Best Chance

With U.N. help, Cyprus is tantalizingly close to resolving its political differences.

| Fri Apr. 2, 2004 4:00 AM EST

At the urging of the U.N. Secretary General, and with the May 1st deadline to join the EU looming, Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators spent the first half of this week in Switzerland, struggling over an agreement that, if accepted, would end thirty years of conflict and reunify Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital.

Negotiators, from both sides of the divided island as well as Turkey and Greece, were given until Wednesday to discuss and approve a 9,000-page reunification plan presented to them by Kofi Annan. Talks ended without any formal agreement. According to the Economist, it was the Greek Cypriot side, lead by Tassos Papadopoulos that considered the plan inadequate.

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“Mr Papadopoulos emerged as the hardliner The deal fell apart over his demand for more land. ... Mr Papadopoulos also objected to the Turkish request for an extended transition period, written into EU law, to stop wealthy Greek-Cypriots buying up land for development in the north.”

There's still a slim chance of success. During meetings in New York in February, negotiators agreed that, no matter how these negotiations went, the Cypriot public, on both sides of the divide, would vote on the plan in separate referendums in April. If the plan fails to pass in either referendum, only the southern Greek half of Cyprus will be eligible to join the EU on May 1st.

Kofi Annan has cast the U.N. plan as Cyprus's last chance for reunification. In a press conference after the talks, Annan told reporters, “The time for plan or nothing , no solution at all."

According to the settlement plan, which is the fourth version of a plan originally presented by Annan in November 2000, Cyprus would remain divided as two “component states” under an over-arching “common state.” Presidency of the island would rotate every ten months between the Turkish and Greek sides, and seats in the senate would be divided equally; in spite of the fact that Greek Cypriots out-number Turkish Cypriots three to one. Eighteen percent of Greek refugees would be allowed to return to homes evacuated in 1979 and the amount of land held by Turkish Cypriots would be reduced by 8 percent.

Cyprus has officially been divided since July 1974, when a coup led by Greek Cypriot army officers forced the president, Archbishop Makarios, into exile. Within five days of Markarios’ removal, Turkey sent troops to the island, purportedly to protect the minority Turkish population living in the Northern half of the island. In the course of the invasion 160,000 Greek Cypriots fled their homes in the northern half of the island; 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were also displaced. The right of return of these refugees is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to a final settlement.

Greek Cypriots and the international community saw the invasion as an illegal occupation and Turkey remains the only nation that officially recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus , created in 1983. This lack of international recognition has left the northern portion of the island economically isolated -- one major reason why Turkish one quarter of the Greek Cypriot level.

“It has been extremely difficult to run a business,” said businessman Fikri Toros to BBC. “The goods and services are all directed to Northern Cyprus via Turkey, and all these not only cause tremendous inconvenience, but also a very high cost which makes us less competitive.”

Peace negotiations in the past have met with little success, but the recent round of talks are seen by negotiators as the closest the two sides have ever come to actually resolving the situation. In February, Greek Foreign Minister Tassos Yannitsis described the talks to reporters in Athens as a “historic opportunity to resolve the problem. ... This means that we are disentangled from the stalemate."

“I commend the constructive spirit and political will displayed by both parties, as well as by Greece and Turkey, to reach this agreement,” Annan told reporters in New York, "All concerned now face historic responsibilities to bring about a just and lasting peace in Cyprus.”

The incentives to reunify Cyprus are especially strong for Turkey and Turkish Cypriots. Failure to resolve the conflict could jeopardize, or at least slow, Turkey’s own accession to the EU. “If all goes well, and the Turkish sector of Cyprus joins the EU along with the Greek part in May, this will boost Turkey’s own hopes of starting EU membership negotiations by early next year,” noted the Economist in February. The article went on to quote Turkish foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, as saying, “After we have done everything and solved the Cyprus problem, nobody can say no to starting the talks.”

"I believe this is a win-win proposal,” said U.N. envoy for Cyprus, Alvaro de Soto at a press conference in Nicosia on March 23, before leaving for talks in Switzerland. “It is very clear that each side is ready for the very important days ahead. Everyone accepts that this is the end game. Both sides remain fully committed to holding referenda in late April.”

Similar opinions were voiced in 2002, before the last unsuccessful round of Cypriot reunification negotiations, and many of the same problems exist today. Turkish Cypriots for example, are concerned that their autonomy is not sufficiently protected under the current plan, and many Turkish Cypriots remain uneasy about the return of Greek Cypriot refugees. "Peace is, of course, very good,” said Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Tek to the AP, “but many people will have to leave their houses and villages, and it is very difficult to set up a new life."

Another sore point is the question of how many troops are to remain on the island. Currently, 30,000 Turkish, 5,000 Greek, and 3,000 British troops are stationed in Cyprus. The reunification plan scales down the total number of troops to 6,000 Greek and 6,000 Turkish. Greek Cypriot newspapers have described the military provisions of the plan as a “Gift to Ankara”, and a unnamed diplomatic source told Reuters, “this is exactly what happened in 1974 ... with the troops now remaining on the island and having intervention rights, the conditions are essentially the same.”

Recent polls published in the right-wing Greek-Cypriot newspaper Simirini, show that more than 60 percent of Greek Cypriot’s polled opposed the current version of the Annan plan. These same polls suggest that a plan where more refugees were allowed to return to their former homes in northern Cyprus would be more popular.

Greek and Greek-Cypriot newspapers seem mostly skeptical of the plan. “Ten Gifts to the Turks – Disappointment among Greek Cypriots as Turkey Celebrates,” said Greece’s Eleftherotypia Newspaper. And an editorial in Simirini commented, “The final plan is far off democratic values. ... Mr. Annan is made leader of an effort that aims at legalizing injustice, illegality, invasion and occupation.”

The final decision belongs to the Cypriot public. These past six months have seen major changes in how the two sides view one another. The thaw began in April 2003, when travel restrictions on crossing the "Green Line” were eased, leading to a surge of travel between the two sides of the island. According to press reports, within a month nearly 40 percent of the island's population had crossed over to see the ‘other side.’ Since then, calls for reunification have grown louder – so when it comes down to it, maybe this is one of those problems that is better resolved in a Cypriot café over a cup of coffee than in a sealed-off boardroom located in snow-bound Switzerland. In the words of Ozdogan Advinli, a 46-year old, Turkish Cypriot, car mechanic interviewed by the Economist, “Turkey, Denktash, the UN: we won't listen to them any more. We shall reunite our island ourselves.”

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