Page last updated at 15:22 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 16:22 UK

Cyprus unity hopes rekindled

By Kirsty Hughes
Writer on European affairs, Nicosia

Turkish Cypriots in Ledra Street, 3 Apr 08
The reopening of Ledra Street was celebrated on both sides

There are fresh hopes in Cyprus that the divided island may be edging towards a long-awaited settlement, with the leaders on both sides preparing for peace talks.

But if they don't meet, or peace talks fail, Cyprus will risk facing a Kosovo-type situation, with the unrecognised Turkish-controlled north likely to push for international recognition.

The catalyst for the new upbeat mood was the election in February of moderate Demetris Christofias - leader of the Communist Party Akel - to replace hardliner Tassos Papadopoulos as President of the Republic of Cyprus.

Across the UN-patrolled buffer zone - or Green Line - the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, has had good relations with Mr Christofias for decades.

"We are trying to make the start of fully-fledged negotiations possible," says Mr Talat. Turkey is the only country to recognise the breakaway north.

For a UN diplomat on the island, it is the chemistry between Mr Talat and Mr Christofias that holds the whole thing together. But a European diplomat warns: "There is still a mountain to climb."

Mr Talat's chief negotiator Ozdil Nami is optimistic. "Apart from the friendship of the leaders, it is clear that for the first time ever, they share a common vision and are determined to have a partnership," he says.

His Greek Cypriot counterpart, George Iacovou - an aide to Mr Christofias - calls himself "cautiously optimistic" that there will be full-scale talks, but is less sure if they can start by late June, the target set by both leaders.

Joint initiative

At a landmark meeting in March both sides agreed to open the Ledra Street crossing in central Nicosia. It was closed off by UN peacekeeping troops after inter-communal clashes in 1964 - even before the Turkish invasion in 1974 resulted in a complete partition of the island.

Cyprus President Demetris Christofias (right) with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat, 23 May 08
The two leaders have given a new push to the negotiations

Working groups were launched to start tackling the tricky issues that have blocked a settlement for decades.

In late May, the two leaders met again and set out their common goal of a united federal republic of Cyprus, under a bizonal, bicommunal system, where the smaller Turkish Cypriot community would be guaranteed political equality with the Greek Cypriots.

Nicos Anastasiades, leader of the centre-right Disy party, supports Mr Christofias' pro-reunification line and says "the whole climate has changed" since the Greek Cypriots' rejection of a UN peace plan in 2004.

Some issues are easier now than four years ago. With Cyprus in the EU and already using the euro, negotiating over currencies or monetary policy is redundant.

But many thorny issues remain. The Greek Cypriots want a strong federation, the Turkish Cypriots a looser one.

Tougher still will be agreeing a new security regime, and ending the presence of 35,000 Turkish troops in the north - with agreement likely only in the final hours of talks.

Abandoned homes

Property, and the right of return of refugees on both sides, is also highly sensitive - and discussions on issues of restitution or compensation have ground to a halt. New maps will also have to redraw the border between Greek and Turkish Cypriot "zones" - another area of little progress.

Cyprus map

The two sides remain far apart over the so-called "settlers" from the Turkish mainland - people who the Greek Cypriots say settled in the north illegally after 1974.

Mr Christofias says he has offered to accept 50,000 "settlers" as Cypriot citizens. "I expected this position would be respected and greeted, but unfortunately it was not," he said recently.

A European diplomat here warned that if the two sides delay too long "they risk losing momentum and international interest".

Some say hardliners from Mr Papadopoulos' party - Diko - in the governing coalition are putting pressure on Mr Christofias.

Quiet diplomacy

The UN is playing a low-key role as a behind-the-scenes facilitator. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expected to name a new UN special envoy soon, which could help talks shift up a gear.

For now, the European Union's role is limited to technical advice, ensuring any peace deal fits with EU rules.

Turkey's role in facilitating or blocking an agreement is another wild card worrying the Greek Cypriots.

Mr Talat insists: "Turkey is decisively supporting a deal". But he agrees that Turkey's current political crisis, with the courts threatening to shut the governing Islamist-rooted AKP party, might cause a real problem.

Yet Mr Talat says a full peace deal could be reached by the end of the year. "The future will be very, very difficult if we miss this chance," he says.

Mr Christofias agrees: "Time is passing and it becomes more difficult to handle the situation on the ground."

As one European diplomat put it: "If these two can't do it, no-one can."

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