NICOSIA: Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot leaders vowed to seek agreement on ending the island’s four-decade division “as soon as possible,” relaunching peace talks Tuesday after nearly a two-year hiatus.
Nicos Anastasiades and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Dervis Eroglu endorsed a road map for the relaunch of the U.N.-brokered talks at a meeting in the buffer zone that divides the capital.
“I hope that today will be the beginning of the end to an undesirable and unacceptable situation that has kept the island and our people divided for 40 years,” Anastasiades said.
Speaking in Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan was also hopeful that the Mediterranean island’s division could be ended.
“We are heading toward a new process in Cyprus. God willing, there will be no backpedalling and we will solve the Cyprus problem,” he said.
Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded and occupied its Northern third in 1974 in response to an Athens-engineered coup aimed at uniting it with Greece.
And a breakaway state that Turkish Cypriot leaders declared in 1983 is recognized only by Ankara.
Both sides acknowledged the road ahead would be painful but conceded in a joint statement that the status quo was “unacceptable,” and that a settlement would have a “positive impact” on the region.
“The leaders will aim to reach a settlement as soon as possible and hold separate simultaneous referenda thereafter,” the statement said.
Negotiators are to meet later this week to push the process forward.
The joint declaration was finalized last week after protracted haggling over the text delayed a relaunch of talks originally slated for November.
Anastasiades said it was “not the final solution but the beginning of a painstaking effort to reach desired goals,” adding that he looks forward to a solution that has “no winners or losers.”
Turkish Cypriots suspended the last round of talks in mid-2012 when Anastasiades’ internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus assumed the European Union’s rotating presidency.
The EU welcomed the agreement, saying it should help the two sides “swiftly address matters of substance and to achieve rapid results in the negotiations.”
And British Prime Minister David Cameron, from whose country Cyprus won independence in 1960, welcomed the agreement “as an important step” toward “their shared aim of a unified and prosperous island.”
Hubert Faustmann, associate professor of history and political science at Nicosia University, said discovery of hydrocarbons off the coast of Cyprus had given new impetus to the peace talks that have dragged on for decades.
“This is the best chance for peace since 2004 because of oil and gas,” said Faustmann.
Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 still divided, after Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. reunification blueprint that was approved by Turkish Cypriots.
Anastasiades was one of the few Greek Cypriot politicians to back the controversial U.N. proposal.
But the island’s untapped gas and oil riches offshore and a huge natural gas find in waters off neighboring Israel have changed the dynamics in the region, bolstering hopes a peace deal can be achieved.
“ Turkey and Israel’s energy cooperation has triggered an American intervention and forced both sides to agree on a joint statement leading to a resumption of talks,” Faustmann said.
“Washington has put so much weight behind this latest peace effort because oil and gas is a game changer in the wider context.
“It’s a win-win situation for all,” he added.
“ Israel is looking to diversify by constructing a gas pipeline through the sea of Cyprus to Turkey and invest in a LNG plant on the island, but Israel won’t give its gas to Cyprus unless there is a solution.”
The U.S. – which has commercial interests in the island’s gas and oil exploration – is aware that a divided Cyprus is a source of tension for NATO members Greece and Turkey.
Turkey is opposed to Cyprus exporting oil and gas, saying the energy wealth also belongs to Turkish Cypriots.
“There are huge time pressures for energy investment and any delay will see more economic misery for Cypriots,” said Faustmann.
A resumption of talks was delayed by the eurozone debt crisis, which forced Nicosia to secure a bailout from international creditors last March, plunging the struggling country into deeper recession.