Returning to the presidential palace in Nicosia after three and a half hours of talks at the residence of Michael Moeller, the UN’s Cyprus special representative, President Tassos Papadopoulos, in declaring to reporters that he and Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, had not found a way forward to revivify the so-called Gambari process paving the way for a Cyprus settlement, looked tired, frustrated and out of ideas.
For Tassos, the Gambari process (agreed on 8 July 2006 through the mediation of the UN’s Ibrahim Gambari) was a deathblow to the Annan plan and thus a significant step forward for the Greek Cypriot side. It anticipated the creation of a series of technical committees to work in detail on the various aspects of the Cyprus problem leading to a comprehensive settlement. However, because of the Turkish side’s stalling tactics, disguising a preference for a strategy aimed at achieving recognition of the occupation regime, the process never took off and no committees have ever formed, let alone met.
Wednesday’s meeting between Tassos and Talat amounted to a last-ditch effort to save Gambari but, with Talat putting forward ideas for a completely new process involving direct talks between the two leaders, without prior detailed committee work, with the aim of reaching a solution as quickly as possible, the talks failed and Gambari now looks doomed.
(Tassos argued that Talat’s proposals for ‘express negotiations’, without proper preparation, were designed to reintroduce the Annan plan, which would inevitably lead negotiations to breakdown, allowing the Turkish side to charge that solving the Cyprus issue was impossible and the only alternative was recognition of the occupation regime and partition).
All of which begs the question why Tassos, having steadfastly refused for over a year to meet with Talat – not until the Gambari process is up and running, Tassos insisted – and usually so cautious and methodical – stressing his hostility to meeting Talat for the sake of it, without anything of substance to discuss or the likelihood of achieving progress – expressed, via a letter to Moeller on 9 July, his preparedness to meet with the Turkish Cypriot leader in the first place?
The answer reflects badly on Tassos and has to do with the difficulties he is facing in the presidential election this February.
It so happens that the day on which Tassos’s office made public the president’s letter to Moeller offering talks with Talat was the same day on which Demetris Christofias, leader of left-wing AKEL, the largest party in Cyprus, announced he was withdrawing his party’s support from the government coalition and declaring his intention to run against Tassos in next year’s presidential elections.
Wednesday’s events, then, it could be argued, were less a reflection of Tassos’s conviction that the time was ripe to try again with Talat, and more a reflection of internal Greek Cypriot political machinations, a barefaced effort by Tassos to upstage Christofias and undermine the communist chief’s argument for abandoning him – which was that Tassos had shown a lack of flexibility and imagination in handling the Cyprus issue and was allowing the island to drift towards partition.
Indeed, it is hard to believe that in circumstances in which his government’s main coalition partner had only recently ditched him, diminishing his mandate, and with a tight election contest looming after which either Demetris Christofias or Ioannis Cassoulides could be the new president of Cyprus and Greek Cypriot negotiator, Tassos really expected the Turkish side to start earnest negotiations with him? Surely, Tassos didn’t think the Turks too stupid to realise the weakness of his position or not expect them to wait five months to see who would win the Cypriot presidential elections?
But while Wednesday afternoon at Mr Moeller’s may have been an exercise in futility for Greek Cypriots, it did allow Talat once again to appear ready for immediate talks and permitted him the opportunity of humiliating the president of the Cyprus Republic by forcing him to listen to the raising of bogus issues – such as joint oil exploration and the lifting of the so-called ‘embargo’ against the Turkish Cypriots – ‘issues’ Tassos was never going to discuss – and ended with Tassos appealing to Talat to meet him for further talks to try and break the Gambari impasse, an invitaton which Talat declined.
Tassos has only himself to blame for this debacle. Greek Cypriot society is the most divided it’s been since 1974, the rupture that appeared between the Turkish Cypriots and the occupation regime prior to Cyprus joining the EU in 2004 has gone unexploited, and Turkey has largely been exonerated of the invasion and occupation. Tassos’s strategy of improving Cyprus’s negotiating position by using the country’s EU membership to pressure Turkey has been a resounding failure, and the occupied area has enjoyed rapid economic development – as a result of the massive exploitation of usurped Greek Cypriot property and land – and found new political support internationally.
But here’s the really depressing part: compared to Cassoulides – who backed the atrocious Annan plan – and Christofias – the communist, who still loves to talk about scientific socialism and historical materialism and pines for the Soviet Union and who was only a hair’s breadth from endorsing Annan – Tassos Papadopoulos remains Cyprus’s only sensible option for president.