Geneva: Leaders of ethnically split Cyprus settled down for a week of intensive talks on Monday, seeking to reach the outline of a peace deal to end decades of division.
Hoping to succeed where others failed, Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades met in Geneva for three full days of discussions.
The talks would subsequently broaden to include other nations with a stake on the strategically placed island on Thursday.
As he arrived at the UN European headquarters and was asked if he was optimistic, Anastasiades said: “Ask me when we are finished.”
New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who was expected to attend the conference on Thursday, has described the talks as an “historic opportunity” for a breakthrough.
Power-sharing, redrawing property boundaries and security issues in a future reunited homeland are key sticking points in negotiations that have resulted in logjams in the past.
However, mediators are keen to capitalise on the momentum of two moderates at the helm of their communities before domestic election cycles dislodge the process.
“We must be cautious. We are not pessimistic, but I see no need for exaggerated expectations that everything will just happen. We are expecting a difficult week,” Akinci said on Sunday.
Cyprus‘s Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived estranged since 1974, when Turkey invaded the island’s north after a brief Greek inspired coup. The seeds of partition were sown years earlier, soon after independence from Britain in 1960.
Today, the island of just over one million inhabitants is split with Turkish Cypriots in the north and Greek Cypriots in the south, separated by one of the world’s oldest UN peacekeeping forces.
The status of some 30,000 Turkish troops stationed in Cyprus‘s north is crucial. The Greek side insists they must all be pulled out, while the Turkish side says some must remain.
That issue will dominate discussions between Britain, Turkey and Greece on Thursday. The three are guarantor powers of Cyprus under a 1960 treaty that granted the former colony independence.
Britain retains two strategically important bases on the island which are used in operations against Islamic State. London has said it would be willing to relinquish about 49% of the 98 square miles presently held to facilitate territorial adjustments.
Any agreement must be put to separate referendums in the two communities, with diplomats anticipating a vote around June. A previous peace blueprint put to referendum in 2004 was accepted by Turkish Cypriots but rejected by Greek Cypriots.
Analysts shy away from suggestions the process could be a last chance for peace, but say a unique opportunity could be lost in settling a conflict which has brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war, and frustrates Turkey’s ambitions of joining the EU.
“If this time it fails between these two pro-solution leaders…then a huge motivation will be lost,” said academic Ahmet Sozen, a Cypriot who has followed on-off peace talks for years.
“In some years, maybe, another process will start again but I’m not sure that the parameters of the solution will be the same.”