By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) - As a new showdown looms over troubled Cyprus reunification talks, peace activists are clinging to the last vestiges of hope that a deal can be done ending decades of division on the ethnically split island.
Every Saturday for more than a decade, people from rival sides have met over coffee at a medieval inn on the Turkish Cypriot side of Nicosia to discuss their vision of a united country.
But for the past two months, their chats have had to deal with a marked slowdown in momentum at formal talks on reunification between Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders.
These formal peace talks -- billed by diplomats as the best chance in decades to end the Cyprus conflict -- are stuck as the two sides disagree on the way forward.
Last week a UN envoy launched shuttle diplomacy to avoid the prospect of collapse, and concerns are mounting that the process could be sidelined by Greek Cypriot elections next year.
Those at the coffee talks are concerned.
"We are very anxious, but that makes us all the more determined for a solution," says Andreas Paralikis, a Greek Cypriot economist who was among the first to start mingling with Turkish Cypriots after checkpoint controls were eased to allow the crossing of people in 2003.
He belongs to a generation traumatized by war. He was a teenager when Turkey launched an invasion of Cyprus in 1974, carving the island into two after a brief Greek-inspired coup.
Now, with other Cypriots of all ages, he sits at the Buyuk Han to debate a conflict which has been omnipresent all their lives.
Over time, the group have become close friends.
SEE-SAW FROM OPTIMISM TO DISAPPOINTMENT
At the inn, retired journalist Suleyman Erguclu, a Turkish Cypriot, said the island should not give up hope.
A seasoned veteran in covering what is locally known as the "Cyprob", he experienced conflict first hand, witnessing intercommunal violence at the age of 9 in 1963. By the age of 15 he took up arms, becoming a 'soldier at night, a student in the daytime', and fought a war in 1974.
"I don’t want my grandsons, or Mikis’s grandsons to go through the same experience," he said.
Greek Cypriot and biologist Mikis Hadjineophytou, 67, worries that failure this time could be permanent.
"We have been here before. Elevated hopes, being almost there, then disappointment, depression," he said. "I don’t think we will get another chance. Maybe we will, but it will be a much worse scenario."
Formally, the two leaders have for months been trying to forge a deal which would reunite the divided island under a federal umbrella. But talks are stuck on the agenda of a conference in Geneva which will discuss the role of Britain, Greece and Turkey in a post-settlement Cyprus.
Though officially the process is open ended, they are taking place against the backdrop of plans by Greek Cypriots to push forward with exploration for natural gas offshore, an endeavor Turkey says is illegal, but that Cyprus says is its sovereign right.
French oil major Total plans its first exploratory drill in July.
Erguclu reckons the energy issue could be a catalyst for a solution, provided everyone cooperates. It should work for both sides, he said, surrounded by coffee-drinkers yearning for a reunited country.
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)