Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Despair in Cyprus

The Turkish Cypriot part of Nicosia looked completely deserted yesterday. It was because of the census, which kept everybody at home. A curfew was fully imposed, with police cars patrolling the streets. The objective of the census, the first in five years, is obviously to bring clarity on the “real population” of the northern side of the island, and particularly to learn how many “settlers” from Turkey have been living there, legally or illegally. Although a brief visitor, I was also counted, and found that it was a well-detailed questionnaire, approved and supervised by the UN. It took me a few minutes to reach the buffer zone, equally desolate since 1974. Only a hundred meters separate two communities, and in that tiny strip around the famous Ledra Palace, used by the UN peacekeeping force, the only new thing was a restaurant and a small meeting center. It faced the old “no man’s land facilities,” such as the Goethe Institute and the Fulbright Center. I was here during the weekend to meet colleagues and academics from Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Organized and facilitated by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany, this is one of a series of meetings whose aim is to shed light on the Cyprus process and Greek-Turkish relations. Gloom prevailed at every session, with the exception of the one that dealt with Turkey. It was agreed that Turkey’s pivotal role in the future of the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean was now proven, though the direction of Ankara’s “zero problems with neighbors” was questioned. Some preferred to declare it as finished, while others thought it needed some serious revision to merge its idealism with the tough reality. It was remarkable that some Greek (Cypriot) observers perceived (wrongly) that the policy was a “one-way street” aimed at imposing Turkey’s will on its neighbors. But all the disputes dispersed when the latest findings of the Brookings Poll on the Arab awakening was presented. Its rich data concluded that “Turkey is the biggest winner of the Arab Spring. In the five countries [Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, UAE] polled, Turkey is seen to have played the most constructive role in the Arab events. [Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan is the most admired among world leaders, and those who envision a new president for Egypt want the new president to look most like Erdoğan. Egyptians want their country to look more like Turkey than any of the other Muslim, Arab and other choices provided.” Greek-Turkish relations were discussed in light -- or, “under the shadow” of the Greek/European financial crisis, and all that was found for progress between Athens and Ankara was the lack of leadership in the former. Greece’s and Cyprus’s rapprochement with Israel was in a sharp remark declared as “emerging strategic partnership in depth,” which gave way to Israel and Greece “attempting to embrace each other in desperation,” giving the cynics a place in the frontline. Nobody knew whether it would be beneficiary for all the key players in the region. Would there be a game-changer with regard to Turco-Greek relations? Given the prospect of a nationalist right-wing coalition in Greece, led by New Democracy (ND) leader Antonis Samaras (ND) and Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) leader Georgios Karatzaferis, after the early elections, there was no room for optimism either. The picture of the Cyprus talks was even gloomier. Negotiations between Derviş Eroğlu and Dimitris Christofias, leaders of the two communities, did not produce any results in a recent meeting in Long Island. An analysis of “behind the scenes” tells us that a stalemate is on the horizon, because Christofias would not “dare” to facilitate progress because of the prospects of political hostilities at home. Also, Eroğlu has become increasingly disinterested in the process. Opinion polls showed that up to 60 percent of Greek Cypriots were against reunification, while the undecided among the Turkish Cypriots was at its highest -- an indication of their despair with the policies of both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and the Greek Cypriot administration. Small hopes were tied to a “soft deadline” given by the UN to the two leaders as Jan. 15 and an eventual conference thereafter, but, while Turkey does not show much willingness to open its ports to Cyprus, Christofias has relied much more heavily on the veto powers of Russia, an increasingly close financial partner, which hopes to use Cyprus for what it has been losing over Syria. Nobody in the meeting expected any progress in the UN talks and it seemed that the Republic of Cyprus was determined to enforce its presence and agenda during its presidency of the EU. Progress, if any, will be delayed until 2013, after the presidential elections in the south. I left the meeting with the clear notion that “reunification” has been dropped from the agenda of those who were pursuing it. In the previous meetings, Turkish Cypriots threw in the towel; now my Greek Cypriot colleagues, who were keeping hopes alive, told me they had given up. “When I see news on the Cyprus talks, I turn off the TV,” said a prominent colleague of mine. “For me, it is finished.” It all sounded like a friendly divorce is inevitable. 2011-12-04

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