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2003-01-10 18:54:29

Financial Times (London) January 10, 2003, Friday
HEADLINE: Nervous in Nicosia: Cyprus may never have a better chance of a deal
Greek and Turkish Cypriots are due next Monday to restart their long negotiations over the island's 28-year division. They must make the most of their chance. A window of opportunity that opened last year could soon close. Three forces are creating the best hopes for a settlement since the island was split. First, the European Union is pressing for a deal before it admits Cyprus and nine other states next year. Next, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's election success has brought a government to Turkey that wants to remove the barriers that have long delayed the country's bid for EU membership.

Finally, Greece has responded positively to Mr Erdogan's plans to modernise Turkey. Athens rightly sees that good relations with a forward-looking administration in Ankara are the best way to promote regional security.

Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, and Glafcos Clerides, his Greek Cypriot counterpart, have been slow to respond to these events. These two elderly men must now demonstrate that they are not part of the problem but part of the solution - or step aside.

Mr Denktash is under pressure to be flexible not only from Ankara but from his own people who have staged demonstrations supporting a settlement. But on the Greek Cypriot side, doubts are growing. The issues are complicated by an ill-timed presidential election to be held next month. Mr Clerides is being challenged not only by political opponents but also by Alecos Markides, his closest aide, who believes it is time for a younger man to take over. The poll should be postponed at least until after February 28, the date of a crucial negotiating deadline.

The talks will focus on a United Nations plan that proposes a loose confederation of two "component states" on the island in one common "state", headed by a rotating presidency.

But the UN can only make suggestions. It is up to Mr Denktash and Mr Clerides and their aides to reach a settlement. In one promising sign, the Turkish Cypriots are next week expected to table their own specific responses to the UN plan. If it happens, it will be the first such concrete move from the Turkish Cypriots. If Greek Cypriots also reply with specific ideas, a real dialogue will at last begin.

Time is short. Ideally, the EU should like a deal before the Athens summit in mid-April when it will sign an accession treaty with candidate states, including Cyprus. In the absence of a settlement, the union will accept only the Greek Cypriot south; but it would far prefer to embrace the whole island.

The EU could wait until May 2004, when accession comes into effect. But every month's delay increases the risks of failure. With Turkey facing economic problems, Mr Erdogan may be unable to keep Cyprus at the top of his agenda. Greece will be disappointed if the deal is not done during its EU presidency, ending in June. The possible war in Iraq could have unforeseen consequences. At the least it will monopolise the diplomatic arena, taking attention from Cyprus. So, Messrs Denktash and Clerides, the time is now.

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