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July 12, 2011, Tuesday

Cyprus -- the UN puts its foot down

After three years of meandering talks, last week in Geneva United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally got tough with the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities -- Dimitris Christofias and Derviş Eroğlu, informing them that they have until October to reach a breakthrough in negotiations to reunite Cyprus.

While Turkish Cypriots have always favored a structured timeframe for talks, Greek Cypriots have not and up until this point they have always managed to persuade the UN against setting deadlines. However, the international community is becoming increasingly fed up with the Cyprus problem and the monkey business (almost negotiating just for the sake of negotiating) played out by the two leaders. Therefore this time Mr. Ban stood his ground and a timeframe was imposed.

The fact is, hardly any international negotiations are ever successful without deadlines because having no structure allows parties to get away with doing very little, which has definitely been the case with Cyprus if you consider that during the last three years practically nothing has been achieved on core issues. Most of the time has been spent discussing easier topics -- with the possible exception of governance. Therefore, both leaders returned to the island having agreed to the timeframe, committing to speed up talks as well as allowing the UN to play a larger mediation role, which will include the submission of bridging proposals.

From this weekend the two leaders will begin to tackle more thorny issues, such as settlers, property, etc., issues where both sides have spoken about red lines or presented maximalist goals. However, Mr. Ban seems convinced that they can be successful, stating that he has “every expectation that by October the leaders will be able to report that they have reached convergence on all core issues.”

Rather unexpectedly, we have already witnessed some of this long missing “readiness to compromise” attitude in Geneva, with Turkish Cypriots making a considerable shift from their earlier position and proposing opening discussions on territorial aspects -- provided territorial adjustments are finalized on maps at the very last stage of the talks.

At the same time, the Greek Cypriot side agreed that in the new federation the principle of bi-zonality and bi-communality should be reflected in the demography and land ownership of the two constituent states. Indeed one may say that the Geneva summit itself has already produced a revolutionary breakthrough, which has produced an unprecedented optimism that there might finally be a Cyprus deal, something which most analysts, including myself, had almost given up on.

If the October meeting, which will take place in New York, delivers the desired breakthrough, Mr. Ban plans to give a positive report to the UN Security Council. This should pave the way for the convening of an international conference which would bring together the two sides together with the three guarantor states -- Turkey, the UK and Greece -- as well as the EU and the Security Council's five members as non-observers in order to discuss the security aspects of the settlement.

At the same time Turkey has also strongly supported the actions of Mr. Ban. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu announced during a recent visit to the north of Cyprus that it was obvious open-ended talks were leading nowhere and that Turkey expected and hoped that a comprehensive settlement would be found to the Cyprus problem by the year's end, with a referendum taking place at the beginning of 2012, meaning that a united Cyprus would take over the EU presidency in July 2012. The resolution of the Cyprus problem would breathe new life into Ankara's accession talks with the EU, which are currently stalled, as well as resolve a whole host of other issues, including EU-NATO relations.

If they are to be victorious, both sides will need to demonstrate strong political will and international political realism, which will not be easy with strong nationalist forces on both sides. In particular Christofias will have to defy the powerful Church, which is dead-set against a bi-communal, bi-federal solution. Of course agreement does not guarantee a “yes” vote in a referendum but at least this time both leaders should strongly support what they have agreed to, with no tearful pleas to vote “no” on national TV, which was the case with the 2004 Annan Plan for Cyprus and former Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos. Both sides need to quickly start preparing their communities for the compromises that will need to be made. This will not be an easy task either because maximalist goals have been kept on the table for a long time. Moreover, the Cyprus problem has become a massive industry in Cyprus, with many people benefitting from it.

It seems this round of talks has entered the end game. Success will bring dividends to the entire region. However, if a breakthrough fails to materialize it could mean the UN will give up and close its office down on the island, leaving the two sides to get on with it by themselves.

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