By Handan Kazanci
Cyprus and its decades-old unsolved ethnic conflict has been described as ‘a graveyard for diplomats,’ as history has endured many failed attempts to bring harmony to the island.
More recently however, Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders there have not only been discussing security, territory, property and energy resources but even agreeing on somewhat less-critical disputes, like the origin of the local hellim [or halloumi] cheese.
Now, despite decades of division, the chances of a united Cyprus are “very real,” says an Istanbul-based Greek expert ahead of the 41st anniversary of Turkey’s 1974 military intervention into the conflict.
Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, an associate professor of international relations from Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, tells Anadolu Agency:
"At the rate the talks are progressing … it would not surprise me that a Cyprus deal is a very real possibility for the first time in a long time."
However, a Turkish Cypriot expert is more ambivalent, describing reunification as "a utopia and, partly, a reality".
Nevertheless, Mehmet Hasguler, an international relations analyst at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization said: "Approaching the issue with economic motives and speaking less about politics are signs this work [reunification of the island] can be done."
Both sides have been negotiating for years for a peace deal without any concrete result.
Talks were suspended last October by the Greek Cypriot administration after Turkey sent an advisory vessel on behalf of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) for seismic research off the coast.
According to Hasguler, who was an advisor to former Turkish Cypriot president Dervis Eroglu, the leaders of the two communities met in July and worked out the amount of the debt a future federal state on the island would carry.
"The new country will born with its own debt," he said, a reference to both the Greek Cypriot side’s sovereign debt to international creditors and the TRNC’s financial obligations to Turkey.
Speaking on July 10 after a meeting with his Greek Cypriot counterpart held at the UN buffer zone on the island, incumbent TRNC President Mustafa Akinci said:
"Any solution will have costs. The dispute over the island costs much more than the cost of the resolution... It is good to talk about economic aspects during the talks."
Akinci and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades had joined a July meeting on the ‘Cyprus economy after solution’.
During a speech Akinci said: "For many decades, Turkish Cypriots have been isolated from the international community and they were unable to establish, free, healthy and beneficial commercial relations with the rest of the world.
"A solution will bring an end to this isolation and will allow Turkish Cypriots to shoulder their own economic activity in a federal Cyprus."
During the same event Anastasiades said: "It has been estimated there is a potential that all-island GDP could double in 20 years’ time through, among others, a significant additional annual income creation in tourism, construction and transport (mainly shipping) industries, as well as financial and insurance activities."
Turkish and Greek Cypriot business people have already begun to communicate ahead of possible cooperation.
Cyprus Turkish Businessmen’s Association head Huseyin Metin Sadi told Anadolu Agency that a new platform to encourage trade ties between the two sides had been established and would be announced at the end of July.
Cooperation with the Greek Cypriot Employers’ and Industrialists’ Federation is expected to focus on tourism as well as some infrastructure works, he added.
"The interest in the divided, troubled, unstable island did not bring the prosperity to Cyprus or islanders which they deserved," he said, adding: "Unless Turkish Cypriot people and the land they live in enter into international law, any development on the island is not satisfactory."
Cyprus was divided into two after a 1974 coup by Greek Cypriots that was followed by the intervention of Turkey as a guarantor state.
The Turkish Cypriot government -- in the island’s northern third -- is only recognized by Ankara. The Greek Cypriot government, an EU member since 2004, is recognized internationally.
The Turkish side declared its independence in 1983.
Possible offshore energy resources are one of the hot topics at the negotiating table.
However, Dimitrios Triantaphyllou claims that energy is not affecting the current talks because "the estimates for the natural gas finds off Cyprus have been significantly reduced".
"Major companies are not interested in investing as they feel they would not get value for their money," he adds: "It has also meant that neighboring countries like Turkey or Israel are not willing to contest the rights of transit and therefore create friction with each other."
Integration between Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot capital of Lefkosa, transporting energy via Greece and Bulgaria to Europe, would reduce Europe’s dependency on Russia for natural gas.
"The energy issue will undoubtedly become a factor at some stage," Triantaphyllou adds.
The U.S.-backed talks -- accompanied by an official visit from U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden -- gained momentum after April’s presidential election in the TRNC.
The election of 67-year-old Akinci kick-started talks with his Greek counterpart Nicos Anastasiades, 68, both from Limassol, a city on the southern coast of Greek-administered Cyprus.
"There has been a discourse change with [the election of] Akinci," says Turkish Cypriot expert Hasguler: "His discourse is about solution and he created a positive tune in the south of island, the north, Turkey and the international community."
Not all felt this "positive tune". Akinci’s election saw an early, sharp and high-profile spat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan and Akinci will come face-to-face again on Monday, when the Turkish leader visits the island to mark the 41st anniversary of Operation Atilla.
In addition, the sudden and dramatic resignation of TRNC Prime Minister Ozkan Yorgancioglu earlier in July has called into question political stability in the northern part of the island. A new TRNC coalition cabinet was unveiled Friday, to be led by Omer Kalyoncu.
According to Triantaphyllou, there are two major factors that have contributed to the positive atmosphere in ethnically split Cyprus.
“The first has to do with the personalities and commitments to the resolution of the Cyprus question by both Akinci and Anastasiades,” he says: “Akinci had shown his intentions a long time ago when he was mayor of Lefkosa [the Turkish Cypriot half of the Greek Cypriot capital of Nicosia].
Akinci, a leftist moderate, had cooperated with his Greek Cypriot mayoral counterpart Lellos Demetriades while working across the dividing line -- and against the wishes of the leaders of the two communities at the time -- to resolve water and sewage issues, says Triantaphyllou.
He adds that Anastasiades had always been in favor of reaching out to the Turkish Cypriots and favored the Annan Plan although his party was opposed to it.
The Annan Plan, designed by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, proposed to reunify the island in 2004.
Although Turkish Cyprus voted for the peace deal, it was rejected by 76% of Greek Cypriots in a separate ballot.
The second factor behind the improved climate is the growing mass of Greek and Turkish Cypriots that have been working together and interacting at civil society level since the Green Line was opened in 2003, says Triantaphyllou.
Border gates between the Turkish and Greek sides were opened in April 2003.
"Over the last decade, this has demystified the other side for many Cypriots and allowed for the growth and development of a bi-communal civil society to take hold and contribute to the current political dynamics," Triantaphyllou says: "Polling data over the last decade suggests that the two sides understand each other more."
According to a case study published in February by research group Interpeace, a majority of Greek Cypriots would like to see the peace process successfully concluded and lead to a “comprehensive settlement” while a majority of Turkish Cypriots espouse the same goal.
Around 68 percent of Greek Cypriots said -- in three different public polls conducted between 2009 and 2011 -- that they had a “desire” that ongoing peace talks would produce results. Sixty-five percent of their Turkish counterparts shared this sentiment.
Akinci and Anastasiades are expected to meet again on July 27; they could be closer than ever to deciding the fate of the divided island.Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.