United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan is in Cyprus making a last ditch effort to get Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders to accept a reunification plan that will allow both sides to join the European Union next year.
Mr. Annan has invested time and energy in elaborating a plan he hopes will heal the partition of the island. That came about in 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the northern third of Cyprus after a failed coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists seeking to unite the island with Greece.
Mr. Annan has proposed that Cyprus reunify as a federation of two component states that would largely run their own affairs but be linked through a weak central government. His plan also calls for a reduction in the size of the Turkish Cypriot entity, which no state other than Turkey recognizes, and a return of some Greek Cypriot refugees to their former homes in the north.
Mr. Annan is in a hurry. Though he originally set Friday as the deadline for acceptance of his plan, talks between the two sides have made little progress. So the Secretary General has extended the time frame for an agreement by one week.
Both sides have strong objections to the plan, but, if a deal is struck in the remaining few days, each of the two communities would hold a referendum by the end of March and, if the results are positive, a united Cyprus would sign an accession agreement with the European Union on April 16th.
If the two sides cannot reach agreement, then the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government will enter the EU alone, leaving Turkish Cypriots out in the cold.
Alvaro de Soto, Mr. Annan's representative on Cyprus, says a failure could cement the island's partition.
"If this opportunity is missed, there lies after that what I call a dark chasm of uncertainty," Alvaro de Soto said. "We really don't know if such an opportunity will arise again. And, also, they have to realize that the choice is not between this plan and a significantly improved one.
"It's not between this plan and a better one," he continued. "It's really between this plan and no plan at all and the possible continuation indefinitely of partition of the country, and that would be more than sad."
Although he has not announced what they are, Mr. Annan is presenting revisions to the plan he hopes will satisfy both sides. But Rauf Denktash, the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader, has long objected to giving up any territory. He says allowing Greek Cypriot refugees to return to the areas they fled would create a new class of refugees among Turkish Cypriots now living there.
But former Cypriot President George Vassiliou says what Mr. Denktash really wants is recognition of his mini-state's sovereignty before he agrees to anything else.
"He will tell you, of course, we want a solution, but what he means by that is he wants two independent states," Mr. Vassiliou said. "But two independent states are not possible. And it has always been understood and expected that Cyprus has to be one country and not two. And the insistence of Mr. Denktash on two countries is the basis on which every other issue is blocked." The U.N. plan does not make any provision for recognition of the sovereignty of the Turkish Cypriot entity.
Just over a week ago, Greek Cypriots elected a new president, Tassos Papadopoulos, who has also taken a harder line toward an agreement. He insists on the right of all, and not just some, Greek Cypriot refugees to return to their former homes in the north. Mr. Denktash says such ideas make continuing negotiations useless.
The Turkish Cypriot leader and those who back his stand seem genuinely afraid that the return of Greek Cypriots to areas now under Turkish Cypriot control would re-ignite inter-communal tensions like those in the early 1960s that followed the failure of a power-sharing arrangement and led to the treatment of Turkish Cypriots as second-class citizens.
But many Turkish Cypriots are putting pressure on Mr. Denktash to sign on to the Annan plan despite his reservations. They do not want to miss the opportunity of joining the European Union and opening up their isolated entity to the rest of the world. Turkish Cypriots' per capita income is less than a third of that of Greek Cypriots', and the economy has stagnated under an international embargo.
Suleyman Erguclu is the editor of Kibris, northern Cyprus' most important newspaper.
"We have to understand that, in order to get something, we have to give something. And what is there that we can give other than territory? So I think that we should be prepared to give away some territory but making sure that the minimum number of people are dislocated," he said.
Those Turkish Cypriots who want a deal are counting on the new Turkish government for support. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of the ruling party, has come out in favor of the U.N. plan. But the Turkish military and bureaucratic establishment sees Cyprus as a strategic asset and has backed Mr. Denktash's line.
James Ker-Lindsay is a Cyprus-based expert on the eastern Mediterranean.
"On the one hand, you've got a new government, with Mr. Erdogan pulling the strings from behind the scenes, which is very much in favor of a Cyprus solution," Mr. Ker-Lindsay said. "And he understands that Cyprus is a fundamental impediment to Turkey's own EU prospects. On the other hand, you've got the more conservative secular forces, which, although on the one hand, they do have a European orientation and I think on balance do favor the idea of joining the European Union, have now put themselves in a bind. They've challenged Mr. Erdogan over Cyprus."
U.N. officials worry that the disconnect between Mr. Erdogan and the military and bureaucratic establishment in Ankara over Cyprus comes at a time when the Turkish government is distracted by negotiations with the United States over a potential U.S.-led war against Iraq. They say that, if a deal on the Annan plan is not reached, not only will Turkish Cypriots be the losers but Turkey's own plans to join the EU may be held up.