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Experts seek path to Cyprus reunification

Ledra Street in Nicosia, which had been shut for over 40 years because of ethnic conflict, reopened on Thursday Keystone

A team of international experts led by Switzerland's Andrea Auer is hoping to bring together Greek and Turkish Cypriots to reunify their island.

This content was published on April 4, 2008 - 17:56

The specialists are meeting in Aarau in northwestern Switzerland to prepare guidelines aimed at helping both sides find a solution to the conflict themselves, and end the division that began more three decades ago.

"Both sides want a fresh start and have shown they want to negotiate again," Auer told swissinfo ahead of the meeting on Friday and Saturday. But if he is optimistic, he knows that healing the rift between Cyprus' inhabitants will be far from easy.

The last time a solution was put forward by the United Nations in 2004, it was shot down by Greek Cypriots who felt it was unfair to their side.

Auer says that the reason was that the plan was imposed by outsiders and from above, leaving the population out of discussions. This time, Auer and his colleagues are suggesting that a solution come from the Cypriots themselves.

This so-called "Aarau intiative" will also be different from the "Geneva intiative", which was supposed to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together under Swiss political guidance, and so far to little avail.

While the Swiss foreign ministry has given its support to Auer's initiative, the professor of constitutional law says he doesn't expect more from the authorities.

"If they make any useful suggestions, we will take them on board, but as academics, we don't have any special wishes," he added.

Thaw

Auer has some reason to be optimistic. Signs of a thaw have become apparent since the recent election of Dimitris Christofias as president of Cyprus.

He has met his "colleague" of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a state only recognised by Turkey, and agreed to hold new talks. More symbolically, a wall separating the two states was torn down a few days ago in the capital Nicosia, reopening a shopping street that was closed down for 44 years.

To help Cypriots abandon the trench mentality that has dominated their relationship since 1974, the year Turkish troops invaded the northern part of the island, Auer's group of "democracy experts" insist they will be accompanying the two sides, and not providing ready-made solutions.

"Any agreement must be negotiated and agreed upon by the Cypriots themselves," said Auer, who hopes the parties will eventually be able to draw up a constitutional convention.

The experts would rather provide guidelines for talks, including peaceful conflict resolution, sovereignty of both states, a ban on the use of force, respect of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

While it looks good on paper, Auer knows it will be difficult even to get the two sides to agree on guidelines.

"The biggest difficulty is bring the two communities together," he said. "They don't recognise each other, nor do they talk to each other."

He also points out that it will be difficult to set up a constitutional assembly when one of the states taking part is not recognised abroad.

The Aarau intitiative might be an example to follow though, he suggests, with experts from countries such as Germany, France, Italy, Britain, the United States, Greece and Turkey. He says that the most telling point is that Greek and Turkish Cypriot academics are also on the panel.

But nothing will happen if the European Union, which Cyprus joined in 2004, doesn't throw its weight behind the process. Four years ago, the European parliament had welcomed the idea, but refused to take it any further without the participation of the Turkish Cypriots.

swissinfo

Cyprus conflict

The years following Cyprus's independence from Britain in 1960 saw tensions rise between the island's Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities. This eventually led to clashes between rival paramilitary factions.

Greece and Turkey, both members of Nato, became increasingly involved in events unfolding on the island. Greece sent 20,000 troops to the island, while Turkey responded to attacks on Turkish Cypriots with air strikes.

In 1964, the UN sent peacekeeping troops to Cyprus to bolster British forces manning the so-called "Green Line" that still divides the Greek and Turkish Cypriot portions of the capital Nicosia.

While the situation calmed down for a short time, a military junta seized power in Greece in 1967, making armed conflict more likely.

The situation came to a head on 15 July 1974 when the Athens regime supported a coup by Greek Cypriot army officers seeking to achieve union with Greece. The Cypriot President, Archbishop Makarios was overthrown and fled to Britain.

Five days later, Turkey - concerned at the possibility of a unified Greece and Cyprus - sent in troops with the aim of protecting the Turkish Cypriot community.

The island was de facto partitioned. Turkish Cypriots still occupy the northern third of the island, while the Greek Cypriot community holds on to the wealthier south.

Greek Cypriots consider Turkey's action as an illegal occupation, with the Turks refusing so far to leave the island.

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