Bridging The Cyprus Divide

Can the division of Cyprus, a problem that has persisted for 30 years, be overcome in just two months?

That is the goal today, as the leaders of Turkish northern Cyprus and Greek southern Cyprus begin talks to bridge the two sides by May 1, when the Greek part of the island joins the European Union.

Caution is advised. Talks collapsed last year when Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash balked over an issue that has tormented so many regions: the return and rights of displaced people. In this case, Greek Cypriots would be returning to the north, which is now occupied by tens of thousands of Turkish troops. The soldiers were dispatched in 1974 to protect the Turkish minority during an island coup orchestrated by Athens.

And yet, no time is as ripe for progress as the present. The May 1 deadline acts as a tremendous incentive. Unification of the island would allow all Cypriots to enjoy the benefits of EU membership, not just the more prosperous Greek half. A single Cyprus in the EU would also ease the way for Turkey to join - making it the first Muslim member, and proving to the world that Islam and Christianity can work together.

Even with these obvious benefits, however, the two Cypriot leaders still need the pressure and encouragement of outsiders in their race to the finish line. The behind-the-scenes intervention of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, of the EU leadership, and of the leaders of Greece and Turkey, has been essential in bringing both sides back to the negotiating table.

So, too, has UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. His plan to model the new Cyprus after a Swiss-like union of autonomous cantons forms the basis of the talks. It is a sign of his skill and trustworthiness that the two sides agreed to let Mr. Annan set a solution should they reach an impasse.

If all goes according to the schedule, Turkish and Greek Cypriots themselves will vote on a peace plan in a referendum April 21. Pro-unification rallies and a recent election in Turkish Cyprus indicate a desire for peace. It could be that the people are ahead of their leaders on this one.

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