No Beijing-style celebrations on Day One

FOR THE first time since the disastrous Burgenstock lock-in four years ago, the leaders of the two communities will sit down for fully fledged negotiations this Wednesday.

The 2004 referenda left the Turkish Cypriots beating their chests about their “unjust isolation” while the abject lack of diplomatic charm in the Papadopoulos government had the Greek Cypriots feeling the same.

The voting public noted the lack of progress on the Cyprus problem in the last elections, leaving Papadopoulos out from the first round. The new government, headed by AKEL chief Demetris Christofias, promised to make an earnest start in ending the decades-old conflict. His Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, offered the same.

Soon after Christofias came to power, the Ledra Street crossing was opened, and the two leaders soon set up six working groups and seven technical committees to prepare the groundwork for direct talks. The technical committees dealt with day-to-day issues and confidence-building measures while the working groups focused on the core elements of a future settlement (security and guarantees, territory, property, governance and power sharing, EU matters and the economy).

After a little flirting, some bickering, a few domestics and the odd dinner and wedding invite, Talat and Christofias finally agreed to a date and are now ready to start the next “big” effort to solve the Cyprus problem.

The omens are never bright in Cyprus but with the pro-solution AKP government still in power in Turkey, and two leftist comrades leading negotiations, one could say there is reason to put the zivania in the freezer, just in case.

The flare up on Friday after the Turkish Cypriot side refused to open the Limnitis checkpoint to allow Greek Cypriot pilgrims to visit Ayios Mamas in Morphou is a clear indication of how far apart the two sides remain and why that bottle of zirvania may never be opened.

The Sunday Mail asked Presidential Commissioner George Iacovou just what could be expected from this Wednesday’s first meeting.

“A nice photograph. It’s really the official kick-off but there’ll be no ball game on Wednesday,” said Iacovou.

The two leaders will meet in the cosy quarters of the UN Chief of Mission Taye-Brook Zerihoun, along with the new UN special envoy for Cyprus, the former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, for a simple opening ceremony.

Downer will read a message from the UN Secretary General and give his own comments, after which the two leaders will each make a short statement. There’ll be an informal discussion and then a joint statement released. There’ll be no Beijing-style celebrations on Day One of The Talks.

“The premises don’t offer the services for a bigger show,” explained Iacovou.

A week later, September 10, will be the next meeting, where negotiations will start in earnest. The first subject has been suggested by Talat and approved by the Greek Cypriots, who will likely choose the topic of discussion for the following meeting.

The leaders will meet on average once a week, as prepared in advance. There’ll be no set day for the meetings, which will depend on their commitments. The first break in talks will come between September 20 and 28, when Christofias will be in New York for the UN General Assembly. The working groups will continue to perform both preparatory and detailed work.

“Once you get going, you need to put the negotiations into the shape of an agreement, so the working groups will be doing plenty of work,” said Iacovou.

While the two leaders have met informally several times, the preparatory work for direct talks was largely undertaken by the two aides, Iacovou and his younger Turkish Cypriot counterpart Ozdil Nami. The two were responsible for coordinating, supervising and evaluating the work of the technical committees and working groups.

Both Talat and Christofias have been keen to define the talks as a “Cyprus-owned” process. Though both don’t share the same view on when the process might end, they are in agreement that there will be no outside intervention or strict time frames, unlike 2004. As a result, the actual details of how the talks will be conducted remain specifically vague. Both leaders prefer to play it by ear and see how the first two or three meetings go.

According to diplomatic sources in New York, Downer will attend the meetings once a month for the first four months, and then move to Cyprus in 2009 to play a more hands-on role. In the meantime, it’s not yet clear whether Zerihoun will deputise in Downer’s absence for negotiations to be conducted in between meetings, using the now familiar Iacovou-Nami connection.

Speaking from Ankara last week, Talat predicted that the Cyprus problem could be solved by the end of the year. Given Downer’s planned living arrangements for next year, and lack of progress in the key issues of security and guarantees, territory and property, this seems a touch optimistic. It’s more likely the two leaders will take baby steps towards a solution, starting off with the easier issues before digging in to the more thornier chapters.

As for Downer’s role: “Downer will play a significant role. But the UN Security Council has agreed that this is a Cyprus-owned process. The UN or Downer won’t be taking initiatives or preparing documents unless the leaders ask them,” said Iacovou.

Asked whether Downer was in danger of becoming a glorified note-taker, the presidential aide replied: “No. It depends on his skills. If he’s sufficiently tactful and bright as opposed to abrupt or reacting on the spur of the moment, then he can make a lot of significant contributions.”

The official language of the talks is English. There is no cap on the number of people in each delegation, but the confines of space will probably set the maximum at five for each, including the UN team. The Greek Cypriot delegation will be made up of Christofias, Iacovou, a note-taker, interpreter for the odd moment when Talat expresses himself in Turkish, and a fifth person.

“We could use this fifth seat to rotate people. Depending on the subject, we could bring an expert or someone we trust,” said Iacovou.