It has taken more than 40 years, an army of mediators and several near-misses, but there is genuine hope that when the leaders of ethnically divided resume peace talks on Friday, one of the west’s longest-running diplomatic disputes can finally be resolved.
The quest to end a conflict that has haunted Europe since the summer of 1974 kicks off in earnest when Nicos Anastasiades, president of Cyprus’s internationally recognised Greek southern sector, meets Mustafa Akinci, a moderate leftist by Turkish Cypriots.
“This is a unique opportunity, an opportunity to be grasped,” Espen Barth Eide, the UN envoy appointed to assist the talks, announced after the politicians had their first face-to-face contact over dinner earlier this week. “They agreed it was important to use the momentum created, and opportunity, to move forward without delay.”
In what will be the biggest push for peace in over a decade – in 2004 Greek Cypriots rejected what was then seen as the most sophisticated reunification plan for the island – the two men are acutely aware that time is of the essence if the erstwhile British colony is to be put back together again.
Eide, a former Norwegian foreign minister who is the UN secretary general’s special representative, says he does not expect Friday’s meeting, the first since talks were stalled last October, to go beyond a “general exchange of views”. But in a major departure, highlighting the enthusiasm the talks have engendered, both leaders have agreed to personally participate in the process and meet regularly.
Akinci shares Anastasiades’s view that the island, partitioned after a Greek Cypriot attempt for enosis, or union, with Greece prompted to invade and seize its northern third, should be united as a two-state federation.
“Tonight we came together, it was a positive meeting, it was a good beginning,” tweeted the 67-year-old Akinci after conferring with Anastasiades in the UN buffer zone that bisects the isle.
With his track record of espousing reconciliation – as mayor of Nicosia’s Turkish-controlled sector, Akinci collaborated closely with his Greek Cypriot counterpart on a number of projects in the capital – the new Turkish Cypriot leader is seen as the one man willing to take on his pariah state’s protector and economic mainstay: Turkey. Dervis Eroglu, his conservative predecessor, had a hawkish approach that from the outset of his five-year tenure thwarted negotiations.
“He is the best possible Turkish Cypriot politician to assume the helm of talks right now,” Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia told the Guardian. “His election marks the last stand of Turkish Cypriots. They have asserted themselves one more time before they disappear as a minority in the north.”
In recent years moderates like Akinci have increasingly complained about their cultural identity being usurped by ever-greater numbers of settlers dispatched from the shores of Anatolia. The avowedly secular, pro-European community – at the last count 120,000-strong – has laid the blame, squarely, with the neo-Islamist AK party led by Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
In a sign of that animosity, Akinci announced within days of his election that it was about time Ankara stopped treating Cyprus “as a child”. The remark drew a stern rebuke from Erdoğan, who reminded the leader that it was Turkey that bankrolled the breakaway republic and guaranteed its security through the presence of some 35,000 mainland troops.
The litmus test, say experts, will be how quickly the two sides move ahead with confidence-building measures that can pave the way to a viable solution. While Greek Cypriots have long pressed for the opening of Varosha, their once-thriving resort in the north, Turkish Cypriots have pushed for the opening of Ercan international airport – a move that would help end the increasingly impoverished ministate’s global isolation.
In the past, efforts to come up with a power-sharing arrangement have stumbled on the formation of a central government and the ever-sensitive issue of property.
But with Greek Cypriots only just emerging from their worst economic crisis in decades and Turkey keen for a foreign policy success, the time is also ripe. Optimism has been further boosted by Athens and Ankara displaying a rare desire to improve ties.
“The Turkish Cypriots are acutely aware that if they don’t do a deal to solve the problem now, Erdoğan will extend his influence in the north and it will be made into the image of the AKP,” said Dr James Ker-Lindsay, a specialist on Cyprus at the London School of Economics. “And in many ways Erdoğan wants to be shot of a problem long seen as a nuisance and a drain. The time has come for both sides to show real leadership. That more than ever will require Anastasiades selling the benefits of a solution to [hardline] Greek Cypriots and Akinci making the necessary compromises to help him do this.”