UN plan kindles hope on Cyprus

The island's leaders are under pressure to negotiate reunification before the EU ushers in Cyprus Thursday.

For nearly 30 years, Ioannis Shekersavva has longed to return to his ancestral home, a harbor town in northern Cyprus. "I think of Kyrenia every day," he says.

His family was among 162,000 Greek Cypriots displaced after Turkey seized the northern part of the island following a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriots backed by the junta then ruling Greece. The Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities have lived apart ever since.

But the three-decade impasse could soon be broken. Cyprus's larger goal of joining Europe is propelling efforts to reunite this Mediterranean island.

The United Nations is racing to broker a framework reunification agreement before the European Union's summit next week, at which Cyprus and nine other countries are expected to receive invitations to join in 2004.

"Everyone is treating this as the most critical period in Cyprus's history since 1974. It's a coming together of a number of different factors, most important of which is Cyprus's EU accession," says James Ker-Lindsay, director of Civilitas Research, a political consultancy in Nicosia. "For the Greek Cypriots, EU membership represents security. For the Turkish Cypriots, it is a way out of their impoverished isolation."

On both sides of the divide, many agree that the opportunity must be seized. "[The UN plan] is like quinine. You hate it, but you have to take it because it will be good for your health," says Dinos Lordos, a prominent Greek Cypriot businessman.

A Cyprus settlement would save the EU from ushering in a country divided by a Berlin-style wall and remove a major source of friction between key NATO members Greece and Turkey. It would also assist Ankara's bid to join Europe - a goal supported by the US, which wants Turkish support in the war on terror and the campaign against Iraq.

But a Cyprus deal may dash Mr. Shekersavva's hopes of going home. The UN proposals, unveiled last month, require the Turkish Cypriots to hand back chunks of territory to the Greek Cypriots, allowing half of the Greeks driven out by Turkish troops to return. The rest, like Shekersavva, would be offered compensation instead. It "simply legalizes the fait accompli created by the (Turkish) force of arms in 1974," fumes Shekersavva, secretary of the Kyrenia Refugee Association.

Among Turkish Cypriot critics, the most vocal are those who would have to relocate from territory that would be returned to Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots comprised 18 percent of the island's population in 1974 but were left with 37 percent of the land - a holding that would shrink to 28.5 percent. "We want a solution but without moving people again," says Salim Karabekir, the chief government official in Nikitas, a village inhabited by Greek Cypriots until they were driven out 28 years ago.

Many of the Turkish Cypriots living in Nikitas were settled there from southern parts of the island after the Turkish invasion. "We have land and farms here and have planted new trees," says Karabekir. "The people in this village will never leave."

President Glafcos Clerides, the Greek Cypriot leader, and Rauf Denktas, who heads the Turkish Cypriot community, have accepted the UN plan as a basis to begin negotiations. But with just days to go before the EU summit, they have yet to meet for talks. And Mr. Denktas has been scathing in media interviews on the UN settlement proposal. Still, diplomats do not rule out an 11th-hour breakthrough. "It was always going to go down to the wire. If there is any deal, it could even come on the day of the [EU] summit," says a Western envoy in Nicosia.

Thursday, Cyprus withdrew its response to the UN plan after learning that the Turkish Cypriots, who blamed a faulty fax machine, failed to submit their response simultaneously.

The UN plan proposes that Cyprus be reunited under a loose common government with component Greek and Turkish Cypriot states running most of their own affairs. A country smaller than Connecticut would have three parliaments, three flags, and three national anthems.

Both sides share concerns about the viability of power sharing. And many Greek Cypriots criticize provisions to allow settlers from mainland Turkey to remain on the island.

While most Greek Cypriots have strong reservations about the UN plan, opinion polls show a majority of Turkish Cypriots support it, primarily because they want to share in the prosperity that would come with EU membership. Years of international isolation and embargoes have impoverished the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state, which is recognized only by Ankara. Many Turkish Cypriots have left to escape high unemployment. Incomes among the Turkish Cypriots are less than a third of those in the prosperous, internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south, where tourism propels the booming economy.

Unless there is a deal on the UN plan, the Greek Cypriots are set to board the EU train alone. Brussels would prefer to take in a united island but has made clear that a settlement is not a precondition for Cyprus's entry, since the Greek Cypriots, who represent the island internationally, have met the strict accession criteria.

Recent diplomatic maneuvering from both sides of the Atlantic has focused on Turkey, which has had 35,000 troops stationed in northern Cyprus since 1974 and is seen as holding the key to a settlement. British and US envoys pledged strong support for securing Turkey a date to start cherished EU membership talks - provided Ankara pushes Denktas to sign a draft Cyprus agreement in time for the EU summit.

Thousands of Turkish Cypriots took to the streets in northern Nicosia last week, urging Denktas to negotiate the UN reunification plan.

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