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What happened to Cyprus’ great white hope? July 11, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Cyprus, EU, European Union.
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SO HERE we are. It’s mid-2010 and the two leaders have just agreed to meet five more times during the sweltering summer months of July and August. Perhaps the UN is planning to sweat a solution out of them.

In four months time, UN Special Adviser Alexander Downer will ghost write a progress report for the UN Secretary-General to submit to the Security Council. This is really seen as Downer’s ‘get out’ clause. The Australian diplomat/entrepreneur will wash his hands of the Cyprus problem this November either by calling for the UN Good Offices to withdraw or by citing enough progress to warrant a rapid conclusion to the talks, meaning agreed solution and referenda.

Stagnancy in the talks will most likely lead to the Turkish Cypriots getting direct trade with the EU and Greek Cypriots getting the Ankara Protocol (flights and trade with Turkey).

The prevailing view among the relevant players in this international saga is that nobody apart from Athens and Ankara really wants a solution, at least not the type being negotiated. And for numerous reasons, the person taking the brunt of blame, even if it is still only whispers in the corridors, for the sluggish pace of progress is Demetris Christofias.

How can it feel this wrong?

Go back two years and the world was a different place. Christofias won the presidency, the most popular communist leader in the halls of the State Department after Gorbachev. With a snowy rug of hair, he was the Great White Hope of the international community.

Fast-forward to July 2010, and the words on the lips of numerous diplomats are that he’s a “weak leader”, a procrastinator, someone who doesn’t have what it takes to push through a solution.

Meanwhile, his interlocutor is following the guidebook to Cyprus problem negotiations almost to the letter. Dervis Eroglu has echoed Ankara’s calls for a solution by the end of the year, and even asked UNSG Ban Ki-moon to host a tripartite meeting with Christofias this September. To his domestic audience he continues the rhetoric of two founding states and two peoples adorned by their respective motherlands, but in principle, Eroglu insists on a solution in 2010. As one diplomat put it, you know Christofias is doing something wrong when he makes Eroglu look good.

As for Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu once again called for an international conference to accelerate talks for a solution this week. He doesn’t mind the format of the conference, as long as Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have equal status, something he knows Christofias has already rejected.

One view is that Ankara has convinced many a diplomat that it genuinely seeks to end the conflict, without having to take any onerous or meaningful steps to prove this other than agreeing to seek a solution.

Giving Talat the nod for cross-voting in the governance chapter did not seriously threaten or undermine Turkish interests. Forcing Eroglu to the negotiating table and keeping him relatively quiet also satisfies Turkey’s interests as Ban’s November report and the European Council’s December report approach.

And while Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted against the Annan Plan in a climate of grave mistrust for Turkey’s true intentions, the focus internationally has been on lifting the isolation of the Turkish Cypriots.

Another view is that the big powers involved in the region are less concerned with the details of a solution and the concessions Ankara might be willing to make, as long as Turkey shows willingness to sign on the dotted line, and frees NATO, the EU and Turkey, the model of Muslim democracy, from the claws of Greek Cypriots.

Downer is well aware of how much Ankara pulls the strings here. He’s no stranger to calling or flying to Ankara when the process reaches an impasse. Recently, he visited Davutoglu before discussions on the property chapter began. It remains to be seen how that plays out in the coming months.

So what went wrong for Christofias?

On arrival at the Presidential Palace, Christofias took swift and decisive steps to get Cyprus out of the corner, as he likes to say, after five years of aTassos Papadopoulos government.

Obstacles to opening Ledra Street were overcome and a path was paved for a new round of talks to start with then Turkish Cypriot leader “comrade” Mehmet Ali Talat. In a move to show his sincerity for a solution, Christofias made three early yet weighty concessions. In an effort to distance the negotiations from the Annan Plan and safeguard the unity of all Cypriots, he proposed a rotating presidency for a country that on paper has an ethnic balance that is four fifths Greek Cypriot and one fifth Turkish Cypriot. In another seemingly unilateral gesture, he agreed to let 50,000 Turkish settlers stay post-reunification while he introduced weighted voting for single ballot elections.

Despite intense domestic criticism for the above three concessions, Christofias repeatedly refused to withdraw the proposals. There is certainly an argument to be had that Christofias has not displayed the kind of strength expected of a leader who receives constant criticism from so-called allies in government. But in reality, one could argue that his positions on the Cyprus problem are no different today than they were two years ago.

So why the bad vibes internationally? How come not a single European leader dares to mention the word “occupation”? Why does no one talk about troops occupying European soil in 2010? When European leaders tell Christofias that they’ll “have a word” with Erdogan, one gets the sense they don’t really mean it. The economic cost of losing out on business contracts with Turkey is far too great.

Christofias has also been accused of filibustering, of failing to take advantage of time spent with Talat. This may be true, but another possible scenario is that Christofias saw Talat was cornered domestically and going to lose the elections, and did not wish to make too many concessions before sounding out Eroglu’s true intentions. For all their faults, at least Talat and Christofias convinced in private that they wanted a solution.

The way the talks have been set up, Greek Cypriots were not in a position to extract concessions from Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots in the first three chapters, at least not any that would resonate with a skeptical public. Christofias knew the real concessions to be had were in the last three chapters on property, territory and security. And according to Downer, he’s got about four months to extract them.

Is it possible the government’s main failing here is its inadequate, somewhat amateurish strategic communications strategy? It may be up against Turkey’s well-oiled diplomatic machinery but smaller powers do not always have to fair badly against bigger ones.

Hubert Faustmann, an international relations expert from the University of Nicosia argued Christofias’ adoption of the Papadopoulos strategy for “no suffocating timeframes” was “a PR disaster”.

“It communicates a non-willingness to solve the problem to many outsiders. At some stage, there has to be a deadline. Downer says negotiations can’t go on forever, the UNSG says it. Outside powers who want to put the problem out the way say it, and are trying to impose an endgame for the end of the year,” said Faustmann.

He said another PR disaster was allowing EDEK and DIKO to consistently undermine Christofias.

The expert acknowledged that the Greek Cypriot leadership likely rejects an international conference because it fears outside pressure from powers that are not unbiased towards Turkey at a time when the talks have yet to progress substantially.

“The Greek Cypriots are now stuck with the Ankara Protocol, which they’ll likely get at the end of the year in return for direct trade which will be imposed. They have put themselves strategically in a bad position. Outside powers think this is a fair deal, but the Greek Cypriots are not gaining anything significant from this,” he added.

“The Cyprus problem is as much about who gets blamed for failure as it is about a solution. In terms of the PR game, the Turkish side is playing it better.”

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