In divided Cyprus, new leader Christofias energizes unity bid

The Greek Cypriot president meets Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Talat Friday to discuss the renewal of reunification talks.

Petros Karadjias/AP
New tone: Cypriot President Demitris Christofias urged resolution Wednesday.

Rarely does the United States show keen interest in a distant country half the size of New Jersey. Nor does Washington usually welcome a communist election victory.

But in Demetris Christofias, the new Greek Cypriot leader, the US and European Union see an opportunity to end the division of Cyprus – a conflict that has stymied mediators since 1974. Now, for the first time in decades, there are conciliatory leaders on both sides of the divide.

On Friday, Mr. Christofias will meet Mehmet Ali Talat, the leader of the estranged Turkish Cypriot community, to resuscitate moribund talks. It will be their first meeting since Christofias, a Soviet-educated builder's son with the common touch, came to power last month.

"Solving the Cyprus problem is the first priority of our government," he declared at his inauguration. Mr. Talat in turn welcomed Christofias's victory over hard-liner Tassos Papadopoulos. "We have every reason to expect a solution by the end of the year," he said.

A solution would benefit not only the island, but international interests as well. The island's division is a major obstacle to Turkey's ambition of joining the European Union. This frustrates Washington's strategic aim of bringing closer to the West a country it values as a secular Muslim democracy and NATO ally which borders on Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

The Cyprus problem is also an obstacle to rapprochement between NATO partners Greece and Turkey, despite the remarkable improvement in their bilateral relations in the past decade. And jousting between Ankara and Nicosia has hampered EU-NATO cooperation in trouble spots such as Afghanistan and Kosovo.

There are high expectations that Christofias and Talat will announce a goodwill first step Friday: the opening of a crossing point in Ledra Street, a busy pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of Nicosia.

Establishing a connection at the core of Europe's last divided capital would be of practical as well as psychological and symbolic importance. It would boost confidence and improve the atmosphere for the difficult negotiations ahead on substantive issues.

Why Cyprus is divided

Cyprus has been split on ethnic lines since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. The Turkish Cypriots, who made up 18 percent of the island's population, were left holding 37 percent of the territory. Some 35,000 Turkish troops remain in northern Cyprus, occupying part of an EU member state that Ankara does not recognize.

The Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities have long agreed the island should be reunited as a federation in which both communities would enjoy broad autonomy.

For decades, moderate Greek Cypriot leaders had to negotiate with Rauf Denktash, the long-serving, hard-line former Turkish Cypriot leader whose obduracy was blamed for the failure of most United Nations-sponsored settlement efforts.

He was ousted in 2005 by Talat, who wanted to steer his community out of its international isolation: the self-declared Turkish Cypriot state is recognized only by Turkey. But a year before Mr. Denktas left the scene, the Greek Cypriots had elected Papadopoulos, who led the Greek Cypriots in an overwhelming rejection of a UN reunification plan in 2004.

Christofias was elected on a swell of public dissatisfaction with the hard-line policies of Papadopoulos, who insisted the blueprint, known as the Annan plan, would satisfy Turkish demands at the expense of Greek Cypriot rights.

The plan was backed by the Turkish Cypriots in a separate referendum, but they effectively were left out in the cold a week later when Cyprus, which is internationally represented by the more prosperous Greek Cypriots, entered the EU as a divided state. Peace talks have been deadlocked since.

This year's window of opportunity

This year represents a narrow window of opportunity for advancing those talks: There are no elections pending in northern Cyprus, Greece or Turkey, and the EU isn't due to assess Turkey's obligations to Cyprus until 2009.

The patience of the UN, weary of its Sisyphean role in Cyprus, has also worn thin, but it is now clearly committed to putting its muscle behind another big – and possibly last – push for a settlement.

"Leaving the Cyprus problem unsolved is no longer a comfortable status quo. New dynamics are poisoning domains far beyond Cyprus, from EU import policy to Afghanistan," said the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, in a recent report.

Popular support for peace

Last month's election suggests that a majority of Greek Cypriots, who rejected the UN reunification plan four years ago, are eager for a solution.

Papadopoulos was unexpectedly defeated in the first round. The run-off vote a week later was contested by Christofias and a right-wing politician who also promising an early resumption of reunification talks. In other words, more than 60 percent of the Greek Cypriot electorate backed moderate candidates, vindicating their assertion that in 2004 they rejected a particular plan and not a solution itself.

Papadopoulos's opponents had successfully argued that his uncompromising stance in the past four years was entrenching the island's partition and isolating Cyprus in the EU.

Yet new negotiations will again face a huge task in resolving substantive issues such as the redistribution of territory, property rights, the return of displaced people, constitutional aspects of the federation, and security arrangements.

"We want a workable solution as soon as possible," Christofias told reporters Wednesday, cautioning this could not be achieved in a month "when there is a deep chasm of differences." But he insisted: "This time we must succeed. A new failure will be devastating for the future of our people, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots."

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