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Switzerland to host Cyprus talks

The talks will be held at the Bürgenstock resort Keystone

The prime ministers of Greece and Turkey have accepted a United Nations invitation to come to Switzerland for talks on the future of Cyprus.

This content was published on March 18, 2004 - 19:20

The talks, aimed at reunifying the island before entry into the European Union on May 1, are due to take place next week near Lucerne.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote to both prime ministers asking them to attend, following a lack of progress at negotiations between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders.

Cyprus has been divided into Greek and Turkish enclaves since the Turkish invasion of 1974.

The two sides are under pressure to reach agreement; if they don’t, only the Greek side will get the benefits of EU membership.

Annan will also attend the talks. A UN spokesman in New York said the secretary-general was looking for “final commitments” on the Cyprus question.

The Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, said Switzerland would do everything it could to provide ideal conditions for the talks.

Swiss offer

Swiss diplomat Didier Pfirter, a UN legal adviser on Cyprus, said all parties now needed to make an intense effort to reach agreement.

“The Swiss government made an offer [to host the talks] which the UN accepted,” Pfirter told swissinfo.

“We needed an environment where everybody would be available around the clock so it could be a 24-hour non-stop effort.”

In an apparent blow to the negotiations before they have even begun, the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash announced he would not be attending the talks.

However, the Turkish Cypriot prime minister, Mehmet Ali Talat, is expected to travel to Lucerne, as is the Greek Cypriot president, Tassos Papadopoulos.

Denktash and Papadopoulos have spent months negotiating the EU terms in Cyprus, but have made little headway.

“The parties have known about the EU calendar for many years now,” said Pfirter, “and they have wasted a lot of time.”

Looming deadline

The United Nations wants the two sides to agree on terms for a reunified Cyprus within the European Union so that the people of Cyprus can vote on them on April 20.

“We are under tremendous time constraints,” admitted Pfirter. “There are thousands of pages of law that are being drafted for the federal government.”

But Pfirter believes the approach of the deadline may spur the negotiators on.

“It seems that if there is no time pressure then time is not put to good use,” he explained. “Perhaps it will only be possible to come to a conclusion under an outside constraint.”

Swiss model

The proposals for a unified Cyprus draw some elements from Switzerland’s model of federal democracy.

“The Swiss consensus model that we have… has been quite successful in making it possible for people of different religious and linguistic backgrounds to live together quite harmoniously,” said Pfirter.

“These are elements that are useful for Cyprus or other countries with conflicts like this.”

Switzerland has been quietly supporting Cyprus’s reunification talks for several years; Pfirter himself has been involved since 2000.

The luxury Bürgenstock resort above Lake Lucerne will be the United Nations’ base for the duration of the five days of talks.

If the two sides emerge from the Bürgenstock with an agreement on Cyprus, it will be a big boost for neutral Switzerland’s role as an “honest broker” in other peace negotiations.

The Bürgenstock already has some history in this field: in January 2002 the Sudanese government and rebel groups met there and agreed to a ceasefire following years of conflict in the Nuba mountain region.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

The talks will be held from March 24– 29; the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is due to join the negotiations on the final day.

The island of Cyprus has been divided into a Turkish north and a Greek south since 1974.

Reunification must be agreed on before European Union enlargement on May 1, if the whole of the island is to become an EU member.

The reunification agreement envisages a reunited Cyprus on the basis of two federal regions, linked through a weak central government.

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