Cyprus: Are old friends offering new hope for unity?
The presidents leading either side of the divided island are longtime allies.
For 35 years, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have lived separate lives on the same island. Reunification talks that began last fall may be the best chance yet for a solution, thanks to an unlikely decades-long friendship between the leaders of the two sides.Skip to next paragraph
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Although a recent electoral win by a nationalist Turkish Cypriot party highlight obstacles that remain before the island is united, the February 2008 victory of communist leader Demetris Christofias in the presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus has brought new hope to reunify communities that have been divided for a generation.
Prior to the 1974 division, Mr. Christofias was a political ally of Mehmet Ali Talat, the current center-left president of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), a state that only Turkey recognizes. The good relations between the two leaders have endured.
"After so many decades, perhaps this is a lucky coincidence – that the leaders on both sides are more prone to be working for a solution," President Talat recently told the Monitor.
Coincidence or not, backers of reunification are trying to seize the moment, says Giorgios Iacovou, former foreign minister of the Republic of Cyprus and now the Greek Cypriot chief negotiator.
"This is a very good opportunity, that we really must make use of," he says.
The last major effort toward a solution led to the 2004 referendum on the UN-brokered Annan Plan, which would have reunified north and south in a new federation. That plan was scuttled when three quarters of the Greek Cypriots voted against it.
As a result, Cyprus joined the EU as a divided country. Only the Greek Cypriot population of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus – which accounts for some three quarters of the island's one million inhabitants – have since enjoyed the full benefits of EU membership.
The international isolation of north Cyprus, which began with Turkey's invasion, continues.
Crossing points in the UN-monitored buffer zone that separates the north from the south were first opened in 2003. But 9 out of 10 people on both sides still have no contact with persons from the other community, according to the United Nations.
Christofias and Talat have a long history
Britain granted Cyprus independence in 1960. Only three years later, communal conflict led the Turkish Cypriots to withdraw from powersharing. In 1974, Turkey invaded in response to a Greece-supported coup against the president, Archbishop Makarios. Widespread fighting displaced a third of the island's population, leaving both the north and south ethnically homogeneous.
The coup collapsed, but Turkey's troops stayed on. The country still keeps between 25,000 and 35,000 soldiers in the north, and it pays at least a third of the TRNC government's budget.
For much of the time since 1974, both communities have been led by nationalists. That changed last year.
"On the first day we met, President Christofias gave Talat a file containing all their common work and declarations, 29 years back," recalls Mr. Iacovou, the chief negotiator. Christofias's message to Talat: If they had agreed on so much before Cyprus was divided, they could reach agreement now, too.
After a four-year hiatus, reunification talks were relaunched in September 2008.