Addressing the Strasbourg-based Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe ahead of a planned debate on the divided island, Tassos Papadopoulos said he was ready to make as many concessions as necessary -- but that Cyprus must join the European bloc as a single state. "We are willing to be as flexible as we can and make as many arrangements as possible to ensure a durable, viable solution," he said. "On one issue we are not ready to make any exception -- there should [not] be two states in Cyprus."
Papadopoulos was responding to a recent Turkish statement that called for a resumption of peace talks while cautioning that any peace deal should reflect the "realities" of Cyprus -- a euphemism that Ankara often means as political shorthand for granting equal status to both sides of the partitioned Eastern Mediterranean island.
Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Ankara invaded the northeastern third of the island in response to an aborted coup backed by the military junta then in power in Athens. Turkey, which maintains an estimated 30,000 troops and more than 100,000 settlers on the island, is the only country that recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which was created in 1983.
Internationally backed reunification talks collapsed last March when both Cypriot sides failed to agree on a blueprint drafted by Kofi Annan, prompting the UN secretary-general to recall his ambassador to the island.
Northern Cyprus leader Rauf Denktash -- who suffered an electoral setback last month and has to set up a coalition government with his pro-EU opponents -- insists his enclave should be granted the same rights as the island's Greek side within the framework of a confederation of two sovereign states.
The internationally recognized administration of southern Cyprus, by contrast, backs the UN blueprint, which envisages the creation of a decentralized single-state, two-community federation with some common institutions.
Cyprus is due to enter the European Union on 1 May along with nine other states. Failure to reach a peace settlement by that date would leave the island's Turkish administration out of the EU's jurisdiction and further cement its international isolation. In addition, it would leave Turkey technically occupying part of the EU, thus hindering Ankara's own bid to join the bloc.
Ankara, which expects Brussels to set a date for formal entry talks later this year, has expressed its willingness to push for the resumption of peace negotiations as soon as possible. In a statement issued on 23 January, Turkey's National Security Council -- a top advisory body grouping civilian and military leaders -- said it had reached a "consensus" on the need to resume UN-sponsored talks and called for a speedy solution of the Cyprus issue "based on the realities of the island."
The following day, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Annan on the sidelines on the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and asked him to reappoint an ambassador to mediate in Cyprus.
In comments made afterwards, Annan welcomed the Turkish offer but stopped short of elaborating on its content. "I had a very good and constructive discussion with Prime Minister Erdogan about the possibility of resuming talks between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots," he said. "He indicated to me that Turkey would want to see the talks resumed. They would want to see it sustained and would want us to try and do everything possible to conclude the process by the beginning of May."
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul yesterday said his country favored a referendum on the island on the basic principles of the UN blueprint but suggested other, unspecified, "thorny issues" could be settled later.
Talking to journalists yesterday in Nicosia, Papadopoulos said Ankara's recent statements had created confusion. He blamed the Turkish leadership for sending what he called "contradictory signals." The Greek Cypriot president has said that he will seek clarification on the Turkish position when he meets Annan in Brussels tomorrow. He has also reiterated claims that Turkey was solely responsible for the Cyprus stalemate -- an accusation rejected by Ankara.
Saying no one should "rush to conclusions," Papadopoulos today seemed to endorse comments made on 24 January by his foreign minister, George Iacovou. Iacovou suggested Ankara's recent offer might be empty words aimed at deflecting responsibility for the collapse of the peace talks.
"In answer to the ongoing public relations campaign now in progress on behalf of Turkey, I wish to restate in the most categorical way that the Greek Cypriot side is ready to respond positively to any invitation of the [UN] secretary-general to a new round of talks on the basis of his plan in order to achieve a more functional and just solution, which as a result will be durable and viable and will enable Cyprus to play its full role in the EU after its accession on 1 May 2004 as a constructive partner and not as a troublesome member," Papadopoulos said.
Whatever difficulties that lay ahead, Turkey's recent moves have raised hopes for a quick solution to the Cyprus issue.
In comments today to the Paris-based Radio France Internationale, EU Commission President Romano Prodi said he believed a peace settlement was possible before the island joins the bloc. His comments contrasted with those of Denktash, who said on 26 January it would be difficult to reach a deal by 1 May.
But Prodi, who visited Ankara earlier this month, said the Turkish prime minister and his team seemed committed to reaching a breakthrough and had adopted what he described as a "very, very positive attitude" on the issue.
Cyprus is expected to be one of the top items on Erdogan's agenda when he meets U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington later today.