This is the closest to what one could call track II encounter and exchange process between the two countries and, as such, it should not be underestimated. Apart from the novelty of this unprecedented activity involving, amongst others, the Turkish Prime Minister addressing Greek Cypriots, one could not but notice the messages that he and his colleagues conveyed.
Erdoğan reportedly stressed his view that time is right for a solution as the two communities and two ‘motherlands’ have leaders committed to resolving the Cyprus issue in place. In contrast to the usual rhetoric that has been representing the Greek Cypriot leadership as dragging its feet in the ongoing negotiations, Erdoğan (and Bağış) clearly accept President Christofias as an interlocutor who genuinely seeks a solution. Bağış also stressed that the Turkish government is attempting to push forward towards a solution in Cyprus in a challenging political environment: the nationalist MHP commanding a considerable following partly drawing on its critique of the government's handling of the Cyprus issue; the military establishment is still devising scenaria of overt or covert military interventions as the recent prosecutions of a host of military officers indicate.
Erdoğan pointed out that 'Turkey genuinely seeks a fair and lasting comprehensive solution based on the joint declaration of the two leaders on May 23, 2008' and with unprecedented clarity expressed his support for a bizonal, bicommunal federation as defined by the relevant UN resolutions, with political equality and a single international identity. In addition to this, both Erdoğan and Bağış affirmed Turkey's willingness to remove its troops from the island when a solution based on political equality is reached and accepted by both communities.
In a veritable exercise in acknowledging and addressing the fears of the Greek Cypriots and overcoming the inertia that have stalled the negotiation process, but also in an implicit message to Greece, Erdoğan said: 'What happened has happened in the past, we should leave it there. We have to look at the future and how we build the future … What we are saying to our friends is to not engage in more armaments because we should be investing in the people; that’s what gains us results'.
These contacts and the statements made by the three senior Turkish politicians were greeted in both Nicosia and Athens with caution. This has been partly due to the suspicion reflexes that the two capitals have developed towards Ankara over time and partly due to the lack of willingness of some political circles in Greece and, even more so, Cyprus to grant Ankara the status of a legitimate interlocutor.
Perhaps Ankara, wrongly, sees a solution to the Cyprus issue passing through Athens. That would explain its insistence on a four or five party conference (involving the two communities and the two 'motherlands', together possibly with another European country - Spain who currently holds the presidency, or Britain). But, one thing is certain; Turkey understands that any viable solution will have to address the fears (and prejudices) of the Greek Cypriots. This is signaled by its attempt to communicate with Greek Cypriot journalists, politicians and academics and by its effort to fashion the, badly received, five party conference framework. It clearly has not yet found the language to do so; but talking (and listening) is certainly worth the effort.
PS The emergence of Tahsin Ertuğruloğlu, a UBP politician , as a third North Cypriot presidential candidate, just after his meeting with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, indicates that Ankara is prepared to bolster the chances of Mehmet Ali Talat who is best placed to see the ongoing negotiations reach a conclusion and should also be read as a further indication of Ankara's commitment to finding a solution to the Cyprus issue.