Cyprus re-united?

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Under strong pressure from Europe and the United States, Turkey has agreed to resume negotiations over a United Nations plan for the reunification of Cyprus, divided since the Turkish army occupied the northern part of the island in 1974. Turkey’s National Security Council, comprised of military officials and politicians, took the decision to resume talks on 23 January.

The next day Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the Davos World Economic Forum and formally asked him to appoint a new facilitator. Erdogan expressed hope that talks might resume early next month in order to reach a solution before Cyprus joins the European Union (EU) on 1 May 2004.

Annan said he would "study very carefully" the Turkish request but stopped short of saying that Ankara had met his conditions for resuming talks. The National Security Council did not firmly commit itself to the Annan plan for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, nor did the council drop its insistence for a two- state solution consisting of a loose confederation between separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot states. Instead the council spoke of a settlement "that takes the Annan plan as a reference and is based on the realities of the island".

Although Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos previously agreed to a deal based on the Annan plan, negotiations were broken off in March 2003 when Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, backed by Ankara’s politico-military establishment, rejected the plan as "unacceptable". This stand put him and his supporters in Ankara at odds with a majority of Turkish Cypriots who demand that he accept the Annan plan.

Recently, however, Denktash seems to have taken a softer line. He said the plan was "still on the table. We will sit down and discuss it," but warned that the Annan plan needed to be brought to an "acceptable state".

For their part, Greek Cypriots accept both the plan and Annan’s conditions for resuming negotiations. Dr Kypros Chrysostomides, the community’s spokesman, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "[Greek Cypriots] are ready to resume negotiations on the Annan plan" and have "communicated this position to all concerned". According to Chrysostomides, this means negotiations should proceed within "the framework of the Annan plan. We don’t want to change its philosophy, we don’t want to change its rationale," he said.

Chrysostomides also added that the Greek Cypriots had agreed to Annan’s demands for a serious commitment to negotiations, and to their conclusion by a deadline and submission to separate referenda on a fixed date. He said that Annan could submit his own proposals on issues where the two sides could not agree. Dr Chrysostomides also observed that the Greek Cypriots would not "abandon" the search for a solution even if there was no serious progress by 1 May of this year.

Back in Davos, Erdogan followed up his meeting with Annan by saying that Turkey would also agree to allow Annan "to fill in the blanks" but stressed that Ankara would prefer that the two sides settle all outstanding issues without outside assistance. It was not clear, however, whether Erdogan, whose moderate Islamist government favours a settlement based on the Annan plan, was also speaking for Turkey’s military and traditional political establishment which has in the past opposed the Anna plan. Nevertheless, Erdogan expressed optimism that an agreement could be reached. "As far as I can see we are moving towards a solution," he said.

Such optimism is not unfounded. For starters, US President George Bush is apparently fully engaged in the drive to reach an agreement, having sent letters to Erdogan as well as to Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos. Bush then urged the Greek and Turkish Cypriots "to return to the negotiating table immediately and resume discussion in good faith on the basis of Secretary General Annan’s plan."

Also helping the situation is the fact that Mehmet Ali Talat, head of the leftist front which won the Turkish Cypriot parliamentary election last month, backs a quick settlement. Although his front holds only half of the 50 parliament seats, Talat’s views on ending the conflict are in line with the wishes of a majority of Turkish Cypriots.

European pressure for a quick resolution on the Cyprus conflict is also an important element of the current negotiations. On 15 January, during the first visit ever by a European Commission president to Ankara, Romano Prodi said that a Cyprus settlement would improve Turkey’s prospects for the launch of formal EU accession talks. Although he stressed that a Cyprus deal was not a "precondition" for giving Ankara a date for negotiations, he did say an agreement to end the conflict would "greatly help Turkey’s aspirations". His remarks were echoed by a number of European leaders, including German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Yet another source of optimism for Cyprus’ reunification is the fact that failure to reach an agreement over Cyprus would leave Turkey in a very awkward position vis-à-vis Europe. Although the entire territory of Cyprus will join the EU, a failure to reach an agreement would mean that the Acquis Communautaire would not be applied in the Turkish-occupied north.

The implications of such a scenario were spelt out by Guenter Verheugen in an article published by the Financial Times on 23 January. Verheugen said that Cyprus’ accession to the EU in the absence of a solution would mean the EU would have a member country "divided by barbed wire and minefields. The dividing line through Cyprus would become a de facto external EU border." He also pointed out that "the non-recognition of the Republic of Cyprus by Turkey would mean that a candidate country would not recognise an EU member state with full voting and veto rights.

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