Cyprus reunification talks began in Geneva yesterday under a strict news blackout, but diplomats say they hope to build a platform for more decisive talks this summer. Such optimism has been spawned by a remarkable thaw between Greece and Turkey, the two major players in the divided nation.
A breakthrough on Cyprus is in turn seen as the key to normalizing relations between the NATO allies. Along with territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, Cyprus has been the main source of friction between Athens and Ankara for the past quarter of a century.
"The hope is the two sides here will take a lead from the motherlands," says a senior Western envoy in Nicosia. "There is too much history in Cyprus to make predictions about the chances of success, but there are hopes of making real progress this year. The background music is excellent this time."
The United Nations has meticulously prepared the ground for the negotiations that opened in New York last month and are supported by unprecedented interest from both sides of the Atlantic. The United States and the European Union are putting invaluable muscle behind what is expected to be a long, hard haul to re-unify Cyprus. It has been split along religious and ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied the north of the island after a coup in Nicosia engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. The coup soon collapsed, but 35,000 mainland Turkish troops haven't left.
Earlier this month, Athens and Ankara pledged to ease tensions and agreed on measures to build confidence when George Papandreou became the first Greek foreign minister to visit Turkey in nearly four decades. Agreements were signed on tourism, the environment, commerce, fighting organized crime, and preventing illegal immigration.
"We will have to wait and see whether Greece's daring friendship assault on Turkey will eventually bear fruit in the case of Cyprus," read a recent editorial in the English-language Cyprus Mail newspaper. "The Greek government's thinking is that once its bilateral relations with Turkey are put on a sound basis, and there is trust in dealings between the two countries, then Ankara is bound to soften its traditionally hard-line policy on Cyprus."
It was tragedy in the shape of earthquakes last summer that triggered a change in attitudes among the general population in both countries when both rushed to each other's aid. Then in December, Greece agreed to Turkey finally becoming a candidate member of the EU, a move Athens hopes will encourage Ankara to make concessions on Cyprus.
The UN hopes the atmosphere in Geneva will be improved by a modest but rare agreement this month. Each side agreed to restore a religious site that is immensely important to the other.
The Greek Cypriots will work on the picturesque Hala Sultan Tekke mosque - one of the holiest sites in Islam - which nestles amid palm trees overlooking a salt lake in the southern coastal town of Larnaca.
The Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, are to start work on the Apostolos Andreas Monastery on the remote northeastern tip of the island. It is revered as a site where the apostle St. Andrew is said to have been shipwrecked on a missionary journey from Palestine to Rome, and where he summoned forth a spring that effects miraculous cures. Worshippers from each community have in recent years crossed the island's dividing "green line" to make regular but limited pilgrimages to the sites.
"This is a very important initiative directly related to the culture of Cyprus and its two communities," says James Holger, the UN's most senior representative on the island. Mediators, however, are determined that while further measures to build confidence are most welcome, they must not be allowed to bog down the two sides in protracted negotiations. "We don't want attention to be diverted from the core issues of the Cyprus problem," another Western envoy said.
The key issues are security, territorial adjustment, the return of refugees and compensation, and the division of powers in a re-united Cyprus. It is the last that may prove the most difficult. Turkish Cypriot leaders want a confederation, or loose connection between independent states.
The Greek Cypriots want the implementation of many UN resolutions: a bi-zonal federal system in which each community runs its own local affairs but with defense, foreign policy, and other issues decided by a central government in which both groups are represented. As Mr. Papandreou put it in a television interview this month: "I want to see a happy marriage in Cyprus instead of a successful separation."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society