The much-touted United Nations-backed international conference in Geneva aiming to reunify the ethnically split island of Cyprus began Thursday with the participation of leading diplomats from the UN, the European Union and guarantor powers Greece, Turkey and Britain, but no one is expecting a quick fix to a dispute that has defied mediation for 43 years.
In comments late Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said there will be a meeting on January 23 between all three guarantor powers and reiterated the need for the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island’s northern part. This, he said, should start from the first week after a settlement is reached.
“The Cyprus problem is above all an issue of foreign occupation,” he said in Geneva.
Both Greece and Turkey said they would only attend the conference at the highest level – Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erogan – if enough progress was made by rival Cypriot leaders, President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, to reach a solution.
“We are following closely and will act accordingly,” said government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos.
Athens said it was in close contact with Anastasiades and Kotzias, who attended in Tsipras’s stead. Turkey was represented by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
Apart from the fundamental issues of guarantees and post-settlement security that are considered the most serious points of contention between both sides, Anastasiades was reportedly troubled by the map submitted by Turkish Cypriots on Wednesday, outlining the proposed territorial boundaries of the two constituent states that will exist under a federal banner.
Another sticking point is the demand by Turkish Cypriots, who are the island’s minority population, that the presidency will rotate between Turks and Greeks.
Despite reservations Thursday over the outcome, due to what the government describes as Turkey’s lack of will to play a constructive role in the bid for a final settlement, Greece welcomed the start of the conference as a step in the right direction.
Government aides also noted as a positive the fact that the negotiations at the conference will be open-ended, meaning that if a solution is not found immediately, it can be sought at a later stage without having to start from scratch.
Even though he praised the progress made by Anastasiades and Akinci, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is also in Geneva, cautioned against expectations of a swift procedure.
Speaking to reporters, while standing next the two Cypriot leaders, Guterres said the conference was a “historic opportunity.”
“I strongly believe Cyprus can be the symbol of hope at the beginning of 2017,” he said, while UN Special Adviser Espen Barth Eide told the BBC there is “still a lot of work to be done to bridge differences.”
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is leading the EU delegation, said that now was the time to “seize the moment for Cyprus.”
“Those who are taking no risks are taking the greater risk,” he said.