High Hopes as Cypriot Leaders Meet for Reunification Talks | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 03.09.2008
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High Hopes as Cypriot Leaders Meet for Reunification Talks

The leaders of the Greek and Turkish parts of Cyprus began reunification talks on Wednesday. While many doubt they will be successful, some say it's the island's best chance in a generation.

Cypriot President Dimetris Christofias (right) and Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Ali Talat

Talat (left) and Christofias (right) are moderates and want the island to reunite

Leaders from Cyprus' Turkish and Greek sides met for two hours on Wednesday, Sept. 3, in the UN-controlled zone that separates the two communities, to try and iron out a decade long dispute.

Observers are hoping that Greek Cypriot Dimitris Christofias, the president of Cyprus, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat will be able to settle a feud which has long defied international efforts and threatens to undermine Turkey's European Union aspirations.

Christofias said the leaders had a "common will and common desire" to reach an agreement, though he warned that "there are no guarantees."

Talat, however, said "we are confident we will succeed in concluding a comprehensive agreement as soon as possible and hopefully this year." He added that Ankara is supporting the solution, thus pushing aside speculation that Turkey, as a guarantor of the island's 1960 independence agreement, could block a settlement.

Both leaders said any agreed solution would be put to separate, simultaneous referenda in the north and south.

"Genuine commitment"

A diplomat close to the negotiations, speaking on conditions of anonymity, told Reuters news agency that this is the best chance Cyprus has had in a generation.

"Both leaders are genuinely committed for a deal, and that is what was lacking before," he said ahead of the meeting.

Both sides will focus on the complex list of issues dividing the two sides, meeting at the site of the abandoned, bullet-riddled former airport in the UN buffer zone, ranging from territory and property disputes from more than 250,000 people who have lost their homes to future governance of the island.

President Dimetris Christofias of Cyprus stands at a podium in front of a large Cypriot flag.

Dimetris Christofias was elected president of Cyprus in February

Several mediators have tried to come up with a solution for the Mediterranean island, but all have failed. Both sides have agreed to reunite as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, but their opinions differ on how this might work.

Turkish Cypriots, whose breakaway state is only recognized by Turkey, would like a merging of two sovereign states. However, the Greek Cypriots, who run the island's internationally recognized government, are adamant in their refusal to concede any sort of sovereignty to the island's north.

Strategic location

Greeks and Turks have been living at odds with one another since Cyprus attained independence from Great Britain. As a strategic point in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has always been a highly prized piece of land. The British, who were granted power over the administration of the Island in 1878 after the Russo-Turkish war, used Cyprus as a naval base during World War I.

In 1925 the island was declared a British Crown Colony. Although the Turkish mainland is closer to Cyprus, the island has long had a Greek majority. However, the British placed the Turkish minority in charge, deepening the rift between the two ethnic groups.

Greek ties

The island's Greek population saw their salvation in Enosis -- an annexation by the Greek motherland. They started an underground organization (EOKA) to fight against the British and their Turkish collaborators.

UN outpost in the buffer zone between north and south Cyprus with UN guards posted.

The United Nations has set up a buffer zone between the north and south

London gave up control of the island in 1960. As a way of protecting the Turkish minority, a constitution was drawn up, guaranteeing that government offices and posts would be filled by ethnic quotas and giving the Turkish Cypriots a permanent veto. In 1963 inter-communal violence broke out on both sides, and was only stopped when the UN sent in peace keepers.

In 1974 the Greek military government in power in Athens declared a coup on the island, installing Nikos Sampson as president of Cyprus. In retaliation, Turkey invaded, claiming they had they right to restore constitutional order.

Islanders divided

Political analysts remain optimistic. Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told Reuters that Cyprus's admission to the EU in 2004 has offered islanders an element of security lacking in past negotiations.

A border control point with bunches of Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

The island has been split in two since 1983

But there are some islanders who believe it will take nothing short of a miracle for the negotiations to be successful.

"I'm not sure I want to live with (Turkish Cypriots) again," Stella Stavrides, a Greek Cypriot, told Reuters. "I'd like a solution but it would be very difficult. I'm not sure I can trust the Turks."

Turkish Cypriot Emine Hussein said that he tries to be hopeful, but that he doubts the talks will lead anywhere.

"We did our bit and said yes (in a 2004 referendum to reunite, which the Greek Cypriots rejected) and we were very disappointed," he said.

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