GENEVA – Rival Cypriot leaders on June 28 reopened talks aimed at reunifying the island split by an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion with warnings from the United Nations and observers that this could be the last best chance with patience running out.
United Nations Special Envoy Espen Barth Eide, who earlier had given up trying to get Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci to come to terms over crucial issues said before they met at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana that the last-ditch negotiations still have hope “as there is an awareness that there is no time like the present.”
“Make no mistake, it is not going to be easy,” he said of the effort, and described the summit as the “most complex” round in the series of talks. The UN has set a deadline of July 7 for its involvement.
The talks collapsed earlier in Geneva after Ankara insisted on keeping a 35,000-strong army on the northern third it has occupied since an unlawful 1974 invasion, and wants the right to militarily intervene when it wants.
Turkey, along with England – the former Colonial ruler of the island which still has a military base there – and Greece are guarantors of security on the island where the UN also has a small peacekeeping force in the divided capital of Nicosia.
Two other issues are critical: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who refuses to recognize Cyprus and bars its ships and planes although he wants his country to become a member of the European Union to which Cyprus, apart from the occupied territories, already belongs, is planning to send an energy research vessel into waters where Anastasiades’ government has licensed international companies to drill for oil and gas, including an American firm.
The other sticking point is Turkey’s demand that a Turk be President every other term even though they are far in the minority on the island.
The conference, designed to unite Cyprus under a federal umbrella, will also be attended by foreign ministers of guarantor powers Greece, Turkey and Britain.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “The opportunity for the reunification of Cyprus is now finally before us,” he said in a written statement, and called “all concerned players to seize this opportunity, for Cyprus first and foremost, but also for the wider Eastern Mediterranean region.”
Citizens from both sides of the island, including the northern third occupied by Turkey, have been pressuring for a solution and forming human chains across the UN-patrolled buffer zone that bisects Nicosia, symbolically uniting the island when politicians have failed to do so.
Speaking from the divide, Esra Aygin, a Turkish Cypriot, told the British newspaper The Guardian: “These two men were elected on promises to unite the island. For two years they have been talking. They’ve made unprecedented progress, unmatched in so many ways, and they know what a solution will look like. Now they have to take the last steps and seal the deal.”
“Patience is running out,” a well-placed western diplomat told the paper. “The new UN Secretary General (António Guterres) is taking a firmer stance than his predecessor and has indicated in no uncertain terms that this can’t go on forever. There are other more pressing places the UN can be.”
First up will be discussions on issues such as territory and governance, before the focus turns to the thorny security discussions this evening. One big disagreement between the two sides is on the future of the 35,000 Turkish troops on the island.
Arriving at the meeting, Anastasiades said “there is always hope.”
About a dozen Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot activists from the peace group #UniteCyprusNow waved flags and held placards reading “peace” and “unite Cyprus now” outside the hall where the peace talks are taking place.
“We want the leaders to know that the people are watching and they’ll be held accountable for their actions,” activist Andromachi Sophocleous said by phone from Crans-Montana.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)