NEW YORK (AP) — The Turkish Cypriot president says he's optimistic that an agreement can be reached, possibly within months, to end the 41-year-old conflict that divided the Mediterranean island.
Mustafa Akinci said a key lesson from the last attempt to reach a peace deal in 2004 is the critical need for political leadership on both sides to convince Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots that it's time to reunite the country — and that failure to do so could have serious consequences.
"Time is not on the side of settlement," Akinci warned in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday. "With the passage of time collective memory is getting lost, and unfortunately younger generations are becoming more alienated from each other."
If Cyprus isn't reunified now, Akinci said, he is very afraid that succeeding generations "will be seeking a different kind of solution which will be more along the lines of division."
Cyprus was split into an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by Cypriot supporters of union with Greece. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent state in 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it and keeps 35,000 troops there. Cyprus joined the European Union in 2003, but only the south enjoys membership benefits.
Akinci, a veteran politician with a strong track record of reaching out to rival Greek Cypriots, said his motivation in pursuing a peace deal is to end decades of isolation for some 300,000 Turkish Cypriots and ensure that they become "equal partners" in the international community.
The recently elected Turkish Cypriot leader said he and Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades have met several times and had "a good beginning," which is important.
"We need to continue in this manner and, more importantly, we need to finalize in this manner," Akinci said. "We haven't discussed the main issues yet. We started with certain confidence-building measures."
Those measures include connecting the electricity grid and mobile systems between the rival communities, making the first-ever plea from both presidents for information on missing persons from the 1974 war, and stopping a requirement that Greek Cypriot visitors fill out a visa form when entering Turkish Cypriot territory which kept many Greek Cypriots from crossing the dividing line, Akinci said.
Akinci and Anastasiades have agreed to hold U.N.-facilitated peace talks twice a month. Their next meeting is on June 17.
Anastasiades said after their last meeting on May 28 that both leaders are focused on delivering a swift peace accord that lives up to the expectations of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and "ensures that this state will fully comply with the European norms of other (EU) member states."
The Turkish Cypriot president met Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who gave his strong backing to the peace talks.
Akinci cited two "triggers" for a solution that weren't there in 2004 when the two sides voted on a peace plan backed by Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary-general. In simultaneous referendums, Turkish Cypriots approved the plan but Greek Cypriots rejected it.
The first trigger is Cyprus' financial crisis.
What perhaps is changing on the Greek Cypriot side, Akinci said, is the realization that joining the EU didn't solve Cyprus' financial problems. It also didn't enable them to dictate or impose a solution to the conflict with Turkish Cypriots, he said.
The second trigger, Akinci said, is the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean off Cyprus.
This has led to the realization in some quarters, Akinci said, that rather than having the natural gas be a source of tension between the two communities and with Turkey, it would be wiser to solve the Cyprus problem and make the gas "an asset for a solution."
If a peace agreement is reached, he envisions combining Cyprus' gas field with Israel's larger one and channeling the natural gas to Europe via Turkey "instead of trying to imagine much more expensive solutions." He said this would also require improved relations between Turkey and Israel, Cyprus and Europe.
Akinci said he believes the majority of Turkish Cypriots support an end to the conflict.
The parameters of a deal are well known, he said. "We're talking about a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. We are talking about a two-constituent state that will have powers for themselves and a central government."