By Menekse Tokyay
With just months remaining before Cyprus is expected to assume the rotating EU presidency this summer, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a final effort to bring Turkish Cypriot President Dervish Eroglu and his Greek Cypriot counterpart Dimitris Christofias closer to a solution in a two-day meeting that ended Wednesday (January 25th) at Greentree, near New York City.
Turkey has said that if the Greek Cypriots are allowed to assume the EU presidency in July, without a settlement on the island being reached, Ankara will freeze its relations with the Union.
Following his second meeting with the two communities’ leaders since talks began in 2008, the UN chief told reporters that limited progress was achieved.
Differences between the two sides persist on three core issues: governance, property claims and citizenship issues.
As a next step, the secretary-general intends to call a multilateral conference in late April or early May, with the guarantor powers Turkey, Greece and the UK. But, he underlined that progress must be made before then.
The sides are expected to complete the exchange of data on property issues within the next two weeks, and Ban will then prepare a report for the Security Council on the status of the negotiations.
“The crucial actor in this game is now Ban Ki-moon. If he signals that the Greentree summit is the last chance and if a deadline for the negotiations is not determined, I see no further motivation for the Greek Cypriots to change their position,” Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organisation (USAK) Cyprus expert Mustafa Kutlay told SETimes.
However, Sylvia Tiryaki, the Istanbul-based Global Political Trends Centre’s deputy director, thinks that Ban doesn’t have nearly as much leverage as his predecessor Kofi Annan had back in 2004, when the two communities held a referendum to unite the island, only to have the Greek Cypriots vote against.
“If there were no incentives for the Greek Cypriots to compromise with the Turkish Cypriots on the issues of governance or property prior to their EU membership, it is difficult to see why they would have it now, five months before their EU presidency,” she told SETimes.
Now the UN has been giving signals it will slow down its efforts to bring the two sides together if there is no tangible progress in the upcoming months.
According to Didem Akyel, a Cyprus expert from the International Crisis Group, while these latest rounds of reunification talks remain active, it still seems that they have lost all meaningful traction.
If the island’s two communities can’t reach agreement before July, the best bet may be in 2013 when the Greek Cypriots hold presidential elections.
“A breakthrough could come in the elections, when a candidate ready to accept a more realistic looser federation with Turkish Cypriots could win,” Akyel said.
Further complicating the issue is the discovery of natural gas deposits in the maritime areas controlled by Greek Cypriots in the Eastern Mediterranean.
According to Tiryaki, the Greek Cypriots’ activities in the field of energy and military co-operation – in particular with Turkey’s erstwhile friend Israel — do not reflect a reconciliatory mood and only correspond to a desire for permanent division rather than a common state with the Turkish Cypriots.
“They have announced that the second round of gas exploration licensing, on which they work closely with Israel, would start soon, perhaps not long after Trade, Industry and Commerce Minister Praxoulla Antoniadou’s visit to Israel this month,” she says, noting that co-operation agreement has been signed between the armed forces of France and Cyprus.
For some, however, the gas issue may be a game changer that offers an opportunity to move forward. “It may open the way for co-operation between all the parties, even in the absence of a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem,” Akyel said.
Still, nobody ignores that the gas drilling issue also carries the potential for crisis.
“While the Greek Cypriots may see this gas find as a leverage that strengthens their hand, it is not certain that the gas can be exploited without a solution on the island, or failing that, a separate agreement with Turkish Cypriots and Turkey,” Akyel said.