Mehmet Ali Talat on the negotiations
"There is chemistry between us"
Since the day Demetris Christofias was elected as president, the Cyprus issue has come out of its stage of hibernation. More has taken place during the past three months than the last four years. Nevertheless, progress is moving at a snail's place. Two steps forward, one step back. The same applies to the prevailing climate, sometime it is cold, sometime warm.
On 23 May the two leaders agreed to an announcement that, in theory, set the framework of a solution and they also appeared to have found a common language. This is an issue that had tested developments during the preceding weeks. Nevertheless, before the ink had dried, complaints once again surfaced. Because of the signing of a joint memorandum of understanding between Cyprus and the United Kingdom, Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat accused Christofias on trying to undermine what was agreed between them. The issue took a new dimension with some predicting that it would mark the end of the negotiations. Nonetheless, these will go forward, albeit at a snail's pace.
We discussed all the above issues with Talat, who responded with sincerity to all our questions. At the beginning of the interview he expressed his bitterness over the latest developments but he ended with a note of optimism and a promise that he will do everything in his power not to derail the train leading to a solution. His own prescription to end the snail's pace of the negotiations and to run instead at a hare's pace was to start face-to-face negotiations. These would use as their common basis and common language the body of the work that the United Nations have carried out to date with regard to the Cyprus issue
Mr Talat, how did two comrades managed to destroy the good climate?
- Christofias frequently states that a solution must be a "Cypriot" one. In order for it to be Cypriot we must agree on a number of common positions. On 23 May we agreed to an announcement. When, however, one of the two parties tries to secure support from a third party in order to deviate from what was agreed this will, inevitably, damage the procedure.
It seems you are referring to the joint memorandum of understanding signed between Cyprus and the United Kingdom.
- Yes, I am referring to the joint memorandum of understanding. We had agreed to an announcement but, later, the Greek Cypriots agreed with Great Britain on something different. The British gave some gifts to Christofias but, in the process, undermined our agreement and, consequently, our mutual trust in each other. They secured their military bases in the past by making the Turkish Cypriots and the Greek Cypriots fight each other for many years. They are now doing the same.
But this is a joint memorandum of understanding covering general positions, as well as United Nations and European Union texts on Cyprus.
- I am sorry, but this joint memorandum of understanding incorporates all the details, with the exception of the partnership between the two constituent states. This is a sensitive issue for the Turkish Cypriots. Why? Mr Christofias insisted that we should find a common basis and a common language. We jointly agreed to a statement but on the day after he tried to undermine it. He has not even repeated this statement since 23 May.
In other words the whole problem is because Christofias is not using the language agreed on 23 May?
- He is not using it, he is not defending it, and he is undermining it. We are aware of the fact that a number of countries have offered to incorporate the complete text of this announcement in the UN Security Council resolution on renewing the UNFICYP's mandate but certain UNSC permanent members intervened and prevented this from happening. Why? Because the UNSC resolution incorporates one half of the 23 May announcement that satisfies the Greek Cypriots but leaves out the other half that acts as a counterbalance for the Turkish Cypriots. In addition, the UN Secretary General's report referred to the feeling of isolation by the Turkish Cypriots, as if this were not real. There has been a downgrading compared to earlier references.
Do you not understand that the lifting of the isolation was intended to bring pressure on [former Cypriot President] Tassos Papadopoulos to enter into negotiations, whereas now that he has left power attention will be focused on a solution, since this will solve, once and for all, all existing problems?
- Even if the explanation you are giving is correct, this game should not have been played without our knowledge and in a way that undermines and damages relations between the two communities. My trust is diminishing by the day and this is the real problem.
Mr Talat, are you not expending too much time and energy on words, phrases, and meanings?
- You are correct. This is the reason why we should respect what we have agreed.
You have agreed not to play the blame game but, nonetheless, you are often giving the impression that you are in a state of complete rift.
- As I am as I am concerned, I am trying to avoid anything that could create problems. I am trying not to blame Christofias, even though sometime I say a few things. He also says a few things, but there is less understanding between us than it appears. I am trying not to use phrases that might offend and I will continue to act like this. This is because I believe that there is a great opportunity for a solution, I will not say a final opportunity so that I will not be accused of blackmailing.
The "Virgin Birth" is a Misunderstanding
The last time we interviewed you, you had said that, as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, you have not abandoned Turkish Cypriot rights to the Republic of Cyprus. Do you still hold the same position?
- Certainly. However, if you mean by this I will join the Republic of Cyprus and then exercise my rights, this is not possible. Nonetheless, under a procedure leading toward a solution I will claim the rights that the Turkish Cypriots secured in 1960 as partners in the Republic of Cyprus.
What is the position of the "virgin birth" in all this?
- I have spoken of the "virgin birth" as content. I did not say that in case an agreement is reached we should write down that this new state should be formed through the process of the "virgin birth." I said it as content, as this was included in the Annan Plan as well. With the phrase "virgin birth" I am not suggesting that we should apply for membership of the United Nations or of the European Union, as the newspapers on the Greek Cypriot side have written and that we shall have to wait for many years before we can become members. This is nonsense. This is not what I have said, as you allege. The "virgin birth" acquired a meaning I never intended. In any case, I no longer refer to it because the meaning of what I wanted to say has been misrepresented.
The visit by UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascow presented an opportunity to solve these problems. Why are you refusing to have dinner with Christofias and Pascow?
- I have sent a message to the UN that I do not wish to be present at the dinner. I have instead invited Mr Pascow to discus with me all issues
tending to undermine the negotiation procedure and to check the damage. Because damage has already been done.
Will you refuse to attend a joint meeting with Christofias if Pascow invites you to do so?
- I am not against it. I do not rule out that the three of us will meet. However, there is no usefulness behind having dinner with Mr Pascow.
The Basis of the Solution; Proposals from the Annan Plan
Why are you laboring to find a common basis through statements and press releases and you are not taking advantage of any of the Annan Plan versions? For example, the Annan 3 was accepted by all Greek Cypriot parties as the basis for a solution, while you voted "yes" at the referendum. Why do you not begin from that point?
- But my friend (speaking in Greek) I have already proposed this! Let us negotiate on the body of the work that has been carried out by the United Nations until now. This is what the UN Secretary General says in his reports, with the exception of the last one, because the Greek Cypriot side did not like it. This is the basis, this is the common language that Christofias is demanding. This body of work has been adopted by UN resolutions and Christofias is also stressing that a solution must be compatible with the resolutions.
Christofias said that the Turkish Cypriots could, if they want, use some elements of the Annan Plan.
- This is what Papadopoulos said to me on 8 July 2007. When I insisted that we should use the Annan Plan as the basis for negotiations, he told me that this is impossible because it has been rejected. I responded by saying that this plan includes a substantial body of work and it cannot be thrown away. His riposte was that I could bring the Annan Plan to the table and he would bring his own ideas, his own proposals.
Since Papadopoulos said this, and Christofias repeated the same in public, why do you not take advantage of this proposal? Why do you not put on the table the plan as a whole?
- Because if we put the Annan Plan on the table we could spark a reaction by the other side. I am in a position to do this but Christofias has the problem. Our suggestions at the working groups are inspired by the Annan Plan.
"It is a Lie"
Our own information suggests that you are going to the working groups with proposals for two states and with positions considerably worse than the Annan Plan.
- This has never been the case. It is a lie. My instructions to the members of the working groups are to avoid using any language that could offend the Greek Cypriots. If they do so then I intervene with corrective steps. This has happened on a few occasions but it has never been our policy.
How will you escape from this vicious circle of different interpretations?
- We should commence negotiations as soon as possible. We have enough material. We have held many discussions, we have many positions, many agreements, many proposals from the United Nations concerning the institutional parameters for resolving the Cyprus issue. We could make a start from this point and find a solution. It is very difficult for me to understand, and I have explained this on many occasions, why we do not take advantage of the body of work that has been carried out to date.
What about the working groups?
- The working groups have a role to play, bigger on some issues, smaller on others. Take for example European affairs. This is a subject that needs experts to sit around a table and find solutions. This is what former Cypriot President George Vasiliou and our own representative are doing. Both of them are working very constructively. The same applies to the issue of the economy. Neither myself, nor Mr Christofias, are economists. We are going to provide the political guidance and let the specialists find the answers. The other major issue facing us is the question of administration and the division of power. This is a political issue that needs the contribution of experts. In this case there is a need for a combination of political decisions and technocratic work.
There has been progress in the three working groups we have described. However, it is correct that on vital issues, such as security, guarantees, and the question of territory, nothing has happened.
- Guarantees, security, and the question of territory are substantial issues but we cannot move forward unless we have agreement on the rest as well. It is not worth discussing guarantees and territory unless we are able to agree on the rest. If we try something like this, then we shall create more problems.
TurkeyIs a Problem
There is also the factor called Turkey. To what extent political developments in that country will affect the negotiations? Is Turkey in a position to take decisions?
- This is true. I do have some doubts whether Turkey will be in a position to join in these negotiations. Personally I believe that the problems facing democracy in Turkey will be overcome successfully and it will not present a problem in the resolution of the Cyprus issue. This is both my wish and my conviction. Nevertheless, the worst scenario that could happen is an accident, and this could damage the procedure. Having said this, and since I believe that Turkey will overcome its problems, we must begin with the negotiations. If the accident does happen, we shall have to see how best to face it. What else can we do?
Does the fluid situation in Turkey have a bearing on current developments?
- I have Turkey's full support to negotiate. After all, the issues that concern us directly do not affect Turkey. When the time comes to discuss issues affecting Turkey, such as, for instance, the issue of guarantees, then Turkey will be in a position to join in the negotiations.
A feeling of disappointment followed the recent celebrations. Are you afraid of a premature deadlock?
- Everything that has happened during the past few days has caused some deviations. I believe that we shall find a way to put the train back on its tracks and moving in the right direction. I will personally do whatever is possible in order to continue with the procedure. I expect the same from Mr Christofias.
Negotiations Here and Now
From the practical point of view, how will you push things one step further?
- The antidote to all this is a face-to-face meeting and negotiations. We cannot achieve negotiations without starting to negotiate. My main objective during this particular period is to begin with the negotiations and to conclude them. We should work toward this objective and not try and do something else.
When do you think that the negotiations will begin?
- It is feasible for the negotiations too begin at the end of June. This depends on Mr Christofias. I do not want to take the decision fro him, despite the fact that on 21 March we agreed to begin negotiations within three months.
Perhaps in July or September?
- This is not my own proposal but, if Mr Christofias asks for this, we can discuss it. It is a necessary prerequisite that we should find a solution as soon as possible. As we noticed during the past week, it is very probable that the climate could be destroyed. We must not allow this to happen.
Do you believe that you can achieve this?
- With Mr Christofias, yes. Because, despite everything that has happened during the past days both of us know that there is no other way. The other thing is that Christofias is a different person. There is chemistry between us. I hope that we shall overcome the problems. However, I insist that we must focus on finding a solution.
Perhaps what offends you from Christofias' actions are mere tactical moves to enable him to maintain an internal balance.
- If this is the case, then it is all right as far as I am concerned.
The Property Issue Is a Problem
We hear that there is a serious problem with the property issue.
- The issue of property is a very delicate and sensitive issue because all Cypriots are very attached to their properties. I accept that we are going to face difficulties. It is a difficult problem and we must touch it. As long as there is good will, solutions can be found.
How will you be able to find a solution, considering all the development that has taken place, the issuing of title deeds, the transfer of ownership, again and again?
- It is a fact that we have created a property status that one could describe as problematic. Nonetheless, this situation is a legal fact that cannot change without a comprehensive solution and without securing the people's support through a referendum. If we were able to achieve a solution in 2004, the position of the properties would have undergone a complete change and this change would have had a legal foundation. No measures can be taken now. We want a political solution as soon as possible. The more we delay the more complex the issue of properties will become and a moment will come when by its nature it will become insoluble.
The Greek Cypriots believe that the issue of the settlers is equally important.
- The question of the immigrants is not such a major issue as the Greek Cypriots perceive it to be.
You have recently said that those with a [Turkish Cypriot] nationality will remain. What is their number?
- We recently conducted a census and the results have been published. There are fewer than 50,000. Christofias has also spoken of 50,000, thus we are close. Believe me; the problem with the immigrants does not have the dimensions you ascribe to it. Most of them are workers and not citizens.
Makarios Drousiotis - Politis