Divided Cyprus' new president scopes out peace talks reset

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — The new president of Cyprus met informally with the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots on Thursday to test the waters on reviving stalemated talks to end the island’s ethnic division, which has been a source of instability in the east Mediterranean for decades.

The two-hour meeting, hosted by the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission on the island, was the first for President-elect Nikos Christodoulides following his election victory earlier this month. The fact that it took place even before Christodoulides — a former foreign minister — formally assumes office on March 1 aimed to underscore a campaign pledge to keep a peace deal as an overriding priority.

But the meeting itself is no harbinger of a breakthrough anytime soon, because seemingly insurmountable obstacles still stand in the way of a peace deal. Chief among those obstacles is an about-face by Turkey and the minority Turkish Cypriots regarding the agreed-upon shape of a deal after the most recent failed push for peace at a Swiss resort in the summer of 2017.

The island’s division came about in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup aimed at union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence in the island’s northern third and it maintains more than 35,000 troops there. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the Greek Cypriot south enjoys full membership benefits.

There had been a long-held understanding that any deal would reunify Cyprus as a federation composed of a Turkish-speaking zone in the north and a Greek speaking zone in the south. But Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are now seeking a two-state deal that recognizes separate Turkish Cypriot sovereignty, something that Greek Cypriots reject out of hand and which has also been rejected by the European Union, the United Nations, the U.S. and other countries.

Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar has said that he’s open to dialogue, but warned there’s “no flexibility or retreat” from the two-state proposal as well as a permanent Turkish troop presence on the island and military intervention rights for Ankara — all non-starters for the Greek Cypriot side.

“You can never impose on us a settlement saying that ‘this is what the EU says,’ burying your head in the sand,” Tatar said. “Our red line is our sovereignty."

Emerging from Thursday’s meeting, Tatar repeated there can be no formal return to the negotiating table without the recognition of Turkish Cypriot sovereignty. He also raised the possibility of the two sides working together on dealing with potential earthquakes on the island. Christodoulides said that could be done through established “technical committees” formed to foster cooperation on a wide range of fields, such as restoration of cultural monuments on either side.

Christodoulides told The Associated Press prior to the meeting that he’s “fully aware” of the obstacles, “but that doesn’t mean that we mustn’t do everything possible to break the current deadlock.”

The president-elect said key to any peace deal would be the EU’s active involvement in U.N.-led talks through the appointment by EU leaders of a “strong political personality.”

He said Turkey could be made more amenable to a deal if things that it has long sought from the EU — including upgrading its customs union with the bloc, visa-free travel for its citizens and unfreezing its EU membership bid — can be put on the negotiating table.

Christodoulides said after the meeting that he “didn’t hear anything that he wasn’t expecting” from Tatar, but that he had proposed to the Turkish Cypriot leader to meet again socially with their wives.

A potential deal could expedite the development of sizable natural gas deposits off Cyprus’ southern shores amid Europe’s energy crunch and remove a major thorn in the rocky relationship between NATO allies Greece and Turkey.

“The EU has all the tools that could create a beneficial state of affairs in which all sides will have nothing but to gain from a Cyprus settlement,” Christodoulides said.

Menelaos Hadjicostis, The Associated Press