Friday, 14 August 2015

A fruitful first 100 days for President Akıncı

The TRNC President at this '100 Days' press conference on Tuesday 11 August. Photo: TRNC Presidency

By John Oakes and İpek Özerim

With history breathing down his neck, the TRNC President Akıncı clearly realises a change of tactic is needed if he is to slice through the Gordian Knot of the Cyprus Problem.

His statement on July 2nd in Brussels, repeated during his ‘100 Days in Office’ press conference in Lefkoşa on Tuesday, 11th August, that problems between the two communities could be solved "within months ", shows optimism and an ability to deal with the circus the Talks have now become. Indeed, he intends to talk to the UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon at the UN ringside next month.

But what tangible results have there been since Mustafa Akıncı took office on 1st May 2015?

Spat with Erdoğan over ‘mother-&-baby’ relations

Even before he had taken formally taken office, the newly elected President was involved in a spat with the formidable Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Following his election victory on 26 April with 60% of the second-round vote, Akıncı talked of two ‘brotherly states’ and creating a new relationship with Turkey based on more equal terms.

A furious Erdoğan lambasted Akıncı, maintaining the relationship between Turkey and the TRNC would remain that of a ‘mother and infant’. The term is regarded as patronising by many Turkish Cypriots, who voiced their support for Akıncı. The newly elected leader calmly stood his ground, telling Turkish reporters it was time for the “TRNC baby to grow up”.

TRNC & Turkey's presidents disagreed over how to define the two countries' relations
All tensions had eased by the time the TRNC President made his first official visit to Ankara where he met President Erdoğan on 6th May. Indeed, since then both Akıncı and his Foreign Minister Emine Çolak have stressed that Turkey is committed to a solution, which is being ‘helpfully quiet’ during the early stages of the resumed talks.
Lifting visa requirements for Cypriots at the checkpoints

Ledra Palace checkpoint
Creating a positive atmosphere between the two sides has been a priority for Akıncı and one of his first actions was to lift visa restrictions for Cypriots at the Green Line checkpoints. 

The visa procedure, in place since the borders opened in April 2003, was a simply formality of TRNC police checking ID documents and issuing a stamp on a separate piece of paper. Yet many Greek Cypriots had refused to cross because they saw the process as tantamount to accepting the island’s division and the separate authority of the TRNC. 

Since this procedure was scrapped on 16th May, the number of Greek Cypriots crossing has increased by 3,000 in July. 

Building a future spirit of co-operation

The two leaders enjoy Turkish coffee at the Büyük Han, 23 May 2015. Photo: TRNC Presidency
On May 23rd, the TRNC President met his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades at the Ledra Street checkpoint and the two leaders went on a walkabout of Old Nicosia. They strolled around the streets on both sides of the divide meeting locals and shopkeepers, having a coffee in the Büyük Han on the Turkish side, and a drink in a café-bar in the South. The photo of the two leaders happily chatting away over coffee became a global news story.
Mobile phone & electricity networks
to be linked across Cyprus

Concentrating on building a spirit of co-operation, Akıncı and Anastasiades have made substantive progressive on several other areas too. They’ve undertaken moves to open more border crossings, and agreed to connect the north and south's electricity grids and mobile networks, so the two systems can work seamlessly island-wide. There’s also to be co-operation in the allocation of radio frequencies, so broadcasts can be transmitted across Cyprus without encountering interference. 

Breakthrough on hellim/halloumi PDO

In July, there was an important breakthrough on the Hellim issue, brokered by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The Greek Cypriots had unilaterally applied for a PDO (Protected Designations of Origin) for traditional Cypriot cheese, deliberately freezing out Turkish Cypriot producers. The North had lobbied the EU vigorously not to progress with the PDO application, claiming it would be unlawful for the EU to do so until their concerns were addressed.

During his visit to Brussels at the end of June, Akıncı raised the issue when he met with the heads of three major EU institutions, including Juncker and European Parliament President Martin Schulz.

In a follow-up visit to Cyprus in mid-July, Junker announced that he had agreed a formula with the two Cypriot leaders that overcame the issues raised by Turkish Cypriots. The PDO, now in the final consultation phase, is set to include the Turkish north and also allow its producers to sell hellim in Europe by amending the existing Green Line Regulation.

Akgöl hellim from the TRNC, could be on sale in Europe in the next 6 months. Photo: KIBSO/Akgöl

Empathising with Greek Cypriot losses

There was Akıncı's brave admission that Greek Cypriots had suffered as a result of Turkey's 1974 action: “We referred to it as a peace operation but indeed this was a war. Some of us in Cyprus lost our loved ones. Thousands of us had to go through the trauma of being displaced in our own country.”

His statement came on the 41st anniversary of Turkey’s intervention – celebrated in the Turkish north as ‘Peace and Freedom Day’, while across the border it is commemorated as a dark and tragic day in Cyprus’ history.

Televised as a pre-recorded message and again live during the Peace and Freedom Day parade, the TRNC President’s speech called for Cypriots to remember the events of both 15th and 20th July and stressed his desire for the next generation to “share only friendship and peace.” 

Optimism with the talks, but precious little detail

The resumed talks have dominated media reports in Cyprus, with the two leaders meeting seven times since 15th May. There have been broad-brush references to power-sharing and governance, a new land and property deal, the position of Evkaf lands, and more (unspecified) Confidence Building Measures. But precious little detail so far.

The new consensus seems to be to park contentious topics such as territory, the guarantees, and oil and gas, to a later date when such details can be solved amicably: "I do not expect any problems to come up over oil during the negotiations,” the President said at his press conference on Tuesday.

UN Special Adviser on Cyprus Eide (centre) with two Cypriot leaders Anastasiades & Akıncı as they resumed negotiations on 
15 May 2015. Photo: TRNC Presidency
He also remarked on how Greek Cypriots have been changing their mentality: “If we continue with the same determination, then I believe a solution to the problem could be found within months, not years”.

Pointing out that there will be a parliamentary election in South Cyprus in May 2016, the 68-year-Turkish Cypriot leader added: “If we do not succeed in achieving a serious development that will bring results by May, things will drag on.”

The knack, as ever, will be to win over Greek Cypriot hardliners without bargaining away too much and frightening the folks back home. We watch with continued fascination as President Akıncı navigates his way round the three declared pinnacles of his policy – liberty, equality and security. 

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