The Cyprus problem, scrapies and water

The second semester of 2008 was marked by major international events, including the global financial crisis, the conflict in Georgia and the election of Barack Obama to the US Presidency. Needless to say, all these developments preoccupied the Cypriot people who had, in addition, a number of further concerns and expectations in mind.

Undoubtedly the most crucial issue for the citizens of the Republic of Cyprus, and the one mostly debated on the island, was the resumption of the direct negotiations between Cypriot President, Demetris Christofias, and Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, aiming at a comprehensive solution of the Cyprus problem. Talks resumed on 3 September 2008 and since then, the two community leaders meet on a regular basis to discuss issues to reach commonly accepted terms which will lead to the reunification of Cyprus. Currently, Christofias and Talat are discussing the thorny property chapter but, although both sides try to be tight-lipped, their positions appear far apart. News reports revealed that the Greek-Cypriot proposals on property are based on the European Court of Human Rights decisions and the United Nation resolutions.[1] The same sources say that UN experts have exchanged views with the two sides on the governance issue, but stopped short of submitting proposals as this would change the UN’s mandate in the present process. Commentators on the issue also suggest that it will not take long -as the two sides are so far apart – that this issue would be put aside and the two negotiators will move to the next chapters – likely to be the economy and the European Union. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Markos Kyprianou, stated on the properties issue that Cyprus will remain steadfast on the principle of the return of property, adding that this basic human right does not clash with the concepts of bi-zonality and bi-communality.[2] Earlier, in the year, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kyprianou commented that the settlement of the Cyprus problem can be achieved in 2009 if the Turkish Cypriot side adopts a more constructive stance at the negotiating table.[3] He emphasised that the conclusion of the direct talks depends on whether the positions expressed are within the agreed framework.

Concerning the positions expressed by the two communities in these negotiations, President Christofias recognised that certain realities have been established on the ground in the past 34 years.[4] Speaking with regards to the property issue, he stressed that the government supports the rights of legal owners, and noted that the basic difference between the two sides is that the Turkish Cypriot side focuses more on the exchange of properties and compensations and not their return. The position of the government, he said, is that the matter can be solved using four basic principles: the right of owners to use their property; their right to lease it; their right to compensation; and their right to exchange it for properties in the government-controlled areas. On the issue of governance, after a solution to the island’s problem, according to Christofias, the two sides hold divergent positions. The Greek Cypriot side supports the election of a president and vice-president from a common ballot for both communities, with the six year presidency term rotating at four years for the Greek Cypriot member and two years for the Turkish Cypriot member. Also, the government proposes a 70 percent to 30 percent distribution in the cabinet. On the other hand, he said, the Turkish Cypriot side proposes the election of two co-presidents, elected by a senate, and the institution of a presidential council with a ratio of four to three members for each community. On legislative issues there is more convergence, according to Christofias. The government proposes equal representation in a senate and proportional in a house of representatives. However, he admitted there are still great differences on the issue of dispute-resolving mechanisms. The basis of the solution, Christofias said, is a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, as it was clearly agreed upon; and yet, Turkey now views it quite differently. He stressed that the existence of guarantor powers is unacceptable and insulting to the political maturity of the people of Cyprus. Christofias also took the opportunity to reiterate his opposition to Cyprus’ application for membership in the Partnership for Peace. Finally, he warned Turkey that its EU accession is impossible as long as it keeps the occupation troops in Cyprus.

In January 2009, the Cypriot people were shocked by the statements made by Turkish actor, Attila Olgaç, during a TV programme in Turkey. Olgaç revealed that he had executed 10 Greek Cypriot prisoners of war, during the Turkish invasion of 1974, including a 19-year-old man at point blank. The Cypriot government and public opinion were deeply affected by the revelations of such executions. As the government spokesman noted, the revelation reaffirmed the atrocities conducted by the Turkish army in 1974 and the blatant violation of the Geneva Conventions by Turkey.[5]

The Cypriot authorities were immediately mobilised to further scrutinise the issue, and the government’s legal services investigated possible legal action. 24 hours after the Turkish actor’s admission, he retracted his earlier statements on the executions by saying that he had confused reality with one of his scripts and that he wanted to gauge the public’s reaction, even though he had confirmed the content of his interview to the daily newspaper “Radikal” shortly after it was broadcasted. All Cypriot media gave extensive coverage to the actor’s contradictions and to the distress caused to relatives of missing persons and those killed during the war. There is widespread speculation that Olgaç changed his statement following pressure by the Turkish army and the ’deep state’. As announced, the government intends to report the testimony of the Turkish actor to the Council of Europe committee of permanent representatives, as well as to the European Court of Human Rights.[6] In addition, in association with the House of Representatives, the government will also inform all EU member states and bodies, referring specifically to the European Parliament.

On this issue, the European Commission reminded Turkey of its obligation to secure proper investigations into the fate of all Greek Cypriots missing since the 1974 events. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn’s spokesperson, Krisztina Nagy, commented that an investigation should be launched into establishing what had really happened.[7] If, according to the Enlargement Commissioner, the statements are confirmed, the Turkish actor’s actions would constitute a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nagy reiterated Olli Rehn’s statements that the Olgaç revelations are a tragic and shameful story. The Commission assured that it recognises the urgency of solving the missing persons issue and to this end it is releasing 1.5 million Euro in support of the work of the missing persons investigative committee.

The issue of animal health is also of high salience in Cyprus. In November 2008 the publication of an opinion by the “French Food Safety Agency”, which suggested that milk from goats and sheep contaminated with scrapies should not be consumed by humans because of potential health risk, alarmed the Cypriot authorities. Cyprus is concerned that an export embargo might be imposed and about 130,000 animals could be culled, seriously affecting farming and thereby the economy of the island. In February 2009, daily newspaper “Politis”, revealed the main provisions of the national plan on scrapies prepared by the veterinary services according to which 250 animals will be culled per day over the next 18 months.[8] The plan needs the Cabinet’s approval in order to be implemented by 1 March.

Another major issue mostly debated during the second half of 2008 was Cyprus’ severe water shortage, commonly regarded as the country’s “second national problem”. The water situation remained critical despite a certain increase in reserves compared to 2008. By early March, the Cypriot dams’ capacity had reached 25 percent. Intense debates on the government’s handling of the problem were held among members of the opposition parties and the government. The opposition mostly advocated that the government should have prepared an emergency action-plan to combat water scarcity and promote the creation of more desalination units capable of producing more quantities of water in order to avoid water cuts all over the island. Minister of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environment, Michalis Polinikis, however, has been reassuring the public of the government’s commitment to continue the implementation of the long-term desalination programme so as to disengage Cyprus’ water needs from the caprices of the weather.

Finally, in the early days of February 2009, it was announced in Washington that two American officials and among the closest aids to President Obama –Senator of Illinois Richard Durbin and the Illinois State Treasurer, Greek-American Alexis Giannoulias – were to visit soon the triangle of Cyprus, Greece and Turkey for investigative talks. Needless to say, Cypriot elites and public opinion were elated at the possibility that President Obama’s probable involvement in sending such a delegation at this time may well imply serious interest in the ‘fair resolution’ of the triangle’s problems on a win-win basis.

 

 

[1] Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation: Main evening news bulletin, 4 February 2009.
[2] Markos Kyprianou, Minister of Foreign Affairs: Statements, Nicosia, 4 February 2009 (as reported by all Cypriot Media).
[3] Markos Kyprianou, Minister of Foreign Affairs: Statements, Nicosia, 9 January 2009 (as reported by all Cypriot Media).
[4] Demetris Christofias, President: Statements to foreign correspondents in Cyprus, Nicosia, 5 February 2009 (as reported by the Cyprus News Agency).
[5] Stefanos Stafanou, spokesperson of the government: Statements, Nicosia, 25 January 2009 (as reported by the Cyprus News Agency).
[6] Stefanos Stafanou, spokesperson of the government: Statements, Nicosia, 27 January 2009 (as reported by the Cyprus News Agency).
[7] Kristzina Nagy, spokesperson of the European Commissioner for Enlargement: Statements, Brussels, 28 January 2009 (As reported by all Cypriot Media).
[8] POLITIS (newspaper), 12 February 2009.