Cypriot leaders to meet

NICOSIA (Reuters) – Cyprus reunification talks expected to start this summer may be delayed by disagreements that have crept into preparatory consultations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. President Dimitris Christofias is to meet with Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat tomorrow, their first formal encounter since agreeing in March to resume talks to end Cyprus’s division – an obstacle to Turkey’s European Union accession hopes and a past source of tension between NATO partners Greece and Turkey. Diplomats said they would watch tomorrow’s meeting closely for any sign that talks may not begin as planned in June. Citing «difficulties,» Greek Cypriots say they have not agreed to talks without progress in the preparatory consultations, throwing that summer time frame into doubt. Turkish Cypriots say there has been progress, and that talks should start regardless. With these opposing views, diplomats are worried the Cypriot reunification drive could lose momentum. «We would need to shift into peace talks by mid-July… or else there is a danger of this process being strangled at birth,» said a senior diplomat in Nicosia, Cyprus’s divided capital. Experts on both sides have been discussing a range of reunification issues, from power-sharing to complex property disputes, preparing the ground for high-level talks. «On these issues, we do not speak the same language, something we must do if we are to bridge differences and move on to the next phase of this process (to) fully fledged negotiations,» said Stefanos Stefanou, spokesman in Christofias’s government. Hasan Ercakica, spokesman for the Turkish-Cypriot side, said talks were not conditional. «When we agreed on March 21 to start negotiations there was no suggestion the start was conditional on progress,» he told Reuters. Turkey’s prospects of joining the European Union are closely entwined with peace talks in Cyprus. The island has been sundered since a Turkish invasion triggered by a brief Greek inspired coup in 1974. The Greek-Cypriot south is internationally recognized to represent the whole island in the European Union. Greek Cypriots can block Turkey’s EU aspirations – already clouded by misgivings from heavyweights such as France on offering full membership status to Ankara. Diplomats said that Greek Cypriots appeared frustrated with Turkish-Cypriot tactics in the preparatory teams. «The Greek Cypriots are heavy hitters, they have the freedom to operate in an independent environment. The Turkish Cypriots are coming with speaking notes. There isn’t a free-flowing exchange of ideas,» the diplomat said. Ercakica disagrees: «As far as we were concerned, the working groups were not set up to negotiate but to brainstorm, exchange ideas and gather a body of work to place before the leaders to do their work.» Diplomats say it is imperative that an opportunity be seized on Cyprus this year, before momentum garnered in the wake of Christofias’s election in February replacing hardline Tassos Papadopoulos fizzles out. «Nobody is going to say talks must start on June 21, but if the delay is too long the whole process will lose any credibility it had,» another diplomat said.