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THE ECONOMIST-November 16
2002-11-15 21:14:25

HEADLINE: Hold your breath: this time a breakthrough is truly possible
HOPE is a word not usually associated with talks about reunifying Cyprus. Since the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities split up so violently when the Turkish army invaded the northern part of the island in 1974 to prevent enosis (union) with Greece after a coup plotted in Athens, dozens of UN envoys and western diplomats have tried--and failed miserably--to nail down a peace settlement acceptable to both Greeks and Turks. Until now, that is. This time, hope of a breakthrough is higher than ever.

On November 11th, Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary-general, put forward a 136-page document with detailed proposals for reuniting Cyprus in a Swiss-style confederation of two "component states" loosely joined together as a "common state" under a presidency that would rotate every ten months. Politicians in Turkey, Greece and both parts of Cyprus have given it a cautious welcome. Now the UN is squeezing both Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash, the aged Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders, to sign at least a framework agreement before December 12th, when European Union leaders are expected to approve the entry of ten new countries, including Cyprus, into the EU club. Mr Annan wants a definite go-ahead from both the top Cypriots as early as November 18th in order to start negotiations immediately. All being well, details would be hammered out by February; both lots of Cypriots would hold separate referendums to approve the settlement in March; and the EU would admit a reunited Cyprus, not just the Greek-Cypriot south, at the beginning of 2004.

This timetable may be too ambitious. Mr Clerides thinks it will take his lawyers more than a week to trawl through the plan; Mr Denktash is in New York, recovering from a heart operation and unable to work more than a few hours a day. In the coffee-shop tradition of Cypriot politics, building a consensus, even if the climate is more or less favourable, always requires more meetings and argument galore.

The Greek Cypriots, who made up four-fifths of the island's population in 1974, have made concessions over the constitution for the sake of getting back a good chunk of territory. The Turks' share of the island would go down from its present 36% to 28.5%; the Greeks would get back part of the citrus-growing district of Morphou, the coastal town of Varosha and its derelict high-rise beach hotels built in the early 1970s, and part of the unspoiled Karpas peninsula, much coveted by Greek-Cypriot tourist developers. About 85,000 out of some 200,000 Greek Cypriots forced from their homes in the north in 1974 would be able to return to areas that would again come under a Greek-Cypriot administration, probably a big enough number for Mr Clerides to win backing in a referendum.

The UN's legal draftsmen have been creative. They seem to have got round old sticking points such as Mr Denktash's demand that his northern fief be recognised as a sovereign state and the Greek Cypriots' insistence on a federation rather than a looser confederation. Even after a settlement, according to the UN plan, the two communities would still live apart and run their own affairs in their component states, with separate police and courts.

Moreover, Cyprus would be demilitarised and banned from buying weapons. The UN peacekeeping force which was sent to the island in 1963 after an early bout of intercommunal violence and which, since 1974, has overseen a buffer zone known as "the green line" that separates Greek and Turkish Cypriots, would stay on indefinitely. But it would be bolstered by Greek and Turkish soldiers. Three of the nine judges on the common state's supreme court would be foreign.

But new sticking points may well pop up. Some Turkish Cypriots will be loth to hand back property they have occupied for almost a generation. Greek Cypriots dislike the idea of any Turkish forces remaining on the island and particularly resent the presence, which may apparently continue, of some 100,000 mainland Turks who have settled since 1974, as indigenous Turkish Cypriots emigrated in droves from Mr Denktash's self-declared republic, mainly to Istanbul, Turkey's commercial capital, and to London.

Would the new common state be viable? It would have many trappings of nationhood, with a two-chamber parliament, an independent central bank, a ministry to handle foreign affairs and a separate one to deal with the EU (each with a minister from a different community). Both Cypriot leaders will be urged by the leaders of their parent states to accept the deal. The Americans are also pressing Greece and Turkey to seize what looks like an unprecedented chance. Turkey's government-in-waiting appears eager to make a fresh effort over Cyprus. There has even been talk in Ankara of letting another negotiator replace Mr Denktash if his convalescence is slow. In Athens, Costas Simitis, the moderate Socialist prime minister, wants to speed up a rapprochement with Turkey during Greece's six-month EU presidency which starts in January.

If they accept the UN plan, Messrs Denktash and Clerides would have an option to stay on as the common state's co-presidents for three years. They might be candidates for a joint Nobel peace prize. Enough to persuade them to cut a deal?

In the past, the answer has plainly been no. But the change of guard in Ankara, Mr Denktash's illness, renewed goodwill and tighter-than-ever deadlines all suggest that there is at least a fair possibility. ____________________________________________________________________________

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