting his valuable time meeting the two leaders if he thought nothing would come of it, Christodoulides surmised.

Perhaps he has a point, but he should also consider what Guterres had said when he closed the conference in Crans Montana in July 2017. He urged the two leaders to enter a period of reflection about what had happened, and when they were ready to work constructively for a settlement, he would be happy to reactivate the peace process. After almost two-and-a-half years of reflection, there is no sign of the two leaders being ready to work for a settlement. They could not even agree the terms of reference after 14 months of proximity talks held by Lute, and as the UNSG noted in his report, they ignored repeated calls “to better inform the two communities about the contours of a settlement.”

This was not, strictly speaking, correct. Anastasiades has spent the last couple of years speaking negatively about the contours of the proposed settlement, arguing that its main tenets would not work and even suggesting the contours of a settlement changed. In the north, Akinci has been under intense pressure from the majority of parties, encouraged by Turkey, to abandon the idea of a bizonal, bi-communal federation. Ironically, Anastasiades’ thinking about a settlement is closer to the Turkish Cypriot opposition’s than Akinci’s, even though recently he has reverted to support for BBF, probably for tactical reasons, in anticipation of the ensuing blame game.

This brings us back to the first question of what persuaded Guterres to call the meeting with the two leaders. Conditions on the island, as he noted in his latest report, are far from favourable, there is added tension because of Turkey’s drilling activities in the Cypriot EEZ and no indication the two leaders are prepared to budge from their respective positions. Has he been asked by some members of the UN Security Council to have one last shot at brokering a deal, because of plans to pull out Unficyp in the not too distant future? The withdrawal of the peacekeeping force has been a subject of debate at the UN and the Cyprus government recognises it is just a case of when.

A withdrawal, which will not go down well with the Greek Cypriots, could persuade Anastasiades to adopt a constructive approach and although it is not an issue for the Turkish Cypriots, it would act as a wake up call for Akinci – withdrawal of Unficyp would signal the end of UN involvement in the Cyprus problem that would result in the north becoming a province of Turkey. This prospect frightens Akinci as much as it frightens Anastasiades, even if it is for different reasons. Will Guterres resort to scare tactics and polite blackmail to secure the leaders’ agreement on the resumption of the process? Under the circumstances, it is the only way to end the ongoing stalemate, but whether a new peace process will lead anywhere is another matter.

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