In an interview with VOA News, the Greek Cypriot foreign minister has said that the United Nations-brokered reunification process in Cyprus is proving to be slow and difficult. Markos Kyprianou’s comments come as U.N. attempts to re-unite the divided island enter their third year.
Attempts to reunite this island have been ongoing since the mid 1970's, with the latest round of talks being launched in 2008.
The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the island in response to a coup in Nicosia by supporters of a union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriot northern administration. It has kept more than 35,000 troops in the sector.
Speaking to VOA, the Greek Cypriot foreign minister says it has become increasingly obvious, amid slow negotiations, that the process is proving difficult for both communities in Cyprus.
"Well, very slowly and with difficulty, we have to be honest about that," Kyprianou said. "They are not moving as quickly as there is not the progress we were hoping for."
In a belated attempt to push negotiations forward, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon met the leaders of the two communities, in November, and appealed for talks to be accelerated before they founder fatally.
"Both leaders have told me they recognize the need to move more quickly and decisively in order to reach a settlement. Serious differences remain, but both leaders expressed their commitment to work together as partners towards that goal," he said.
The big stumbling block, from the beginning, has been the issue of property, with nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriot refugees isolated from their homes by the Turkish control of the northern sector of the island.
In addition, economic issues, governance and power sharing have all been discussed without any concrete outcome.
Negotiators from the two sides are desperately struggling to produce any progress, after more than two years of trying, with the United Nations officials continuously saying they are cautiously optimistic.
"Despite the fact that there were two postponed leaders meetings, nowadays it seems the lie that everything is going very well. The January two-leaders meetings are scheduled for the 12th and 19th and, of course, their representative meetings are planned as well," Captain Tomas Dano, the U.N. spokesman in Nicosia said.
However critics have suggested the U.N. representatives want to draw up unrealistic targets for the negotiations, after being left without anything significant to announce since the process began.
Few doubt that Mr. Ban is committed to solving this issue. He is aware that any breakthrough could mark a defining moment of his term in office; with the previous four U.N. secretary’s general having failed to crack the elusive Cyprus stalemate.
Kyprianou brushes aside claims that Mr. Ban's personal involvement is a sign of the growing international frustration with the situation, which has remained almost unchanged since 1974.
"I think it demonstrates more the willingness on the part of the secretary general to be more involved in the process, not just through his representatives on the island, yes and to indirectly exercise a bit of pressure to the two sides, I think that's quite acceptable in this situation," Kyprianou said.
The two leaders will meet with Mr. Ban for further talks at the end of January in Geneva, where he is expected to amplify the message that progress must be forthcoming. In a report to the Security Council last month Mr. Ban warned that "a critical window of opportunity is rapidly closing".
The question for Mr. Ban is how long he can go on without something tangible.
On December 3 2010, the UN News Service reported that, warning that talks to reunite Cyprus could "founder fatally" if substantive agreement is not reached within the next few months, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders to ready a practical plan by January to overcome major differences.
"I fear a critical window of opportunity is rapidly closing," he said in a report to the Security Council on the United Nations-sponsored talks that seek to set up a Federal Government with a single international personality in a bi-zonal, bi-communal country with a Turkish Cypriot Constituent State and a Greek Cypriot Constituent State of equal status.
Ban cited fundamental differences on the issue of property on the Mediterranean island, where a UN peacekeeping mission has been in place since inter-communal violence erupted in 1964, and noted that parliamentary elections scheduled for May in the south as well as elections in Turkey in June militate against constructive negotiations in the second quarter of 2011.
The leaders have met 88 times since the start of negotiations in 2008, advancing in some areas, but there has been "a worrying lack of progress" in six months of talks on currently irreconcilable difference over property rights, says Mr. Ban, who met with the two leaders in New York on November 18.
The Greek Cypriots say those with property in the north should be able to seek reinstatement, while Turkish Cypriots say that if all Greek Cypriot property owners there were allowed reinstatement, it would be impossible for the Turkish Cypriots to secure bizonality. They want a ceiling on the number of those who can have properties reinstated, instead of compensation.
"We must be clear that, in order to negotiate successfully a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation, the two leaders will have to reconcile these and other seemingly irreconcilable issues," Ban said, calling on Greek Cypriot leader Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu to "dedicate significant efforts" to preparing a practical plan for overcoming major remaining points of disagreement when he meets with them again in January.
"In any society, intense political moments such as elections are rarely a time for compromises or flexibility," he said of the forthcoming electoral calendar. "If substantive agreement across all chapters cannot be concluded ahead of the election cycle, the talks may go into abeyance, and there is a serious risk that the negotiations could founder fatally."
Ban also warned of the need to avoid any inflammatory statements that could further stoke public scepticism over the talks, noting that despite the collegial atmosphere in which the leaders engage in the talks, their subsequent public rhetoric has not conveyed that the negotiations are moving forward and political leaders, both in government and the opposition, have accused the other side of undermining the talks.
"Occasional outbursts by the leaders about each other have not contributed to building public confidence in the leadership and the peace process," he said, calling on both sides to reverse the cycle of negative messaging since the success of the process will ultimately remain in the hands of the people, who will vote for an agreement in separate, simultaneous referendums.
"I would encourage the leaders to step forward individually and jointly to deliver more constructive and harmonized messages. This is their responsibility just as much as managing the talks is. This would enhance public trust and support for the peace process and make the task of the leaders easier by making information available in a constructive manner to both sides," Ban said.
"Now, more than ever, as public support is flagging, civil society can play an important role in supporting the leaders and the process."
In a separate report on the 46-yearold UN mission, known as UNFICYP, Ban called on the Council to renew its mandate for another six months until June 15, citing its work with his Special Advisor on the talks, Alexander Downer, and other UN agencies "actively engaged in promoting an atmosphere conducive to the negotiations."
The overall number of violations in the buffer zone has declined, but "low-level exercises near the ceasefire lines unnecessarily cause tensions and should be avoided," Ban said.
UNFICYP, with a strength of over 900 uniformed personnel, continues to work closely with the two communities in resolving practical day-to-day issues, including the civilian use of the buffer zone. "Such efforts are important in building confidence and positive relations between the communities, and I call on both sides to continue to support UNFICYP in that regard," he said.