After decades of stalemate, a new peace process in Cyprus may finally be moving the two sides on the divided island towards reunification, analysts say. But failure this time around, experts add, would create a lasting source of political tension that not only could wreck any hope of Turkish accession to the European Union, but also hamper the EU's and NATO's strategic operations in Eurasia and the Middle East.
"I think we have two sides that are absolutely ready to deal and all the pieces are in place. It's just a question of taking the final plunge for both sides," says Hugh Pope, a senior analyst International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels that recently released a report on the Cyprus issue.
"There have been several opportunities in the past, but never in the past have both sides had leaders who have the political will and the support from public opinion for a solution," he adds. "Both sides know ....that it could be the last chance for reunification for the foreseeable future."
A pivotal meeting will take place July 1, during which the Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders, Mehmet Ali Talat and Demetris Christofias respectively, are expected to decide whether or not to enter into direct negotiations. If all goes well, direct negotiations could commence in September. The two have also already put in place a number of confidence-building measures, including the reopening of a checkpoint in the heart of the divided capital of Nicosia that had been closed since the 1960s.
The removal of hard-line, old-guard politicians on both sides of the island has helped make recent progress possible. Turkish Cypriots were the first to make a move, electing as president in 2005 the pro-solution Talat, leader of the left-leaning Republican Turkish Party (CTP). The pragmatic Talat's predecessor was Rauf Denktas, a wily and combative veteran of Cypriot politics. After the 1974 Turkish invasion left the Turkish side with 38 percent of the island, but less than 20 percent of its population, Denktas was instrumental in bringing over settlers from the Turkish mainland to repopulate areas that had been vacated by Greek refugees.
This past February, meanwhile, Greek Cypriots elected as president Christofias, leader of the Greek Cypriot communist party, known as AKEL. In the Greek case, Christofias replaced Tassos Papadopoulos, another titan of Cypriot politics who, in 2004, strongly advised Greek Cypriots to vote against a United Nations-backed reunification plan in an island-wide referendum. While 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted for the agreement, known as the Annan Plan after the then UN secretary general, 76 percent of Greek Cypriots voted against it.
The departure of Denktas and Papadopoulos - collectively referred to by some as "Mr. No" and "Mr. Never" - has brought a fresh breeze of possibility to the island. Talat and Christofias are old friends through Cyprus's leftist politics. "There is an optimism now," said Talat, during a recent interview in his office near the city walls in Nicosia's Turkish side, known as Lefkosa. "It's the first time in [Cypriot] history that on both sides you have a leader who has campaigned for a solution."
Lefteris Adilinis, diplomatic editor for the Greek Cypriot Politis newspaper, says the change has been especially profound on the Greek side. "I think the main difference here is the completely different approach from the Greek Cypriot side towards the Turkish Cypriots. Before it was very reluctant. Of course there are problems and disagreements, but Christofias is focusing on where there is common ground," he says, speaking in his office in the Politis newsroom, located on a small street that dead ends at a tall wall that forms part of the buffer zone.
"No [Greek Cypriot] political leadership up until now talked frankly about where we are heading and what a solution might look like. They just told the public what they wanted to hear," Adilinis added.
While the Cyprus conflict sometimes expresses itself in petty arguments -- such as whether baklava is a Greek or Turkish invention, and whether the gooey confection known around the world as Turkish delight should in fact be called Cypriot delight -- the problem also has a larger geopolitical element. For example, when the Greek Cypriot government recently wanted to grant international companies the right to search for oil and gas in the sea around the island, Turkey protested forcefully, saying the search area was in disputed waters.
"It appears to be a stable situation, but it is really an unstable one," says Niyazi Kizilyurek, a Turkish Cypriot who is chairman of the Turkish Studies department at the Greek Cypriot University of Cyprus. "This is not only about solving the Cyprus problem."
Turkey's troubled EU-membership drive is also inextricably tied up in the Cyprus issue. The Greek-speaking south part of the island joined the bloc in 2004, and has since used its position in Brussels to occasionally stymie Ankara's EU bid. Turkey, meanwhile, is using its NATO membership to strike back, blocking enhanced cooperation between the EU and the defense alliance in protest of what it sees as Brussels' being held captive to the Cypriot agenda. This has hampered EU policing projects in Kosovo and Afghanistan from getting off the ground.
"Cyprus is using the EU to punish Turkey and Turkey is using NATO to punish Cyprus. All these things are going to come up as major issues if this current round of negotiations fails. The result is that the Cyprus issue, which has always been a wedge between Turkey and the EU, will go deeper," says the ICG's Pope.
George Iacovou, a veteran politician who is one of the Greek Cypriot government's top officials, says Cyprus is not opposed to Turkey joining the EU. But its support of Turkey's bid is contingent on Turkey supporting the reunification of the island. Were Ankara to publicly call for the island's partition, "then its aspirations for European Union membership must be terminated immediately, because it would never grow to fruition," Iacovou bluntly says during an interview in his office in the presidential palace in Nicosia.
"So, we all have a vested interest in reunification. It's for the benefit of everybody."
Turkey's EU bid is due for a review by Brussels in 2009 and a lack of progress on the Cyprus issue could be a major negative. Still, the last three or four years have seen Ankara take a more conciliatory approach on the issue, in the hopes of getting it resolved. "The sense is that is Turkey does this, it will be easier for it to get into the EU and accepted in international forums," says Sami Kohen, a leading columnist on Turkish foreign policy in the Milliyet newspaper.
"But the feeling in Ankara in the last few months is that if there is no agreement soon, then that's the end of it. This is the last chance." Adds Kohen: "If Turkey sees that there is no way of convincing its friends in the EU to change the minds of the Greek Cypriots, then it will say that we will no longer continue [its EU bid] because of tiny Cyprus imposing its own policies on the EU. If it comes to that point, we might see a dramatic shift in Turkish foreign policy."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.