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Cyprus talks tipped as best chance yet of reunification
Talks on the reunification of Cyprus in the Swiss town of Crans-Montana are being hailed as the best chance for a deal in decades. But some incidents before the meeting, which brought together the leaders of the Greek and Turkish parts of the Mediterranean island, indicated that this round will not be easy.
“There’s been remarkable progress in these talks,” UN Special Adviser on Cyprus Espen Barth Eide commented optimistically before they started.
"These talks are Cypriots’ own and can only be Cypriots' own, there is no UN arbitration," he added.
The current talks are another attempt to bring to an end a situation that started in 1974, when Greece, then ruled by a military junta, staged a coup d’état so as to unite the island with Greece.
Turkey responded by sending 30,000 troops and a UN sponsored ceasefire resulted in a split country with a predominantly Turkish north and a Greek south.
The result of the conflict: some 7,000 people killed and over 200,000 people displaced. In 1983 the Turkish Cypriot Assembly declared the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a move that has only ever been recognised by Turkey.
Negotiations have dragged out over the decades, with representatives of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and delegations of the “guarantor” nations - Turkey, Greece and the UK which has two military bases with 3,000 men. Guarantor powers have the right to intervene militarily on the island.
The most far-reaching attempt to solve the crisis took shape in the form of the “Annan Plan” named after the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The plan envisaged a “united Republic of Cyprus” that was to be a federation of two states. It was supported in a referendum in 2004 by 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots but rejected by a massive 76 percent of Greek Cypriots.
Turkish troop presence
The main bone of contention is the presence of 35,000 Turkish troops in the north. Turkey has suggested decreasing their number by 80 percent, leaving only 7,000. But Athens says this is not enough.
“The official position of the Greek Cypriots and Athens is that no Turkish soldiers should remain on the island,” says Harry Tzimtras, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Cyprus.
“As things stand, both sides remain diametrically opposed in their positions regarding the remainder of Turkish troops on the island.”
Britain has on occasion discussed withdrawing its own troops alltogether, citing budgetary constraints, but has not done so.
The internationally recognised government of Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades now seeks an agreement to abolish intervention rights, with Turkish troops withdrawing from the island on a specific timeline.
But Turkish Cypriots lead by Mustafa Akinci want to retain some form of intervention rights with a reduced number of troops in the north, and Turkey’s President Recep Tyyip Erdogan has said Turkish troops will remain in Cyprus “indefinitely”.
Turkish Cypriots 'in limbo'
Meanwhile, Greek Cyprus is a fully fledged EU member, while the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is an international pariah.
“For Turkish Cypriots there is a lot to gain out of this,” says Evrin Inancoglu, and activist with Unite Cyprus Now, that is jointly run by members of both communities.
Turkish Cypriots are in limbo at the moment, he argues.
"Let’s say if you are football player, you want to play in Uefa. If you are a musician you want to play in an international festival. And if you are a swimmer, you want to take part in the Olympics. Everybody has this dream.
“But these kind of things are restricted. Because we are not recognised by the international system."
A deal on reunification would mean that the north would be integrated with the rest of the world.
”There will be a functioning, recognised state, so it will provide Turkish Cypriots a more secure future,” Inancoglu says.
Referenda if deal reached
Negotiations are scheduled to go on until 7 July. If the talks are successful, a new constitution will be drafted and submitted to a referendum in both parts of the island.
But, if it is subsequently approved, a whole new set of problems would loom on the horizon. Currently Ankara subsidises a large proportion of the predominantly state-related jobs in the north. In the case of reunification, Turkish subsidies may be halted.
"The salaries are too high for that [new] state," says economist Marios Zachariadis of the University of Cyprus, “because it does not have enough revenues.
“This means it will go bankrupt. There are two solutions: fiscal adjustment, meaning cutting expenditure, which means a cut in public salaries. But in the north, most people work as state employees, so that solution will create a backlash against the new state.
"Alternatively, Turkey continues to pay the difference. But that is also not a desirable solution either because if Turkey maintains this subsidisation it would have exceptional political power in the north and that has its own political repercussions,” Zachariadis says.
For now Cypriots on both sides are waiting to see if the talks will lead to some sort of agreement, before starting to worry about what to do next.