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April 29, 2012, Sunday

The Cyprus farce

As was expected, the latest round of talks aimed at reunifying Cyprus after almost 40 years has come unstuck.

 Last weekend UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with his special envoy for Cyprus, Alexander Downer. The outcome of this meeting were phone calls to the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities -- Dimitris Christofias and Derviş Eroğlu. His message was simple: Not enough progress has been made, therefore we cannot call the much talked about international conference.

Ban had hoped there would have been enough progress (after all, they have had four years) on core internal issues to move to the next stage. This would have involved bringing into the process the three guarantor states (Turkey, Greece and the UK) as well as other key international actors and working out the remaining elements, including security issues. This would have paved the way for a deal to be put to a referendum in spring 2013 after presidential elections in Cyprus.

For most of the last four years, the two sides have had the main goal of trying to out-maneuver the other. This increased following the change of leadership in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) some two years ago. Neither side really wants a bi-communal, bi-zonal federal solution, making the negotiations little more than a farce.

What will happen next? With the Greek Cypriots taking up the rotating presidency of the EU on July 1, the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey (which maintains 40,000 soldiers in the KKTC) have been saying for months that if there was no deal by then, the Turkish side would call it a day, implying they would move to a Plan-B.

Over the last few days there has been little reaction from Ankara. While clearly Turkey has more pressing regional issues to deal with, there is little point in saying anything until the UN announces the next steps. There seem to be three choices: Declare this round of talks dead; freeze the talks during the Cypriot Presidency of the EU and the period running up to the presidential elections in Cyprus; or keep the talks rolling, even at a very low level, throughout this period. While the UN is disappointed and probably totally fed up with Cypriots, it would seem unlikely that Ban will decide to throw in the towel as this would mean having to come up with alternatives. There is no appetite for this presently. It’s easier just to keep farcical talks going. Moreover, they will reason that a likely new Greek Cypriot leader could change the dynamic. The leader of the main opposition The Democratic Rally (DISY), Nicos Anastasiades, is now being touted as the right man for the job. However, while Anastasiades backed the UN’s 2004 Annan Plan, his recent statements over the Cyprus problem have been far from encouraging.

As for Christofis, according to reports, it seems increasingly unlikely that he will run for a second term, making him the first-ever leader not to do so. Given that current polls show that under Christofias the Progressive Party of Working People’s (AKEL) popularity is running at only 20 percent, I guess he wants to escape a humiliating defeat for the party.

Therefore the most likely outcome from the UN would seem to be to keep the talks going one way or another. We will know more following Downer’s visit to Cyprus next Friday, when he is due to meet with the two leaders.

While it would seem unlikely that Turkey would fail to support the decision of the UN, at the same time Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots believe that this new impasse is exactly what the Greek Cypriots wanted -- no deadlines. However, it may be that in these circumstances the Greek Cypriots could find themselves under greater pressure to accept a stronger UN involvement whereby Downer will have a freer hand to arbitrate.

There has been speculation that Turkey may launch some initiatives during the Greek Cypriot Presidency. The Greek Cypriot claim that Ankara plans to try and upgrade the status of the Turkish Cypriots -- by, for example, having the KKTC recognized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the rumored opening of Varosha under Turkish Cypriot rule. Both would seem long shots as both would tarnish Turkey’s efforts to demonstrate it to be a serious political actor, supporting greater regional stability.

However, following Greek Cypriot oil and gas explorations, onshore exploratory drilling for oil and gas in the village of Singrasi near Famagusta kicked off last Thursday. Eroğlu declared that whatever findings there could be will be split between the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey. The Greek Cypriots responded by saying the drilling plans demonstrated the lack of will to achieve a solution to the Cyprus problem. This being the exact same thing that Turkey told the Greek Cypriots over their exploratory activities. The Greek Cypriots are now planning to take this up internationally, with the parliament and political parties deciding to embark on a joint effort to thwart all efforts towards a Plan-B. And so the Cyprus soap opera continues.

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