Meeting at UN seeks Cyprus talks breakthrough

The United Nations's secretary-general will meet with the rival leaders of divided Cyprus this week to prevent a collapse of reunification talks that could cement the island's partition and derail Turkey's EU membership hopes.

Ban Ki-moon will sound out Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu in New York on Thursday about whether they can negotiate a way out of an impasse threatening to scuttle more than two years of negotiations.

Ban "wants to hear face-to-face with the leaders their perspective of how the talks are going and what the prospects are," U.N. envoy Alexander Downer said.

The island was split into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by people who wanted to unify the island nation with Greece. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys the benefits. A northern breakaway state declared in 1983 is recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 35,000 troops there.

The U.N. has invested much in these talks, which have been touted as the best chance yet to settle a dispute hampering Turkey's troubled EU membership bid and crippling EU-NATO cooperation. NATO member Turkey has blocked formal NATO-EU relations, while Cyprus has vetoed Turkey taking part in EU defense activities.

Turkey began entry talks with the EU in 2005, but negotiations on several policy areas have stalled or been suspended because Turkey refuses to open its ports to trade with Cyprus, as it does not recognize the Greek Cypriot government.

The New York meeting is intended to spur the leaders into reaching a breakthrough in the reunification process.

"The only thing that can break the deadlock at this point is an enhanced U.N. role in the talks," said Ahmet Sozen, a politics professor at Eastern Mediterranean University.

Christofias has warned against introducing any form of arbitration or deadlines to avoid reprising failed talks in 2004, when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N. drafted peace plan they felt was weighted against them. Downer said the U.N. isn't "in the game of forcing anything on anybody that they don't want."

Although some progress has been made on how to share power within an envisioned federation, the talks have bogged down on the issue of what will happen to private property lost during the 1974 war.

Eighty percent of property in the Turkish Cypriot north is owned by now displaced Greek Cypriots, and Christofias insists they should be allowed to decide on what happens to it.

But Eroglu argues the current occupants have an overriding interest and proposes a compensation scheme instead, amid fears that majority Greek Cypriot ownership in the north would undermine Turkish Cypriot administrative control.

With several failed peace initiatives over 36 years weighing on these negotiations, the international community is running out of patience, Sozen said.

"A lot of people are feeling that we're getting toward the end. Either we get a federal Cyprus or something else," he said, including a Taiwan-style arrangement where the north would trade directly with the world without formal recognition as a separate state.

One indication of faltering patience was a recent newspaper opinion piece by Britain's former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, arguing that formal and permanent partition should be considered for the island if these talks fail.

Christofias has repeatedly said partition is not an option, while Eroglu urged the international community to spell out the consequences of failure.