Off the UN radar?

NICOSIA – A stalemate on the divided island of Cyprus since the collapse of UN-backed peace talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots earlier this year has been deepened by a UN decision to take its special envoy off the job. While no one is suggesting that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has completely turned his back on Cyprus, his decision to send career diplomat Alvaro de Soto to Western Sahara – and not to replace him – seems at least a clear signal the Mediterranean island has slipped down the list of UN priorities. Less than six months since the spectacular collapse of reunification talks personally brokered by Annan, Greek and Turkish Cypriots are as far apart as ever on how to live as one. Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974 after a brief Greek-Cypriot coup engineered by the military then ruling Greece. A UN peacekeeping force mans a corridor of land laced with mines separating the northern third from the rest of the island. Though there have been symbolic moves such as opening some crossing points allowing long-forbidden movement between the two sides, talks on a formal one-nation island are at a standstill. «If your particular line of business has dried up you can’t be left on hold for too long. There are other issues to attend to,» one diplomat said of de Soto’s departure. Bitterly divided between its ethnic Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot populations and a constant source of tension between the respective motherlands, the island has spawned a long line of frustrated mediators, missed deadlines and failed deals. De Soto’s exit followed that of David Hannay, Britain’s envoy to its former colony. He bowed out in June stating that he was «never at any stage» optimistic about breaking the logjam. A UN plan which collapsed in March would have created a loose federation, but called for major property surrenders from the Turks and considerable yielding of power by the Greeks. The Greek-Cypriot side has said it is willing to negotiate the plan, but has made clear it wants changes to it. Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash also says he is ready to negotiate but has described the UN plan as dead. «The United Nations has repeatedly said it will facilitate negotiations, but it is others that have to deliver,» a source close to the process told Reuters. Mumtaz Soysal, an adviser to Denktash, said he did not think the UN was sidestepping Cyprus but that a new approach was needed. «A fresh look at the plan is needed,» he told Reuters. «It has become an EU problem nowadays. The EU is more interested but I don’t think the UN will step completely out of it.» The consensus among diplomats and analysts is that a new push on Cyprus will not come until after the summer, at the earliest. «Nobody thinks for one moment there won’t be a resumption of talks in the autumn,» said James Ker-Lindsay of Civiltas Research in Nicosia. He said there was some speculation that by pulling de Soto out, Annan might be hoping to put pressure on the two sides to review their positions. «One would wonder whether they are trying to put pressure on the parties… but it is a strange thing to do,» he said. Barring surprises – 79-year old Denktash had heart surgery last year and his health remains a concern – the next key date may be Turkish-Cypriot government elections in December. Restless at the prospect of being left out of the European Union when the Greek Cypriots formally join next May, Turkish Cypriots may dump veteran leader Denktash, who has been unable to deliver on the peace agreement needed for them to enter the EU. With a population no larger than 800,000 but with a conflict spreading well beyond its corner of the Mediterranean, a united Cyprus would be part of the jigsaw also easing Turkish accession to the European Union and could improve sometimes testy relations between Athens and Ankara, both NATO members.