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Heads up – Embassy 13 – Nov/Dec 2008

New beginnings

The new High Commissioner for Cyprus arrives in London at a time of new beginnings – he has a new High Commission, a new president and a renewed effort to reunite the island.

It is also time for a refreshed relationship with Britain, says Alexandros Zenon, a one-time Permanent Secretary and former Ambassador to the Netherlands. Relations between the island and its former colonial power reached a nadir last year, after Britain signed a protocol agreement with Turkey which was “unacceptable to Cyprus”.

But the two sides mended fences with a memorandum of understanding signed between President Christofias and Prime Minister Brown in June.

“Politically it provides for closer consultations and cooperation between our diplomatic missions in London, New York and Brussels to avoid nasty surprises which caused the misunderstandings of the past,” explains Zenon.

He arrives in London at a critical juncture in the divided island’s history. The new president is vigorously pursuing a solution to the Cyprus Problem which has dogged every administration since Turkish troops occupied the northern half of the island in 1974.

“President Christofias said he wouldn’t launch himself in that adventure had he not been convinced he can offer something new on this issue. And since it takes two to tango we expect the same determination from the other side to reach a conclusive settlement within the framework of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the EU acquis.”

The relationship between the two leaders also brings a new dimension to the negotiations, he adds. “Both Talat and Christofias come from the same political and ideological background; they have known each other for years; and they have cooperated in the past so there is a new personal element.”

Despite these positive signs, the High Commissioner predicts difficulties over matters such as the return of property and guarantee issues, particularly Turkey’s right to unilateral military intervention, which he says is no longer relevant in an international environment where Cyprus is an member and Turkey is likely to be member of the club in the not too distant future.

The problem of Turkish settlers is also a potential stumbling block, he says.

“Colonisation is a war crime and normally should not be accepted,” says Zenon, but he adds: “Taking into account the humanitarian aspects, the President has stated publicly that he is ready to negotiate up to a figure not exceeding 50,000 settlers to remain. But this gesture has not been reciprocated from the other side.”

Nevertheless the High Commissioner says President Christofias has “no intention” of abandoning talks. “We have to be a bit patient.”

While the lure of EU membership has seen reform within Turkey, the High Commissioner says it not resulted in a more flexible approach in negotiations: “In fact we have seen a hardening of positions,” he says.

Cyprus will not seek to block Turkey’s membership of the EU, but it will insist that its neighbour receives no special treatment, says Zenon. “What we are saying is that Turkey as a candidate country has to comply with the rules of the club just like everybody else.”

As High Commissioner in London, it is his job to engage Britain which, he says, is in the “best position to play a role between Cyprus and Turkey.”

The UK is a guarantor power; it is one of the EU heavyweights strongly in support of Turkish accession; and it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council at a time when Turkey has a non-permanent seat, all of which give the UK “leverage and channels of persuasion with Turkey” he says.

Equally, the UK has a good relationship with Cyprus, and can provide a channel of communication between the two nations.

Much of the High Commissioner’s focus in London will be devoted to achieving a settlement to reunite Cyprus, but he will also have one eye on Cyprus’s EU presidency in 2012. “Since it’s going to be our first presidency, we want it to be exemplary and we are hoping the British can offer us their expertise.”

The 300,000-strong Cypriot community in Britain will also keep him busy but all this shouldn’t overly concern the man, who as Acting Permanent Secretary, coordinated Cyprus’s emergency response to the Lebanese crisis in 2006, when shiploads of civilians fetched up in Cyprus’s ports fleeing the conflict. He moved 65,000 people in one month at a cost of €3 million.

“In situations like those, you have to improvise. You might as well throw the textbook out the window,” he grins.

Although it’s unlikely he will have to deal with another crisis of that magnitude, it will be a challenging post.

“I hope my time in London will be productive,” he says. As someone who spends his spare time in the kitchen cooking, this is one High Commissioner who can stand the heat.

HE Mr Alexandros Zenon

“President Christofias said he wouldn’t launch himself in this adventure [to reunite Cyprus] had he not been convinced he can offer something new on this issue. And since it takes two to tango, we expect the same determination from the other side”

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