Monday, September 29, 2008

The divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus faces its best opportunity in more than three decades to reunite - a prospect that could also improve Turkey‘s chances of joining the European Union, analysts say.

The president of the Republic of Cyprus, Dimitris Christofias, and his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, began discussions to resolve the 34-year-old quarrel earlier this month in the no-man’s-land dividing their capital, Nicosia.

“We must, at long last, put an end to the suffering of our people and reunite our country,” Mr. Christofias said as he headed into the meeting. Mr. Talat underlined that the final goal was to make “a divided island a common place where two nations are living.”

The Sept. 3 meeting, which was largely ceremonial, was followed by talks Sept. 18 that dealt with issues of governance and power-sharing. A third round between the rival leaders is scheduled for next week.

Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkey invaded the north of the island in response to a coup in Greece aimed in part at uniting Cyprus with Greece. Since then, the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot state and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus have been at odds.

The latest reunification talks are the first since 2004, when Greek-Cypriot voters rejected a U.N. blueprint overwhelmingly approved by Turkish Cypriots. The outcome all but halted Turkey’s bid to join the European Union, in part because Cyprus has a veto.

Cyprus is a member of the European Union, and only the Greek-Cypriot government is officially recognized internationally.

U.N. special envoy Alexander Downer, a former Australian foreign minister, has described the new talks as “fruitful” and said that prospects for reunifying the island have “never been better.”

A number of other diplomats and analysts share Mr. Downer’s opinion.

“I deeply believe that this is the most promising attempt to reach reunification since 1974,” said Hubert Faustmann, an associate professor of international relations at the Intercollege of Nicosia.

“For the first time, we have two pro-solutions leaders,” he said. “Before, you always had a hard-liner on one side or the other.”

Mr. Christofias’s election victory in February 2008 over Tassos Papadopoulos, who led Greek Cypriots in rejecting the U.N. reunification plan in 2004, marked a turning point.

“When Christofias was elected, the mood really turned to optimism,” Mr. Faustmann said.

But “just having two moderates in power doesn’t mean they will come to a solution,” he cautioned. “Both sides have to make painful concessions.”

Among the toughest issues are those dealing with administration and power-sharing.

Questions involve the structure of a reunited federal Cyprus and how the Greek-Cypriot majority - which accounts for about 80 percent of the island’s 855,000 people - share power with the Turkish-Cypriot minority.

“The most likely outcome is that they will agree on a rotating presidency with three years of a Greek-Cypriot administration, followed by a two-years Turkish-Cypriot administration,” Mr. Faustmann said. “But many other issues have derailed past efforts. They are likely to clash on the Turkish military presence, as well as on property rights for the Greek refugees.”

At least 100,000 Greek Cypriots could claim property in the north, according to the Economist magazine. Turkey keeps about 30,000 troops in the area.

The collapse of the 2004 plan jeopardized Turkish hopes to begin a process to join the European Union and the resumption of talks could reverse that trend. The European Commission has partially suspended Turkey’s membership talks because of the stalemate over Cyprus, with a review slated for mid-2009.

“Turkey’s concessions to Greek Cyprus would definitely catalyze its acceptance into the EU,” said Neophytos Loizides, a Cyprus-born lecturer in ethnic conflict at Queen’s University in Belfast. “It will testify in a credible way to every skeptical European that the country is ready to find solutions on any practical issues arising from its potential EU membership.”

A major concern, however, is the possibility that the European Union will rule out Turkish membership for the foreseeable future.

“The EU plays a very ambiguous role and can be seen as an additional problem,” Mr. Faustmann said. “On the one hand, it highly motivates Turkey. On the other hand, it is not seen as neutral, and by suggesting that Turkey might never become a full member down the road, it is taking the carrot away.”

For Mr. Loizides, Cypriot unity is a sufficient goal.

“On both sides of the island, we are experiencing major social transformations,” he said. “Cyprus leaders appear together publicly. Changes are being made in history schoolbooks to show a more friendly face of the other side. Greek students are starting to learn Turkish and vice versa. But the settlement is necessary to move to the next step.”

Although the Cypriot population appears eager for reunification, some Cypriot newspapers have criticized the talks.

On Sept. 18, a Greek daily, Simerini, called the peace process a “quagmire,” despite the fact that only two meetings had been held. The Turkish Kibris Gazette referred to “tension” and the “sarcasm” in the statements of the rival leaders.

“Cypriot media traditionally tend to be very conservative and less supportive of a settlement than one might expect,” Mr. Loizides said. It is important, he added, that the leaders make an effort not only to reach agreement, but also to sell it to the population.

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