International observes are hoping for a final breakthrough in the Cyprus peace talks, after the rival leaders Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktas, from Greek and Turkish Cyprus respectively, agreed on January 16th to meet three times a week in a bid to accelerate talks. The dramatic improvement in relations and the need to bring the conflict to a resolution was spurred by the EU, which said at last year's Laeken summit that it would accept the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus as a member of the EU with or without a resolution. Raising the stakes Turkey then threatened in November 2001 to annex the northern part of the country, and Greece threatened to veto any EU enlargement should there be a delay in admitting Cyprus.
The two leaders met in the UN-administered buffer zone at the home of the UN representative Alvaro de Soto on December 4th agreeing to meet in mid-January- "without preconditions". Since then Glafcos and Denktas, who have known each other since the 1950s, have met a number of times, with each inviting the other to their respective parts of the island for dinner. In each case it has been the first time in decades that the "opposition" leader has been to the opposite side of the UN divide.
However, more important than the dinner dates have been the meetings, one on January 11th to discuss the never-implemented 1997 agreement to exchange information on missing persons, and then on January 16th the begin talks on resolving the conflict as a whole. No details of any agreement resulting from the talks on January 11th have been made public, but analysts saw an agreement on the mass disappearance of Greek and Turkish Cypriots as a vital step before intensive talks on ending the division of the island got underway, due to the sensitive nature of the issue. An estimated 2200 Cypriots, mostly of Greek origin, disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, and the 1997 agreement had called for an information exchange on the locations of mass graves and arrangements for the return of remains.
The meeting of January 16th- again held in the neutral UN buffer zone- resulted in a commitment from both men that they would meet three times a week- Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays- until the situation is resolved. A resolution could be on the table in June according to the leaders although no firm agenda has been set. All the same the first round of these talks on January 21st appear to have progressed without a hitch. Until early December 2001 they had not met at all for around four years. Aside from the concern over disappeared persons and displaced persons, the two sides have very different views of what a resolution of the conflict would look like.
Only the southern Greek government is recognised by the international community as an independent state, with this government and the UN pushing for a single state consisting of a federation. The self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus- recognised only by Ankara- would rather see a two-state confederation, which would involve international recognition of northern Cyprus.
The sudden need for a rapprochement was brought about by EU enlargement policies as well as the age of Denktas and Clerides. The EU Laeken summit at the end of last year saw approval for the accession of Cyprus to the EU, with final entrance likely in 2004. This deadline provided an impetus because unless the Cyprus problem is resolved the EU will be accepting a country that is- in the eyes of international law- partially occupied by a non-EU country, and possibly fully annexed by Turkey according to Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit at the time. On the other hand, any delay in including Cyprus in the next round of EU enlargement will probably see Greece vetoing any EU enlargement at all.
Both Denktas and Clerides are generally viewed as the only negotiators on either side capable of bringing the problem to an eventual conclusion, largely because of their long involvement and their personal relations. Clerides has said that he will not stand for re-election once his term of office finishes in 2003, introducing another deadline. However, both have said that they will not succumb to granting to other concessions, with Denktas warning on December 25th that Turkish Cypriots should not expect a quick resolution as he would not sign any agreement that had less guarantees than the agreement of 1960.
All the same the Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said in an interview on January 8th that he saw a resolution in 2002, as the situation on the island had improved. The danger for Turkey is that no resolution before Cypriot accession to the EU may remove the incentive for Greek Cypriots to negotiate, leaving Turkish Cypriots missing out on EU benefits, and Turkey on bad terms with the EU, endangering its own EU plans.
The recent outcry over the British bank HSBC's involvement in northern Cyprus- it has just completed a take-over of the Turkish bank Demirbank, which had branches in northern Cyprus- has demonstrated the thorniness of doing business on the island. The Greek Cypriot Cyprus National Bank has complained to the HSBC headquarters that the step implies recognition of northern Cyprus as independent, while bank members on the island claim that it is simply a business move.