Cyprus: Are old friends offering new hope for unity?

The presidents leading either side of the divided island are longtime allies.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Turkish Cypriot and Turkish flags fluttered on a recent day in the buffer zone dividing Cyprus. In the foreground is a home destroyed during the 1974 conflict that split the island. Political changes are bringing renewed hope for unity.
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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.

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.

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"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.

"There is a chance that the leaders will be able to negotiate an agreement," says Ahmet Sözen, director of the Cyprus Policy Center at the Eastern Mediterranean University, in the north Cypriot city of Famagusta.

"But the outcome of a referendum on such an agreement is uncertain. Also, if both communities should vote in favor, it is not given that the unification solution would hold; perhaps the glue is not strong enough," Mr. Sözen says.

Land dispute remains key problem

Supporters of reunification were left shaken by a vote on April 19, when the nationalist National Unity Party defeated Talat's Republican Turkish Party in TRNC parliamentary elections.

Given that the president is in charge of the negotiations, and that many voters in the north are likely to support an agreement that promises EU membership, the election result may not be too serious of a setback to the negotiations, analysts say.

Both sides are now aiming for an agreement in the fall, followed by a referendum early next year.

The two leaders meet weekly and are negotiating a long list of complicated issues. The toughest issue involves disputes centered on the return or compensation of properties in the north owned by Greek Cypriots displaced to the south.

The Turkish Cypriots in the north, who constitute only a fifth of the island's population, live on 37 percent of its territory. They fear that returning these properties would make them a minority on their portion of the island. Many do not have the financial means to compensate the Greek Cypriot owners.

Talat confirmed that the property issue is the most difficult one. "It's the most painful and most difficult issue because it affects everybody, without exception."

Agreeing on a system of government for a reunified Cyprus is also a sticking point. The leaders agree in principle that the state should be a federation with two zones, but the Turkish Cypriots want to see stronger rights for minorities while the Greek Cypriots are seeking a stronger federal role with more emphasis on individual rights.

The presence of the Turkish military is a critical security issue. Although both sides agree that Cyprus must be demilitarized for reunification to happen, the conditions are a matter of dispute. That is also the case with the question of citizenship rights for tens of thousands of settlers from Turkey.

Ripe economic conditions for unity?

After decades of solid growth, most indicators now point toward a sharp downturn for the tourism-driven Greek Cypriot economy. The Turkish Cypriot economy, meanwhile, is expected to have a recession for the second year in a row.

The bad economy could be good news for the reunification efforts, says Praxoula Antoniadou Kyriacou, an economist and associate of the Cyprus Center of the International Peace Research Institute, of Oslo, Norway.

"In 2004, people who were against the Annan Plan argued that reunification would be too expensive, and that the use of money would overheat the economy," Ms. Kyriacou says. "But today, this is the answer to the recession. Investment, first and foremost in infrastructure, is what we need now."

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