After six months on the job, the UNSG’s representative failed to persuade leaders on the island to give diplomacy a chance

After a gruelling six months of trying to piece together an initiative to help Greek and Turkish Cypriots to start a dialogue, the United Nations Secretary General’s personal envoy Maria Angela Holguín is finalising her report on work done until now although what her next steps might be remain unclear.

These will be decided by UNSG Antonio Guterres after the report is submitted the UN has said she is due to have meetings with the leaders of both sides although no forthcoming trip to the island has been planned.

Although the UN never put an official time limit on Holguín’s role, the Turkish side, when giving consent to her appointment back in January, insisted that her mandate be limited to six months. Unless both sides agree, the UN will not force an extension beyond that, according to a source close to Holguin.

The Columbian diplomat is expected to hold contacts in Brussels and London in the coming days.

Holguín was appointed in January after a seven-year hiatus following the failure of talks in Crans Montana in 2017 to get anywhere to search for common ground on the way forward and to advise the UNSG on the Cyprus issue. Since then, she has been conducting talks on both sides in Cyprus, as well as Ankara, Athens, Moscow, Brussels and other European capitals. Her mission, however, has been marred by global and regional tensions, as well as the unyielding attitude of Cyprus’ two leaders.

The Turkish side has aimed from the beginning to undermine Holguín and lead her effort into a deadlock, said the source. “They deliberately made her feel unwelcome every time and reminded her that her time is limited.”

Throughout Holguín’s efforts, Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar did not budge from his demand that the sovereign equality of his community be recognised before any talks can start. He even refused to attend an informal tripartite meeting with Holguín and Greek Cypriot leader President Nikos Christodoulides last month.

More recently, the Turkish Cypriot leadership also introduced a condition of “direct flights, direct contacts, direct trade.” It is not exactly clear whether this replaces the demand for the recognition of sovereign equality or whether the Turkish side considers it a step to demonstrate that recognition.

Whether the Turkish side, with this hardline stance, is trying to force the UN to terminate the effort to achieve a bizonal bicommunal federation or to push the Greek Cypriot side to recognise the sovereign equality of the Turkish Cypriots, neither is a realistic expectation, according to UN circles.

The UN official with Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar

Christodoulides, on the other hand, seems to have treated the appointment of a personal envoy as a means to an end in itself, particularly as a safety valve to keep in check unilateral moves by Turkey such as violations in the UN buffer zone and the gradual opening of the fenced-off city of Varosha.

Throughout Holguín’s visits, the Greek Cypriot side to failed to deliver concrete constructive incentives to overcome the mistrust after the failure at Crans Montana.

The frustration was evident in Holguín’s words after her last round of talks on the island, which is dubbed as “the graveyard” of UN special envoys due to the countless failures and deadlock over decades.

In an interview with the Greek Cypriot daily Kathimerini, the Columbian diplomat expressed her surprise at Tatar’s rejection of a trilateral meeting with her and Christodoulides. “Our aim should have been to give diplomacy a chance,” she said. Asked whether Christodoulides had “done everything in his power to restart the talks,” Holguin said that the Christodoulides government had a “very clear picture of what could unlock the process,” insinuating that it did not take that step. 

In the same interview, Holguín underlined that decisions rested in the hands of the leaders, “who need to show courage and determination.

“An envoy can only be successful if the sides help them,” said the source close to Holguín. “She offered to assist, but if the sides aren’t pushing, the UN cannot do anything.”

Drawing attention to the danger of lack of a settlement process and even dialogue in Cyprus, former special representative to the Turkish Cypriot leadership Erhan Ercin said the two sides’ positions are liable to harden.

The UN process should be utilised to the utmost “because the multiple problems in Cyprus – from property to immigration – cannot be solved on an individual basis, but only through the solution of the Cyprus problem,” according to Ercin, who worked closely with former Turkish Cypriot leaders Mehmet Ali Talat and Mustafa Akinci.

“No issue on the island can be solved in a sustainable way without a solution,” he said. “Any unilateral step to that end by one side will lead to a counter step. We should be advancing the UN dialogue, working on solving the Cyprus problem and utilising the soft instruments of the EU, instead of securitising the region.”

Ercin said the recent Turkish-Greek rapprochement as a unique opportunity for Cypriots. “We should take advantage of this. We should see how the warming of relations between Turkey and Greece can help us transform the situation in Cyprus.”