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Cyprus: Greek, Turkish Leaders Agree To Resume Talks

The rival Greek and Turkish leaders of Cyprus have agreed to resume direct talks on the future of the divided Mediterranean island. The agreement is seen as the best chance in years to end the deadlock and comes as European Union membership looms for Cyprus. The lack of a settlement would mean the admission into the EU of a divided country -- part of which is occupied by another EU candidate country, Turkey.

Prague, 5 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute between Cyprus's Turkish and Greek communities goes back decades and has sparked periodic outbreaks of ethnic violence.

The island has been divided since 1974, when a coup backed by Greece's military junta aimed to make Cyprus a part of Greece but ended with Turkey seizing the island's northeastern third.

The so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is internationally isolated -- officially recognized only by Ankara itself -- and has suffered along with Turkey's recent economic woes.

Previous attempts at a resolution to the island's division have stalled, with the Turkish side demanding that talks give each side equal treatment. Greek Cypriots have insisted they are the legitimate government, recognized by the rest of the world.

Cyprus's rival leaders last met face-to-face four years ago. Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktash has boycotted United Nations-sponsored talks for the last 13 months.

But with European Union membership beckoning for Cyprus -- which hopes to join by 2004 -- efforts to settle the dispute have been given new urgency.

Yesterday's meeting between Denktash and his Greek counterpart, Glafcos Clerides, is being hailed as the best chance in years to end the deadlock.

The two had more than an hour of talks in the UN buffer zone in Nicosia between the two parts of the divided city. They smiled and patted each other on the back. And Clerides today will even cross the cease-fire line into the Turkish zone for the first time in decades when he attends a dinner at Denktash's home in the Turkish part of the capital.

Crucially, UN special envoy Alvaro de Soto said there will be no preconditions when the talks start in earnest on 15 January.

Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit called the agreement a "pleasing development."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell -- on a visit to Ankara today -- said the agreement is one of two welcome developments to emerge during his visit to Turkey. The other is a deal expected next week that will end Turkey's objections to plans for an EU military force set up under the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP).

"I just might conclude by saying it was also good to have, as two postscripts to the meeting, the fact that the ESDP is moving forward and some positive discussions were concluded recently, and I hope that will put this matter behind us once the EU has acted on it," said Powell. "And it was also very pleasing to take note of the fact that Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash met and will be meeting again this evening. This is the beginning of a long process, but every long journey begins with some first steps. I'm pleased to see these first steps after a break of some four years."

It's all a far cry from recent hostile exchanges over Cyprus. Turkey threatened to annex the northern part of the island if Cyprus joins the EU. Greece, in turn, said it will block EU enlargement as a whole if Cyprus is not accepted with other front-runner candidate countries in 2004.

This raised the prospect of the EU admitting a divided country partly occupied by another EU candidate.

Heather Grabbe of London's Center for European Reform says pressure from Athens and Ankara may have been key in finally pushing the two sides toward talks: "The two leaders are both under a great deal of pressure both from the EU and the UN, and from Athens and Ankara. I think that's the key difference. Neither side has much more of an incentive to come to an agreement now than they did in the past. In fact, in some ways, the process of EU accession actually takes away an incentive for them to compromise because the stakes get higher, and they both have a reason to hold out. I think the difference now is that both the Greek and the Turkish governments are aware that this could really cause them both problems in the future, particularly in Ankara. It's now becoming very difficult for Turkey because their own membership aspirations for joining the EU could be affected, and they realize that."

Grabbe says the fact that one single meeting can be so significant tells much about the difficulties involved. One major issue up for discussion will be the question of whether Cyprus should be a federation or a confederation: "The Greek Cypriot government would like to have a federation where you essentially have one government covering both parts of the island, which perhaps have different degrees of autonomy. But the Turkish Cypriots are keener to have a confederation whereby they can maintain their own government because their own leader, Denktash, is keen on holding onto power there. But there are quite a lot of options on the table. There is a willingness to talk now, and certainly the populations are keen on some kind of settlement. Many people in the Turkish Cypriot population are keen to join the EU, partly because it might bring a settlement."

Peter Loizos is a Cyprus expert with the London School of Economics. He says the difference between a federation and confederation has been a debating point between the two sides for many years: "Whatever form of government it's going to be, it has to give strong recognition to the desire of Turkish Cypriots to be as fully self-governing as possible."

Loizos says Turkey is probably putting limited pressure on Denktash, and public opinion at home has made him uncomfortable: "I don't think he's particularly responsive to the democracy movement in northern Cyprus, but he's clearly embarrassed by the strength of Turkish Cypriots' opposition to a continuation of the status quo."

Loizos says yesterday's meeting was not a breakthrough, though it does look like a positive step. But he cautions against entertaining high expectations for the upcoming talks.

"There have been so many of these major breakthroughs in the Cyprus problem that have never led to an agreement, so I'm personally pessimistic while I very much hope that it does mean forward movement at last."