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US analyst casts doubts on whether Cyprus talks will resume

February 2, 2019 at 3:35pm
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New negotiations in Cyprus may not resume until well into 2019, if at all, says the latest report on Cyprus drafted by Vincent Morelli, a US analyst at the US Congress Research Service (CRS).

According to the CRS report, issued on January 29, the talks have fallen victim to the realities of five decades of separation and both sides’ inability to make the necessary concessions to reach a final settlement.

“As a result, the long-sought bizonal, bicommunal, federal solution for the island has remained elusive and may no longer be attainable” it is noted.

Ahead of a visit to Cyprus by Jane Holl Lute, the envoy of the UN Secretary General, Morelli further notes that “if Lute’s return fails to achieve an agreement between the two Cypriot leaders, U.N.-hosted negotiations may have reached their end.”

The report maintains the same title for the last nine years, “Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive.” The previous report was issued a month ago.

According to the report, in October 2018, Guterres directed Lute to conduct another round of consultations with all parties and to prepare a more comprehensive “terms of reference” document by the end of December 2018. If this process turned out to be more successful than previous attempts to end the stalemate, Guterres was prepared to propose another attempt to resume the talks, it is added.

“Lute concluded her second round of consultations by mid-December. Although the talks reportedly were “productive,” Lute announced she would have to return to the island in early 2019, affirming the difficulty she encountered trying to reach agreement on the provisions of the terms of reference. If Lute’s return fails to achieve an agreement between the two Cypriot leaders, U.N.-hosted negotiations may have reached their end” the report says.

Moreover, it notes that the political environment in Cyprus also has become more muddled, adding that in fall 2018, President Anastasiades “surprised many when he floated the idea of a ‘decentralized federation’.” This, according to the report “caused Akinci to complain that Anastasiades was undercutting Akinci’s positions and trying to circumvent the Turkish Cypriot demand for political equality.”

The analyst also points to differences in the Turkish Cypriot side, saying that some “appear to be breaking with Akinci and speaking more of a “confederation” or even a “two-state” solution apparently favored by Ankara.”

Akinci himself has begun to speak more of a “partnership of cooperation,” although he has not yet abandoned a federal solution. In addition, the dispute over hydrocarbon development has again become an irritant in the relationship, it is added.

The CRS report notes that the United States historically has promoted an “honest broker” approach to achieving a just, equitable, and lasting settlement of the Cyprus issue, “however, some observers have seen recent actions within the Congress and the Administration in support of Cyprus’s unfettered energy development in the Eastern Mediterranean and lifting of restrictions on arms sales to Cyprus as an admission by the U.S. that an equitable solution has become more difficult.”

“These moves also suggest that U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean have moved on to security and energy concerns for which closer relations with the Republic of Cyprus have become a higher priority” it is noted.

With regard to energy developments, the report says that the United States and the EU both intervened, restating the Republic’s right to explore for natural resources in its EEZ but asking both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots to tone down the rhetoric and for Turkey not to provoke additional tensions over the energy issue.

It further adds that “in a March 15, 2018, press conference welcoming the visit to Cyprus of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Wess Mitchell, U.S. Ambassador Cathleen Doherty stated that while the United States supported the republic’s right to exploratory activities in its EEZ, the island’s energy resources should be fairly shared between both communities in the context of an overall settlement.”

The Ambassador, Morelli goes on, said that even if the drilling located additional gas deposits, it may not be possible or feasible to commercialize those deposits right away, as costs associated with extraction and transportation may not make the resources viable, adding that it could take several years, even decades, before all the conditions were right for revenues to begin flowing.

“In the interim, Ambassador Doherty intimated that the two sides and Turkey should stop the feuding and focus on a solution to the island’s division” the report says.

Morelli also notes that Assistant Secretary Mitchell, in a summer 2018 speech at the Heritage Foundation, reiterated the U.S. position and stated that Turkey should tone down its provocations in the waters south of Cyprus, while restating that view one week later at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The analyst points out that U.S. energy company Exxon-Mobil began gas exploration in the Cypriot EEZ in November 2018 with Turkey reviving its warnings about unilateral exploitation of the resources and announcing its intentions to begin drilling in waters that both Ankara and Cyprus claim are part of their respective EEZs. “Up until the end of 2018, tensions between the United States and Turkey had threatened to play out over the drilling issue. However, a slight thaw in U.S.-Turkish relations has restrained Turkey from taking any negative actions against Exxon-Mobile’s early exploration. However, as Turkey deploys two drilling platforms in the same commercial blocks, tensions could spike again” the report adds.

In its assessment, the report says that “in establishing his new approach to the negotiations with the 2018 appointment of Jane Holl Lute as his new adviser, it appeared that Secretary-General Guterres had specifically intended to challenge the sincerity of both sides to return to the negotiations.”

Moreover, it says that “Guterres also appeared to have adopted Akinci’s demand for a results-oriented negotiation, first by making it clear that both sides would have to agree to the terms of reference document that Lute would draft and then by not letting the talks become open-ended by allowing the terms of reference document, once presented, to be renegotiated.”

The analyst says that this approach initially seemed to work, as President Anastasiades “reportedly believed the terms of reference could reinforce his position that Turkish military forces would have to withdraw from the island and future security guarantees for the island would have to take another form” and “Akinci apparently saw some support for his demand for political equality for Turkish Cypriots.”

According to Morelli’s report, acceptance of the terms of reference, particularly if there were disagreements on some of the terms, would require the restoration of trust between the two leaders, between the Greek Cypriots and Ankara, and perhaps between Ankara and Akinci. “It was unclear whether this could happen. Akinci indicated he was no longer sure what type of solution Anastasiades was looking for and made it clear again that he could not accept changes to the security issues. Anastasiades apparently could not agree on how the Turkish Cypriots wanted to define political equality” the analyst goes on.

He adds that it is unclear “whether Ankara would make it uncomfortable for Akinci to agree to any terms of reference document if the document included only the long-sought federal solution.”

Moreover, he says that “if both sides rejected the proposed terms of reference presented by Lute, Gueterres would have few options and the resumption of U.N.-hosted negotiations would come under serious doubt.”

The analyst says, among others, that some unanswered questions remain, including whether Akinci could accept a terms of reference document that “sidestepped the issue of political equality as he defines it.” He also asks if Akinci could argue successfully to his “citizens” – as the analyst refers to the members of the Turkish Cypriot community – that the new federal structure, loose or otherwise, with the guarantees of EU law and a more robust U.N. peacekeeping force in place, might be enough to argue for a new security arrangement regarding Turkish troops or Turkish security guarantees.

Morelli also asks if the Guterres framework suggests that a new security framework was needed, particularly one that does not envision Turkey’s automatic right to unilaterally intervene on the island. “Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots have not accepted that idea” he says and asks if either side could accept a future NATO-led peacekeeping force, in which Turkish and Greek troops could participate as a reassurance to both sides. “History might indicate a continued “no” to these questions” the report concludes.

(Cyprus News Agency)