- - Sunday, January 22, 2017

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Hope has become the watchword here as negotiators make halting progress on reconciling the ethnic Greeks and Turks who have divided Cyprus since the 1970s — one of the world’s longest “frozen conflicts” playing out on this balmy Mediterranean island.

After more than four decades of frustration, intensive talks between leaders of the two communities in recent days have created a sense of optimism not seen in years, raising hopes of a diplomatic and political breakthrough in a world badly in need of both.

“We are facing so many situations of disasters,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after a round of four days of talks in Geneva earlier this month. “We badly need a symbol of hope. I strongly believe Cyprus can be the symbol of hope at the beginning of 2017.”

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci were briefed again over the weekend on progress at a two-day gathering of deputies last week in Mont-Pelerin, Switzerland. Negotiators are trying to produce a report that prepares the way for a meeting of Cypriot leaders and the foreign ministers of Greece, Turkey and Britain to hammer out a critical accord on security.

The negotiations have focused on a loose federation for Cyprus, where a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone called the Green Line separates Greek Cypriots in the southern two-thirds of the island and Turkish Cypriots and Turks who have settled in recent decades in the north.

The last big push to heal the division ended in crushing disappointment in 2004 when Greek Cypriots voted in a referendum to reject a U.N. plan to reunify Cyprus. Since then, however, an expected surge in tourism after a settlement and the discovery of offshore natural gas reserves that would be easier to exploit if the island was united have changed the political climate.

“There’s a glimpse of hope, but we have a very, very long way,” said Harry Tzimitras, director of the Cyprus center of the Peace Research Institute Oslo, a think tank that aims to resolve the island’s problems. “We first have local issues that need to be settled by local leaders. Then we have the various states that are called the guarantors: Britain, Turkey and Greece.”

Major hurdles to a final deal include agreeing on a map delineating which areas the two sides would control in their respective federal zones, the status and withdrawal timetable for some 35,000 Turkish troops on the island and the mechanics of a proposed “rotating presidency” to be shared by the two communities.

But analysts said that, while this latest round of talks that started in 2014 has broken down and resumed a few times, both sides have shown a determination to reach a deal — and an openness to dealing with the other side.

“It’s the first time that talks have reached this level where a solution plan is visible,” said Niyazi Kizilyurek, a Turkish-Cypriot professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Cyprus.

A refugee who fled the south in the 1970s, Mr. Kizilyurek is a geopolitical consultant to Mr. Anastasiades and a friend of Mr. Akinci.

As the former colonial power in Cyprus, Britain retains military bases on the island that are crucial to London’s interventions in the Middle East. The island is a member of the European Union, but Turkish-Cypriot officials in the north don’t recognize the EU’s authority in their self-declared republic. Only Turkey has recognized that republic as a sovereign state.

Cyprus has also become a tax shelter for Russian oligarchs seeking to stow their wealth overseas. Cyprus’ former communist government almost received a financial bailout from Moscow after the island’s banking sector imploded in 2013, but it ultimately turned to Europe for assistance.

Great power rivalry

Those forces are one reason peace has been hard to achieve, Mr. Tzimitras said.

“Cyprus is at the crossroads of great-power antagonism,” he said. “There’s Russia and the U.S., and then you have the EU, which also has an institutional role. To get the interest of all those aligned is a bit of a challenge.”

Cyprus became divided in 1974 when tensions between the ethnic Greeks and Turks were high and Turkey deployed troops to the north after the military junta in power in Athens at the time launched a coup to unite the island with Greece. Turkish Cypriots then declared their independence from the south.

Today, the Turkish troops’ withdrawal is among the thornier issues in the talks, especially since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this month said those forces would remain on the island in perpetuity.

Other issues include the status of refugees who left the north or south to join their ethnic communities, the whereabouts of people still missing since 1974, and whether Turks who later settled in northern Cyprus should also be considered Cypriots.

“The two communities are traumatized,” Mr. Kizilyurek said. “Turkish-Cypriots see the role of Turkey as security, while Greeks see it as a threat. There needs to be a formula for both communities to feel safe. It all boils down to whether Greece and Turkey will agree on a formula of security and guarantees. It’s not easy, but that’s the challenge.”

In the capital of Nicosia, military outposts, barbed wire and other barriers split the city the way the Berlin Wall once divided Germany’s capital. Buildings in the U.N.-maintained buffer zone are exactly like they were 43 years ago. Furniture sits unmoved, and bullet holes still mark walls from the fighting between Greek, Turkish and northern and southern Cypriot forces.

Despite the prospects for normalcy, many Greek Cypriots remain torn over reconciling with the north.

“As the years go by, the younger generations of Greek-Cypriots forget,” said Tasos Christodoulou, 26, a Greek-Cypriot political science graduate student at the University of Cyprus. “We weren’t born in the occupied areas and only have memories from our parents and grandparents’ stories, so it’s become of secondary importance to many young people.”

But Mr. Christodoulou said he refuses to visit the north even though the border has been open for a decade because he doesn’t want to legitimize the Turkish Cypriot enclave by showing his identification to the Turkish-Cypriot authorities.

“There are others, though, that believe a division is the best solution,” he said. “But I can’t agree with giving away our territories to Turkey.”

Living in a mini-state recognized only by their patron in Ankara, Turkish Cypriots strongly voted for the 2004 U.N. plan even as the Greek Cypriots were rejecting it. Many hope for a deal but remain skeptical that the two sides can overcome decades of separation and distrust.

Saimon Bahceli, 49, a Turkish-Cypriot who owns the cafe Hoi Polloi in north Nicosia, believed that most Turkish-Cypriots wanted to join the south but that many have also grown comfortable with the status quo.

But Mr. Bahceli was doubtful that negotiations would ever yield an agreement because northern Cyprus was too attached to Turkey. “This government wants to make everything different from the south,” he said.

Following the example of Turkey, northern Cyprus, for example, hasn’t adopted daylight saving time as the south portion of the island has done. So Turkish Cypriots live one hour ahead of their neighbors.

“If they could have different weather, they’d have different weather,” said Mr. Bahceli.

Nikolia Apostolou contributed to this report.

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