Breakthrough Seen Within Reach Amid Hope and Caution in Cyprus Talks

Flanked by Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, (R), and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci (L), U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks a press conference in Geneva.

Cyprus, which represents one of the long-running disputes from the Cold War era, seems to be on the path of a diplomatic breakthrough for a lasting accord, though caution is urged against a “quick fix” to thorny issues of territorial settlement, property rights and security arrangement.

A mix of optimism and caution were the central feelings that swept through three-day Geneva talks which ended without an agreement over the impenetrable issue of post-unification security framework after a last session that brought together foreign ministers of Greece, Turkey and the U.K., so-called guarantor states of Cyprus, in Geneva on Thursday.

The ministers joined the discussions in Geneva, a first of its kind, in the last day of talks to hammer out details of security arrangement and guarantor power system, key factors that have so far blocked a full-fledge solution amid divergent demands of the two communities. The Greek Cypriot administration demands removal of a guarantor system and immediate withdrawal of the Turkish troops from the northern part of the island as part of any deal, while both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots insist on preservation of some form of a guarantor mechanism.

Greece regards the system as an anachronism today. Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said guarantor system must be immediately abolished. He put forward a plan to bring together international inspectors under the U.N. Council auspices to supervise “the implementation of the deal”. The EU, the UN, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and NATO are seen among the possible international actors to assume that role, but diplomats who joined the talks did not specify on that.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, reiterated Turkey’s long-standing position over the issue and said continuation of the security and guarantees system is a necessity. He told reporters that Turkish forces will continue to remain in the island as part of Turkey’s guarantor role. Turkey also demands full rights and benefits of EU membership for Turkish Cypriots once the deal goes into effect.

There will be new round of talks next week, on Jan. 18, to lay ground for meetings between foreign ministers to resolve the dispute over security system and power-sharing.

For all odds and lasting obstacles before a comprehensive solution, the latest round of talks generated strong enthusiasm and hope among the international community.

“We are facing so many situations of disaster. We badly need a symbol of hope,” the United Nations’ new Secretary General Antonio Guterres said. “I strongly believe Cyprus can be the symbol of hope at the beginning of 2017,” a U.N. statement said.

After more than 19 months of talks, international actors are aware of the gravity of what the latest initiative means. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker deemed the talks the “very last chance” to reunite the island but expressed strong optimism over the course of talks. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini also took part in the Geneva meetings.

While optimism pervaded the latest round of negotiations, formidable challenges and obstacles remain in place to reach a deal to end decades-long division of the island after a series of U.N.-mediated efforts previously failed. Guterres was quick to accept that reality, saying that “there is obviously a way to go.”

He downplayed possible expectations for an immediate breakthrough. “You cannot expect miracles, immediate solutions. We are not looking for a quick fix. We are looking for a solid and sustainable solution.” Optimism followed the warning as he said “we are coming very close to a settlement.”

Greek Cypriot Leader Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish counterpart Mustafa Akinci involved in three-day talks which saw historic steps never taken before, giving a much needed psychological boost to an intractable international conflict that eluded many efforts aimed at forging a lasting accord.

Ahead of the Geneva meeting, U.N.’s Special Envoy to Cyprus Espen Barth Eide said “we are now really in the moment of truth.” After rival sides presented maps for boundaries of territorial settlement, he extolled the step. “Never before have we had an exchange of maps, or a presentation of maps, created by the delegations themselves,” Eide said.

Under the proposals submitted by each side, the Turkish Cypriots would retain between 28.2 or 29.2 percent of total territory, down from 36 percent now, Reuters reported. The U.K. also offered to decrease territorial size of its military bases in the island. Currently it holds three percent of the territory as a sovereign land belongs to the U.K., and is preparing to relinquish nearly half of the territory it controls.

“The fact that we have got this far is a real tribute to the courage and the determination of the leaders of the Greek Cypriot community and Turkish Cypriot community,” Reuters quoted U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

“The participants recognized that this is the time to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion,” the U.N. said in a statement. “This is a historic opportunity that should not be missed.”

The island has remained divided since 1974 when Turkey sent troops to the island to stop unification of Cyprus with Greece after a coup by Greek Cypriot military junta dismantled the power-sharing government of the republic found in 1960.

Turkey cited its guarantor status given by 1959 agreement between Turkey, Greece and the U.K. when it deployed forces to the island to protect its ethnic brethren in the face of ethnic cleansing and strife.

Much of the lasting dispute springs from the disagreement about the presence of some 30,000 Turkish troops in the north. Greece, Greek Cypriots want to see withdrawal of the Turkish forces, while Turkish Cypriots insist on the need of Ankara’s protection.

How both sides will reconcile their divergent views on the security arrangement remains to be seen as they will contemplate options and measures to resolve their differences in the upcoming meetings.

Even both sides reach a wide-ranging accord, there would be option to bring the deal to people for a popular mandate in a referendum which Guterres considers is “not an easy challenge.”