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Can Cyprus “comrades” clinch a deal?
The leaders of Cyprus’s Greek and Turkish communities sipped coffee and called each other “comrade” as they launched a new round of talks on reuniting the island, whose 34-year division has exasperated the most committed of mediators.
This time, foreign diplomats and analysts say, a solution is in sight, thanks largely to the two moderate, leftist men heading the negotiations – Greek Cypriot Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot Mehmet Ali Talat.
Although it has been years since any violence has erupted on the island, the simmering feud has far-reaching effects onTurkey’s EU aspirations, its relations with fellow NATO member Greece and politics in the eastern Mediterranean.
Fed up with former president Tassos Papadopoulos, who tearfully asked Greek Cypriots to vote down a U.N. re-unification plan in 2004, voters elected Christofias this year and turned the tide on an issue that has long baffled the international community.
Or have they? Local analysts warn against excessive euphoria, saying that the obvious positive climate between the two leaders needs to trickle down to the ground for a deal to be made. Both communities must approve any solution in simultaneous referendums.
“Both leaders have good intentions but the atmosphere on the local level is polarised,” said Mete Hatay of the PRIO peace institute. “They must be in contact with the communities on a grassroots level to inform them and encourage them.”
Turkish Cypriots are still hurt by the Greek Cypriot rejection of the 2004 U.N. blueprint, which the north overwhelmingly approved. And with every passing year, the distance between the two sides appears to grow.
A walk down towards the central Nicosia Ledra Street crossing, whose barrier was pulled down in April as a prelude to the talks, speaks volumes about the differences that need to be bridged.
Wealthier Greek Cypriots enjoying a booming economy and the benefits of EU membership, shop at international chains and bask at Starbucks during a hot, humid afternoon.
A few meters past guards and crumbling neoclassical mansions, Turkish Cypriots are quickly renovating cafes to tap what they believe will be an influx of foreign tourists. Layers of Nike and Adidas knockoffs cover the front of old shops.
“God willing, this time they will find a solution,” said Mayrem Ozyeser, 80, a basket seller in the nearby market. “Turks and Greeks used to live together, help each other but others have come between us. If it was up to us Cypriots there wouldn’t be a problem.”
The opening of the Ledra crossing has increased visits from both sides but mainly Turkish Cypriots who come to the south for window shopping and, as many say, better ice-cream.
The owner of the Heracles ice-cream shop was happy to get more business since the crossing opened but did not sound as upbeat as foreign observers on the prospect of a solution.
“People in general are not that optimistic,” said Herakles Vrontis, 36. “I don’t believe anything will come out of these talks. Talat does not have the authority to negotiate. It is up to Turkey.”
As the two leaders prepare to delve into complicated issues such as power-sharing and restitution of property to refugees of the 1974 Turkish invasion, prompted by a Greek-inspired coup, many wonder if the dispute will again defy the most noble of intentions.
“There is a bigger chance for a solution than before,” said Greek Cypriot political analyst Christoforos Christoforou. “But it’s a difficult process because it does not depend only on the two leaders.”