“Turkey is not intervening or trying to manipulate or being part of specific content that is being discussed between our leaders,” said Foreign Minister Emine Çolak, a UK trained lawyer who is the TRNC’s first female minister. “I get the feeling that they are thinking that if the Turkish Cypriots are able to reach a consensus that would be okay with Turkey.”
Ms Çolak said that she was proud as a woman and for her country to be Foreign Minister and saw it as a role model for all women.
Asked to define the current progress in the Cyprus negotiations, she said, “In one word, I would say hopeful. There is a positive climate, in which there are active, frequent, constructive negotiations. The issues are being discussed and, as far as possible, convergence is being secured. There is good speed; we can see that progress is being made”.
She attributed the change of climate to the President Mustafa Akinci, who after being elected, delivered his campaign promise to do his utmost in the negotiations. President Anastasiades is also more positive compared to former Greek Cypriot leaders, she said. The Foreign Minister added that there was significant combination in the two leaders who shared a vision of peace and a solution to the Cyprus problem. She said that it took a great deal of courage and commitment to face criticism and to develop confidence.
Ms Çolak noted that the Turkish Cypriots were fed up with the status quo and the uncertainties that had lasted over 50 years.
In comparison to the 2004 referendum, the Greek Cypriots are facing a very serious economic crisis and need this opportunity. A solution will get rid of some of their problems and the island can thrive. They can also regain their property rights, she said:
“Maybe after 11 years, they are able to think we rejected this opportunity and after 11 years, things have not become any better. Things have become worse. There is a chance that things could get better.
Some would argue that reaching a solution might be difficult because Greek Cypriots might feel vulnerable and become more intransigent, suspicious that their weakness is being exploited.
When there was an economic crisis two and a half years ago in the South, this was discussed openly. And on our side, all the leaders of the parties and NGOs made a call, saying, ‘Don’t see this as an opportunity to impose a solution that will not be fully digested by Greek Cypriots.’ There is no such discussion now because the crisis has diminished somewhat.
Greek Cypriots are working hard and succeeding partially in reducing the effects of the economic earthquake.
They are not in such a desperate situation. And the degree of maturity on the Turkish side is not in that framework of mind.
But if Greek Cypriots’ stances have changed because of the circumstances, and not because they genuinely believe in a peaceful coexistence, the peace might not be a sustainable and lasting one.
Another way to look at what can be referred to as the pressure of circumstance is from the perspective of need.
We all need to cooperate and do business. You can say the same of Europe after the massive bloodshed of World War II when afterwards the need to reconstruct Europe led to cooperation.
Ms Çolak was asked if she thought the Greek Cypriots shared the optimism expressed by both leaders, she replied:
“I see on the Greek Cypriot side a mind more open to a solution. I think many minds were closed in the past because there were maximalist expectations and bad leadership discouraging people from a solution; there was the influence of history teaching and the church, which still sometimes has a negative impact on the prospects for cooperation. These are all slowly changing in addition to the need created by economic circumstances. That makes them less complacent”.
Asked about the attitude of the church, she said they had made a gradual change and were issuing fewer hard-line statements.
Responding to the comment that the Turkish Cypriots appeared less enthusiastic about a solution than the leadership, possibly because of the ‘no’ vote in the referendum on the Annan Plan in 2004, she said:
“It’s been so long and there have been so many serious disappointments that people are sceptical that it will happen. I don’t think they have lost the desire to see a solution, but they have lost hope over very many inactive years. If there is hope for peace, then you get enthusiasm for peace, but if there is nothing happening, people get on with their lives. I believe that a solution is still preferred by at least more than 50/60%. [There is not pessimism but lethargy.] But they are able to compare with past processes; I think they feel this change in the climate, the good chemistry between the two leaders”.
Asked about the fenced-off town of Varosha, she said that that it was such a big issue it had to be part of a comprehensive discussion; the practicalities of the problem had to be thrashed out, for example how to renovate and administer the town, and so on. Since it is hoped that a solution would be found within the next six to twelve months, it would be counterproductive to separate the issue of Varosha at this stage.
Asked about a referendum within that time frame she said that it was not impossible for there to be a referendum within six months.
Referring to criticism voiced by former negotiator Kudret Özersay, over the issue of properties that was published on the Foreign Ministry’s website, Ms Colak was asked if she shared his criticism.
Replied that what he had to say was definitely worth listening to, however, the Turkish Cypriot side is realistic about the property issue and this was not about returning Greek or Turkish Cypriot property.
“This is about finding a solution about respecting property rights. There are European court decisions which say you can respect property rights by returning them, exchanging them or by compensating them. These are the headings that are being discussed”.
Asked about her own views on the property issue, she said:
“There are three sticky issues; property, territory and guarantees. They are technical but also to a large part emotional issues. They are not things the two leaders can sit and decide. There are three guarantors also involved. It is emotional in that we are looking for a solution where Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots would feel safe. To my knowledge it is being left until the last points to be discussed.
We should not think of anything as unchangeable. If we are talking about guarantees put in place in 1960, does it necessarily mean they have to be exactly the same or have to be completely thrown away? I think we are looking for something in between”.
Regarding Turkey’s contribution to the Cyprus negotiations she said:
“I see Turkey as sincere in wishing to see a resolution in Cyprus. I also felt this in 2004. Today I have the same feeling. It has its own interests of course as a growing power and as a country with a vision for the EU for which the Cyprus problem is a major headache, and there are a lot of reasons why Turkey wants to see the problem resolved. I see this support. As you know, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came here; apart from his open statements, we also had a shot period of time in which I also got to hear his private statements. My personal impression is that there is a sincere desire to see this resolved. Turkey is not intervening or trying to manipulate or being part of specific content that are being discussed between our leaders. There is no pressure, intervention or any paranoia about what is being agreed at the table. I get the feeling that they are thinking that if the Turkish Cypriots are able to reach a consensus, that would be okay with Turkey – with the provision that when it comes to the guarantees, in the same way that Greece and Britain have a say, Turkey will also have an opinion in relation to the new united Cyprus”.
Hurriyet’s interviewing journalist commented that Erdoğan’s harsh reaction toward the Turkish Cypriot president’s statement that relations should be on an equal basis gave the impression that Turkey would like to maintain its influence in the negotiations.
Çolak replied that, “This is a sensitive issue. I told Turkey’s new ambassador that relations with Turkey are very important to us. At the same time, Turkish Cypriots have strong feelings that we want to be masters of our own home.
Turkish Cypriots will respond to anything that Turkey does or says which makes them feel this is under threat. Following Erdoğan’s statements that were seen as offensive to our newly elected leader, Turkish Cypriots reacted to it, saying he should not speak to our president like that. We want to have Turkey on our side, but we also want to stand on our feet”.
Regarding the recent turmoil in Turkey possibly having a negative impact on the Cyprus talks, Çolak was asked if she was concerned.
“I am concerned about recent events in Turkey. I am sorry that there is bloodshed. Perhaps there won’t be a direct impact, but its focus is being directed elsewhere”.
Noting that for decades, there had been rhetoric that “this is the last chance for a solution,” yet there were only failures, the Foreign Minister was asked what was her final message.
“I am hopeful, encouraged and optimistic. But there is nothing like a last chance and it could be achieved in the indefinite future. In that case, I am concerned about the word indefinite – I am concerned about the uncertainty for my community. No community should be condemned to uncertainty”, she concluded.