IF the United Nations succeeds in its current hard push to mediate long-standing differences over the future of Cyprus, the achievement would mark the first definitive resolution of an ethnic conflict in the aftermath of the cold war.
The latest round of one-on-one talks here between UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Cypriot President George Vassilliou, and between the secretary-general and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, began July 15 and resumes this afternoon after a weekend hiatus.
Some veteran Cyprus-watchers, skeptical after witnessing the failure of many past negotiating efforts, admit to far more optimism this time around.
Bulent Aliriza, for instance, who was born in Nicosia and is a diplomatic historian based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he is more hopeful than at any time since 1985: "I think the chances now look better than ever, and, for Cyprus, those are spectacularly good odds."
A Western diplomat agrees, "This looks as if it might really be it." Officials are upbeat
Both sides in the current UN-mediated talks have agreed to a news blackout on specifics of progress made. UN officials and Cypriots from both sides are publicly upbeat. When all three leaders met for a long lunch last week, Mr. Denktash described the session as "excellent" and said, "We talked about everything."
Yet in a weekend phone conversation, Vassilliou spokesman Akis Fantis said he thinks much of the general optimism is more wishful than solidly based. Of the three-way meeting he says simply: "A lunch is a lunch."
International interest in some resolution of the conflict is at an all-time high. The new rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, the motherland nations to whom the two Cypriot communities look for direction, is widely seen as a help.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who according to his spokesman Francois Giuliani intends to conduct the talks "until they are successful," got a specific Security Council commitment to an "ongoing and direct involvement" in the negotiations. Thus, if the talks should fail, Council members, who are closely monitoring the progress, are likely to stay on the issue and keep up the pressure. United States interest is particularly strong.
The secretary-general also has threatened, for financial reasons, to withdraw UN peacekeeping troops. They have been stationed on the island since 1964 when violence spread after Cyprus gained its independence from Britain. Denmark and Canada, two major troop contributors, say they may pull out by the end of the year.
"Whichever side becomes responsible for bucking a deal at this stage obviously will have to pay a very large diplomatic price," Mr. Aliriza says. "You cannot knock the table over and run away because the secretary-general, backed by the Security Council, backed by an international consensus, has basically got [you]."
Cyprus has been partitioned since 1974, when civil war followed a coup effort by Cypriots seeking union with Greece. Turkish troops moved into the north to protect the Turkish minority.
Both sides already agree on what the future Cyprus should look like. In line with the so-called "set of ideas" put forth by UN negotiators, Greek and Turkish Cypriots want a reunified Cyprus of two zones. Each community would administer much of its own business, but a new federal government and bicameral legislature would speak with one voice to the outside world.
Yet getting to that constitutional end is not easy.
Territorial issues and the return of refugees displaced from their homes are two of the toughest issues that divide the two factions. The Security Council asked Boutros-Ghali to focus talks first on those subjects.
As Aliriza notes, the issues are similar to the "land for peace" dispute between Arabs and Israelis. Turkish Cypriots account for one-fifth of the island's population but occupy two-fifths of the land. Greek Cypriots dominate the island's government.
The trade-off envisioned is some yielding of territory by Turkish Cypriots, allowing displaced Greek Cypriots to return to their homes or to move into the new area, in exchange for the establishment of two zones and a role for the Turkish minority in the island's government. Missing persons
The issue of refugees and missing persons is a particularly sensitive one. Across the street from the UN, Greek Cypriots wave banners and pass out leaflets, protesting the lack of any information about 1,619 Greek Cypriots missing since the 1974 invasion. Christina Mia, who was four years old when the Turks entered her village of Assia, says her family never heard again about or from her two grandfathers, her uncle, and two uncles of her father who were seized.
"We cannot accept solution of the political problem unless the humanitarian problem of missing persons is solved first," says Rev. Christoforos Christoforou, chairman of the Pancyprian Committee of Relatives of Undeclared Prisoners and Missing Persons.
Turkish Cypriots stress that the UN since 1981 has had a missing-persons committee where such protests should be lodged and note that some 803 Turkish Cypriots also disappeared between 1973 and 1974.
If the top two leaders of Cyprus can find a way to agree on refugees and territory, they will move on to the other six issues in the UN's "set of ideas." From there the two could move to face-to-face meetings and then to high-level international talks involving Greece, Turkey, and Security Council members. In time all issues would be put to a referendum in both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities.