Leaders of Cyprus (photo, from kktcbe.org) met on Friday, in order to consider starting negotiations to reunify the 34-year division of the island. They decided that on September 3, they will enter direct peace negociations, and that the solution they will find will be put to simultaneous referendums.
Taye-Brook Zerihoun, the UN chief of mission, hosted more than two hours of talks between Demetris Christofias, Cyprus’ president and Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader. Then, speaking in the old Nicosia airport in the UN buffer zone, he said that the two leaders had reviewed progress made by the working groups set up at their talks in March.
“Having made their final review, the leaders decided to start their fully fledged negotiations on September 3, 2008 under the good offices mission of the UN secretary general.”
“The aim of fully fledged negotiations is to find a mutually acceptable solution to the Cyprus problem, which will safeguard the fundamental and legitimate rights and interests of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots”, Zerihoun said, reading a joint statement on behalf of the two leaders.
The Turkish Cypriot northern sector as well as the Greek Cypriot south will held the referendums.
In 2004, Kofy Annan, the former UN secretary general, drawn up a peace plan that lead to a similar vote which drew a resounding ‘yes’ from the north, but was strongly rejected by the south.
The two Cypriot leaders must also deal with a legacy of repeated failures during 34 years of trying to negotiate a peace.
“Our objective is to reach a settlement in a short time. I believe we can make it by the end of 2008”, Mr Talat told Anatolia news agency in an interview.
“Starting from September, we have four months. This much time is sufficient. It can be extended a little bit if necessary, but resolving the Cyprus question in a short time must be our primary objective.”
Voted into power in February, Mr Christofias has beaten the incumbent president with a pro-reunification ticket, and immediately sought to restart talks with Mr Talat.
In March, an agreement has been reached by the leaders, to revive the process and enter fully-fledged peace negotiations.
Their commitment has been underscored by the opening of a north-south crossing point in the centre of Nicosia, the divided capital, which had come to embody the intractability of the problem as well as the elusiveness of its resolution.
“Considering that the current pair of leaders have staked so much on negotiating a settlement, the entire notion of resolving the Cyprus problem bilaterally will have been dealt a blow if they fail in this round”, said Erol Kaymak, an international relations professor at Eastern Mediterranean University.
The two leaders’ statement said: “As a reflection of the heightened engagement, the leaders have agreed to establish a secure hotline to facilitate direct contact between them.”
They also have publicly agreed to create a federal state, composed of two “constituent states”, guaranteeing the political equality of both communities.
Yet, differences remain over what “federation” means for each side.
As the Turkish Cypriot are determined never to be dominated by the Greek Cypriots, who outnumber them approximately four to one, Mr Talat refers to two “equal founding states”, pointing towards a more flexible, confederation-type partnership.
On the other side, a more cohesive federal model, with a stronger central government to which the two partner states would remain subordinate, is favoured by president Christofias.
This would address a Greek Cypriot fear of a deal potentially unraveling into formal partition.
Anticipating a fresh settlement drive, Alexander Downer, Australia’s former foreign minister, has been named by the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, as his special envoy for Cyprus.
In 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to an Athens-engineered Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the island with Greece, Cyprus was divided along ethnic lines (map, from economist.com), into a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and an internationally recognised Greek Cypriot south.
The lack of a Cyprus settlement is viewed as a major stumbling block to Turkey’s European Union ambitions.