'Elders' trio in Cyprus for peace talks

The trio's mission in Cyprus is to bolster the latest attempt to put the island back together again.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, flanked from left, by his wife Graca Machel, British singer Peter Gabriel, British entrepreneur Richard Branson and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, listens to South Africa's Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu address the audience in Johannesburg Wednesday July 18, 2007. Mandela celebrates his 89th birthday Wednesday with a star-studded soccer match and the launch of a humanitarian campaign, joined by "elders" of the global village. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
Powered by automated translation

NICOSIA // Jubilant Greek Cypriots rang celebratory church bells when Jimmy Carter won the White House in 1976. The barbed wire that sliced across the island was just two years old and many hoped Mr Carter, a champion of human rights, would solve the Cyprus problem. Those hopes, naive in retrospect, rusted along with the barbed wire. But this week, Mr Carter, 84, will show he has not forgotten the divided island. The man who brokered the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty visits Cyprus today. He will be accompanied by another Nobel peace laureate, Desmond Tutu, the charismatic South African Anglican archbishop who campaigned energetically against apartheid, and Lakhdar Brahimi, 74, the Algerian former foreign minister who brokered the 1989 agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war.

The trio are members of the Elders: 12 world-renowned and independent leaders with long experience in peace processes. They offer their skills, wisdom and moral authority to support the resolution of conflicts around the world and tackle global challenges (www.theelders.org). The group was formed last year by Nelson Mandela, South Africa's former president, on his 89th birthday, and his wife, Graca Machel, a Mozambique-born international advocate for women's and children's rights.

The trio's mission in Cyprus is to bolster the latest attempt to put the island back together again. Mediators hail the current process as the best chance of a peace deal in a generation. For the first time in 34 years, each side is represented by a moderate leader committed to a settlement. "After decades of division, this is a time of hope for the people of this beautiful island. These opportunities don't come around very often," said Mr Tutu, who turned 77 yesterday.

But decades of failure have spawned disillusionment among ordinary Cypriots and the local media are dominated by those who predict doom. So the Elders' intriguing visit comes as a pleasant surprise to diplomats in Nicosia who hope it will be a morale-booster to encourage ordinary people and the media to have more faith. "The process definitely needs all the support it can get and this visit should give it a good push," a senior UN official said.

Anastasia Papadakis was a 15-year-old schoolgirl when Mr Carter won the White House. She was among 167,000 Greek Cypriots - one in three of her community - displaced by the 1974 Turkish invasion, which divided the island along religious and ethnic lines after a short-lived coup in Cyprus engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. At least 40,000 Turkish Cypriots were also uprooted by earlier inter-communal violence and the invasion.

Ms Papadakis took to the streets in celebration, confident that Mr Carter would help her family to return to her ancestral home. "I won't celebrate when Carter comes, but I welcome his visit. Any help in solving the Cyprus problem is appreciated," she said. The flattering attention of three distinguished elder statesmen should galvanise international interest in a Cyprus settlement, diplomats said. The division of the small but strategically located island is a major obstacle to Turkey's aspiration of joining the European Union while jousting between Nicosia and Ankara is hampering co-operation between the European Union and Nato in such trouble spots as Afghanistan and Kosovo.

After months of preparatory work, peace talks were formally launched on Sept 3 by Demetris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot president, and Mehmet Ali Talat, who heads the Turkish Cypriot community. Both are pragmatic leftists who have known each other for years, call each other "comrade" and share a degree of trust. Their aim is to reunite Cyprus as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. The talks so far have focused on governance and power-sharing, a core issue viewed as a good starting point because it was less contentious than such others as security, territorial adjustments and property rights.

But even these talks have snagged over differences on how much power should be centrally controlled and how much devolved to the future federation's constituent states. "There is concern momentum is being lost," a western envoy said. "And it's not helpful that the two leaders snipe at each other when they come out of meetings." The Elders will meet Mr Christofias and Mr Talat - who meet again on Friday - as well as political party leaders, youth groups from the estranged communities and civil society representatives.

Mr Carter said: "Today's young people are the ones who will live with the outcome of their leaders' work. The first time in their lives that they will cast a ballot may even to be to vote on the outcome of the current peace process. I hope that day is not too far off." The three will also stroll along Ledra Street, a shopping artery in the historic heart of Nicosia that had long been a symbol of division. Mr Christofias and Mr Talat agreed to open a crossing point along the street in April: it has since transformed into a bustling meeting point that fizzes and crackles with good-natured energy.

The last concerted drive to reunite Cyprus ended acrimoniously in 2004 when Tassos Papadopoulos, the hardline Greek Cypriot former leader, led his people in rejecting a UN settlement plan that was deemed pro-Turkish and unworkable. The blueprint was endorsed by the Turkish Cypriots. That plan was named after Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, who arbitrated when the two sides failed to agree. He is one of the Elders, but diplomats note wryly that he will not accompany his three colleagues to Cyprus.

Any deal now will be homemade, with the UN acting only as facilitator. Similarly, the trio will not participate in negotiations. But Mr Tutu said: "We will do what we can to ensure that the foresight and courage of Mr Talat and Mr Christofias are acknowledged in Cyprus, in the region and around the world." One jaded diplomat quipped that the Elders are also seeking acknowledgement. "Their visit is all PR with little substance. They want a success," he said.

A local newspaper columnist warned them that a resolution in Cyprus is a mission impossible. "Once these guys have touched down, had the tour, received a history lesson from both sides and enjoyed a three-day UN debrief, they will be reaching for the Prozac," he wrote. It is too early to be so cynical, said Hubert Faustmann, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Nicosia. "Admittedly, their visit is not of major significance. But it's an important and very positive symbolic gesture." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae