By Guy Faulconbridge
LONDON, Nov. 18 – Cyprus is closer than ever to ending a four-decade partition and its Turkish and Greek sides could agree the text of a deal by May followed by a referendum, the Turkish Cypriot official responsible for foreign relations said.
The island’s Greek and Turkish communities have lived estranged since 1974, when Turkey invaded the north after a brief Greek-inspired coup, though the seeds of partition were sown soon after independence from Britain in 1960.
“We are cautiously optimistic. We think we are closer than we have ever been before,” the self-styled Turkish Cypriot foreign minister Emine Colak told Reuters in an interview.
“We don’t think the Cyprus problem has got easy – it hasn’t but we think we have a window of opportunity.
“It is possible and it is desirable to get to at least the major part of the negotiations and the agreed text by May 2016.”
She added that it would be “a good thing” to postpone Greek Cypriot elections planned for May 2016 to ease the negotiating process.
The breakaway state in the island’s north is recognised only by Turkey.
Asked if there could be a referendum on unification in early 2016, Colak said: “I wouldn’t think early 2016 but maybe within 2016 – I don’t see any reason why not.”
The frozen conflict has been a permanent fixture on U.N. Security Council agendas for at least half a century, and Cyprus hosts one of the world’s oldest peacekeeping forces, monitoring a 180-kilometre (110-mile) ceasefire line that slices through the eastern Mediterranean island.
Cyprus’s partition is a continuing source of tension between Greece and Turkey and an obstacle to Turkey’s decades-old ambition to join the European Union.
The prime ministers of Turkey and Greece on Wednesday said they saw an opportunity to move toward a solution on the 40-year division of Cyprus, and Athens indicated it would lend support to Ankara’s bid to join the European Union.
While relations between the NATO allies have been strained in the past by disputes over territorial borders in the Aegean Sea and the partition of Cyprus, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras have recently held regular telephone discussions, particularly about migration issues.
“There is a window of opportunity right now over the Cyprus issue. The negotiations are going on. We have a common approach with Greece to contribute positively to the talks,” Davutoglu said at a joint news conference with Tsipras, who is visiting Turkey.
Cyprus has been split along ethnic lines since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief, Greek-inspired coup.
The EU considers the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia to represent the whole island, while Ankara recognizes a breakaway Turkish Cypriot administration in the north of the island.
“We will move ahead with our efforts to encourage the two communities (on Cyprus) to reach a just and viable solution,” Tsipras said. “I believe we’re nearing an opportunity — I don’t want to be overly optimistic, I am moderately optimistic — but I believe we must encourage a solution.”
A senior Turkish Cypriot official told Reuters on Wednesday that the island was closer than ever to ending its partition, and the two sides could agree on the text of a deal by May.
Tsipras also said Greece views Turkey‘s bid to join the European Union “in a positive light” provided certain conditions are met, without going into detail.
The two countries must step up cooperation in the fight against smugglers who are transporting hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants to Europe from Turkey through the Greek islands, Tsipras said.
About 650,000 refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty have reached the EU through Greece so far this year, risking their lives in overcrowded, flimsy boats. Thousands have drowned.