UNITED NATIONS - Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders achieved a breakthrough yesterday toward ending decades of conflict and paving the way for reuniting the divided island in time to join the European Union on May 1.
But U.N. officials who brokered the deal cautioned that there is still a long way to go.
"We have not yet solved the problem," said Secretary-General Kofi Annan. "But I really believe that, after 40 years, a political settlement is at last in reach, provided both sides summon the necessary political will."
Following three days of intense negotiations that went until 3 a.m. yesterday, Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Rauf R. Denktash, agreed to resume talks next week in Nicosia, the island's capital. Under the plan, the leaders of Turkey and Greece will step in March 22 if talks remain deadlocked. To prevent a last-minute breakdown, both sides consented to hand Annan the power to "fill in the blanks" as a last resort if they hadn't completed the agreement by March 29.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots then will hold simultaneous referendums to approve the deal on April 21, allowing Cyprus to join the EU as a united nation if both sides approve. If not, only the Greek Cypriot side will become part of the EU, leaving the Turkish Cypriot side with little independent prospect of inclusion.
That reality pushed both sides to the table, with Turkish leaders pressing Denktash not to jeopardize Turkey's own pending bid to be the first Muslim nation to enter the EU.
There was pressure from all sides: The United States has been a strong supporter of Turkey's aspiration to join the EU, seeing it as a way to bolster an ally in the Middle East and help mend ties with European leaders. President Bush met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House Wednesday, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell prodded both Cypriot parties along this week as talks seemed to stumble.
Alvaro de Soto, the Peruvian diplomat who has been Annan's special envoy on Cyprus, acknowledged help from the United States and the three "guarantor nations" who helped push the deal through: Greece, Turkey and Britain. But he said that Cypriots themselves must recognize the value of reconciliation for the pact to work.
"What we are relying on most heavily is the self-interest of all the parties involved ... in solving this problem on its own merits," De Soto said yesterday.
The deal may be the springboard to end one of the world's longest-running conflicts. Fighting between Cypriot Greek and Turkish communities brought U.N. peacekeepers to the territory in 1964. A decade later, the island was formally partitioned when Turkey seized the northern third, ostensibly to protect Turkish citizens after a coup inspired by Greece. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leaders announced the formation of an independent republic, though it has not been recognized by any nation other than Turkey.
The U.N. secretary-general has expended great personal effort to solve the dispute, and remained optimistic yesterday - but cautious, because he has brought both sides this close before. A rigorous round of talks last year produced the "Annan blueprint," which proposed a single nation modeled on the Swiss canton system, uniting two component states with equal status and largely independent control of their affairs. The plan also would have reduced the Turkish Cypriot territory, resettled displaced people and required both sides to disarm.
The settlement collapsed last April when Denktash refused to put it to a referendum and rebuffed Annan's efforts to arbitrate.
That made the atmosphere highly charged when Denktash and Papadopoulos returned to the United Nations this week at Annan's invitation for a final try.
When leaders from Cyprus, Greece and Turkey arrived Tuesday, the so-called "talks about talks" were expected to last a day. But after three days without a conclusion, Annan told them they would all stay on Thursday night "as long it takes."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.