- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2015

It ranks among the world’s oldest frozen conflicts, but an “unusual alignment of the stars” is raising new hopes that Cyprus may soon be on the road to reunification, the top diplomat of the divided island’s Turkish Cypriot government said in an interview.

“We have had different dynamics at different times that prevented a solution, but we get the sense that all of the major players now say there is no reason to leave this unresolved,” Emine Colak, foreign minister for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), said on a visit to Washington Monday. “That is something I don’t think we have ever had to this degree before.” Cyprus has been divided into a Greek ethnic majority and a smaller Turkish population since 1974, when a coup by pro-Greek forces was followed by an invasion of troops from Turkey to protect the Turkish minority. The TRNC unilaterally declared its independence in 1983, but is still only formally recognized by Ankara.

Efforts to reunify the island, bedeviled by questions of property rights, reparations and security guarantees, have repeatedly failed in subsequent decades, highlighted by the collapse of the U.N.-brokered “Annan Plan” in 2004, which was approved by Turkish Cypriots but rejected the Greek majority in simultaneous referendum votes.

Mrs. Colak said an unusual personal chemistry between Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and TRNC President Mustafa Akinci — the two men have been photographed sharing drinks at a cafe in the divided capital of Nicosia — has given a boost to reconciliation talks, which resumed in earnest in May and were given another boost by high-level talks at the U.N. General Assembly gathering last week.

The two sides have also made a series of “confidence-building gestures” as the talks have proceeded, Mrs. Colak said, including adding two more crossing points along the Green Line dividing the two communities and establishing new cross-island electrical grid and cellphone connections.

“Before this, you could make a call around the globe but you couldn’t call someone on the southern side of Cyprus,” Mrs. Colak remarked.

Mr. Anastasiades and Mr. Akinci, who hail from the same Limassol district on the island’s southern coast, have agreed to set up a bi-ethnic commission to adjudicate property and restitution claims, one of the most difficult issues bedeviling the unity talks. The discovery of major natural gas deposits near the island — and the likelihood that any exports to Europe must pass through Turkey — has also provided fresh momentum to reach a political settlement.

The message from both communities and from Greece and Turkey in recent weeks has been remarkably consistent — that there is a new opening for a diplomatic deal that hasn’t been seen in years.

“Today, a window of opportunity lies open, which revives our hopes for a final settlement to the Cyprus problem,” Mr. Anastasiades, a conservative elected in 2013, said in a state address Friday marking the Republic of Cyprus’s independence from Britain in 1960.

“We need to solve this problem,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told the Russian news service RIA Novosti in New York last week. “The atmosphere is better now than before.”

Mrs. Colak noted she has felt the political divisions of the island in a very personal way. Her fluent English comes from a childhood spent in London after her family was hastily forced to leave its Cyprus home as ethnic tensions flared in the 1960s.

The TRNC foreign minister said she was well aware that past bouts of optimism have given way to crushing failure when it comes to a political settlement for Cyprus.

“We’ve all seen this movie before,” she acknowledged. “My attitude is one of cautious optimism, but we Turkish Cypriots have not forgotten what happened with the Annan Plan. There are still hard issues ahead and it has always been a huge struggle to get out two communities behind a compromise solution.”

She said she hoped a deal could be struck and a referendum put to the two communities before the scheduled May 2016 elections for the Greek Cypriot parliament, and the Turkish Cypriot community was prepared for the road ahead.

If the reunification drive breaks down, she said, “it will not be the fault of the Turkish Cypriots.”

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