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Last Chance to Reunify Cyprus?

Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are exploring the possibility of reviving talks for the reunification of the divided Mediterranean island in September. Most analysts are not hopeful and many argue that this could be the last chance to reunify Cyprus.

Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded it in 1974, after an Athens-backed coup attempt to seize control of the island. The Turkish Cypriot north broke away and has not gained international recognition. The Greek Cypriot south has since joined the European Union.

The last major reconciliation effort failed in 2004, after the Greek side rejected a U.N. reunification plan that was welcomed by Turkish Cypriots. However, most analysts say the political environment has since become more favorable to reconciliation, with a stable security situation along the north-south border and between Turkey and Greece.

New Incentives

Gail Holst-Warhaft, Director of Cornell University's Mediterranean Studies Initiative, says that -- along with the desire of the island's two communities to ease barriers and recent talks between their leaders -- has revived interest in reunification.

"There are some incentives that perhaps weren't there before. Greece has been thought to have less incentive than Turkey who wants to join the E.U. and has some obvious incentives to try and settle the issue because the Greek part of Cyprus is now an independent country and part of the E.U," says Holst-Warhaft. "But Greece cannot move forward to other issues that they are concerned with settling for example the Aegean Sea [oil drilling] rights or the question of Greek minorities in Turkey. And Turkey is equally unable to move forward with its desire to join the E.U. without some resolution of the Cyprus issue."

The Turkish side of Cyprus will also be unable to move forward, says political scientist Daniel Lindley of the University of Notre Dame. He notes that after enduring decades of economic sanctions, Turkish Cypriots are eager to join an arrangement that would allow them to benefit from E.U. membership and aid. The Greek Cypriot side, Lindley argues, expects any settlement to include a Turkish military withdrawal and a resolution to property disputes.

"The amount of land that would be given back to the Greeks would be 10 percent of the island, roughly. And they would get a sense of being able to govern the island as a whole, which I think is very important to them. And, of course, that's something that the Turkish Cypriots fear. It would become a Greek island in some sense and they would be a minority in that state," says Lindley. "But I think Turkish Cypriots have come to accept that. And the E.U. has pledged to admit any resulting single state that comes from whatever the Cypriots agree to. It will give vast economic benefit to the north. That's one of the reasons that the Turkish Cypriots have come so far so fast in recent years in support of such a solution."

Other analysts point out that Greek Cypriots, too, want to turn their island into a major financial hub and that they would benefit from improved relations with Turkey if Cyprus were unified.

Turkey's E.U. Bid

If the effort to reunify the island fails, most analysts expect that to have major ramifications for Turkey and the E.U. Ankara would have to settle the Cyprus issue before becoming a full member of the European Union, although analyst Ian Lesser with the German Marshall Fund of the United States suspects that Europeans who are reluctant to embrace Turkey's E.U. membership could use a Cyprus stalemate as a pretext to forestall Ankara's accession.

"It's a 10 or 15 year project at least for Turkey to come into the European Union. That's a lot of time for adjustment. But, of course, with very negative attitudes toward Turkey in Europe at the moment, it's not an easy sell [i.e., it's not easy to convince Europeans that Turkey should join the E.U.]," says Lesser. "But it's all about the continued convergence of Turkey with Europe. That may not require that Turkey become a member at the end of the day, but it would certainly help a great deal. And much can change over the next 10 or 15 years. Cyprus is one piece of this absolutely critical project [i.e., Turkey's convergence with Europe] and, in some ways, the key context for the entire prospect for a settlement on Cyprus."

The possibility that a failure to reunite Cyprus could permanently divide it into two independent states worries many observers. The International Crisis Group's senior analyst in Turkey, Hugh Pope, says that partition could thwart Turkey's European Union bid and reignite military tensions with E.U. member Greece.

"It could lead to some military frictions, and it will certainly drive a big wedge between Turkey and Europe. In the old days, it was a peripheral problem for the E.U. Cyprus was not a member. Greece did raise the Cyprus question at every possible opportunity. But it wasn't that the Greek Cypriots were actually in the E.U. making demands. And it's becoming more and more of an issue in Brussels because the European Union cannot officially talk to NATO because Greek Cypriots are members of the E.U. and Turkey is a member of NATO," says Pope. "And as long as Cyprus is not solved, neither side will let the other talk to each other. And this can only be overcome if Cyprus is solved."

Cyprus and the World

While most experts say a continuing stalemate in Cyprus would also undermine NATO relations and its defensive capabilities within Europe, Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund of the United States says the diminished security threat in Cyprus has changed the island's geo-strategic significance, thereby providing an opportunity for all concerned parties to re-examine the 34 year old conflict.

"Certainly for Athens and for Ankara, this has made a very big difference, and I would say for Washington and Brussels too. A decade ago, this was a leading security issue in the Eastern Mediterranean. It isn't any more," says Lesser. "And in fact, many people on the island are trying to think through whether Cyprus has strategic importance any more. This is a very different strategic context for thinking about the Cyprus problem than we would have had 10 or 15 or 20 years ago."

Prospects for Reunification

That shift, some experts say, and the fact that all sides stand to lose economically if the island remains divided, may propel this latest reunification effort.

A permanently divided Cyprus is in no one's interest, says the International Crisis Group's Hugh Pope. "The partition is definitely the second best scenario for everybody. And if this [reconciliation effort] doesn't work out, then people are going to try and wash their hands of Cyprus. But that's not much good for Cypriots; it's not much good for Turkey. And it will just mean a long and drawn-out and very uncomfortable situation in the Eastern Mediterranean," says Pope.

Most Cyprus experts are not optimistic that current reunification efforts will succeed, although they agree that the prospect of reunification has never looked more attractive for all concerned.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.