NICOSIA // Amid hopes that Cyprus is finally inching towards a long-elusive settlement, the United Nations has anointed Alexander Downer, the former Australian foreign minister, to advance a new process to reunite the strategically located island. He is regarded as a strong politician with an international standing and a can-do reputation, diplomats in Cyprus said. The post of UN special envoy to Cyprus has been vacant for four years since the Greek Cypriots, who represent the island internationally, rejected a UN settlement plan they complained favoured the Turkish side.
Mr Downer takes up the post as a fresh effort to settle the seemingly intractable Cyprus problem is under way. Demetris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot president, and Mehmet Ali Talat, who heads the Turkish Cypriot community, met yesterday in the UN-patrolled buffer zone that divides Cyprus to thrash out preparations for fully fledged negotiations. In "a positive and co-operative atmosphere", they agreed to hold one more meeting this month before launching formal negotiations, which are expected to begin in early September.
Cyprus has been split along ethnic and religious lines since Turkey invaded the north in 1974 after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece. As Australia's longest-serving foreign minister, Mr Downer, 56, has experience in conflict resolution. He helped foster a peace agreement to end Papua New Guinea's long-running civil war and played a leading role in securing a UN-backed force to end the bloodshed in East Timor.
More controversially, Mr Downer, along with John Howard, who was Australian prime minister at the time, approved their country's involvement as one of the original members of the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq five years ago. The move split Australians and led to large street protests, although Mr Downer, a frequent critic of the United Nations, remains unrepentant and clearly regards Iraq as a success.
Using wording that could appear hubristic, he told The Australian newspaper yesterday: "We played our part in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why not try to fix up Cyprus as well?" But he acknowledged that helping to resolve the Cyprus problem is "not going to be a cakewalk". That phrase echoed the notorious assertion in 2002 by Ken Adelman, a one-time assistant to Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, that "liberating Iraq" would be a "cakewalk".
Andrekos Varnava, an Australian-born assistant professor of history at the European University of Cyprus, said: "Downer's a politician, not a diplomat, and he's a fiery, outspoken hawkish politician with a reputation as a bit of a brawler in Australian politics." Others insist Mr Downer, who served as foreign minister for 12 years, is as much a diplomat as a politician. Diplomacy is in his genes, one Australian academic said, referring to Mr Downer's father who was a long-serving Australian high commissioner in London.
Dr Varnava agreed that Mr Downer's Cyprus appointment was a "good thing provided he does it as a full-time job because it needs full-time commitment". It may be a sign of Mr Downer's confidence that he has already said his Cyprus position would be part- time and that he would also begin a new political consultancy at home. For an ambitious politician such as Mr Downer, taking on the post in Cyprus, a country with a population of just one million people, might seem like a strange career move. It is not.
Despite its size, the island has geo-strategic importance. Cyprus's division is an obstacle to Turkey's ambition of joining the European Union. The Cyprus problem is also an irritant between Nato partners Greece and Turkey, despite the remarkable improvement in their bilateral relations in the past decade. Jousting between Ankara and Nicosia is also hampering co-operation between the European Union and Nato in such trouble spots as Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Success in helping to bring a settlement in Cyprus would confer huge diplomatic kudos on Mr Downer, who assumes his new post at an opportune moment. However, observers caution that other brash high-profile mediators on Cyprus, such as Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat who godfathered the Bosnian peace accords a decade ago, came away from the Cyprus problem empty-handed. The timing now, however, is more auspicious for Mr Downer. The peace process under way on the island "offers the best opportunity in decades" to solve the Cyprus problem, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
The Cyprus stalemate was broken in February when Greek Cypriot voters ousted Tassos Papadopoulos, their hardline leader, and replaced him as president with Mr Christofias, a nominal communist who pledged to re-start Cyprus reunification talks. He enjoys good personal chemistry with Mr Talat, the leftist Turkish Cypriot leader, who is also committed to a settlement. The two leaders promptly agreed as a goodwill gesture to re-open the Ledra Street crossing in central Nicosia that had been closed for decades and in March reached a landmark agreement to enter fully fledged peace talks. Their common goal is to reunite the island under a federal, bi-communal system under which the smaller Turkish Cypriot community would be guaranteed political equality.
Formal reunification negotiations were initially set for the end of June but have been delayed for at least a month because of snags on preparing the ground. Current turmoil in Turkish politics is also unhelpful. Secularists in Ankara who dominate the courts, the army and the bureaucracy are currently attempting to disband the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for alleged Islamist activities. The AKP is a keen supporter of a Cyprus settlement.
Diplomats in Nicosia are keen that the early momentum that followed Mr Christofias's election victory is maintained. The most contentious issues, such as power-sharing, security and property, will be addressed in formal negotiations. "The heavy-lifting has yet to come," said a European diplomat in Nicosia. The International Crisis Group warned that if this moment is lost, it could be many years before a new opportunity emerges. But it insisted in its recent report: "That Cypriot reunification is an old concept that has not yet worked does not mean it is wrong or impossible, just that it is difficult." It added: "The parameters of the Northern Ireland process were known for three decades before the right political circumstances existed to implement them." The report concluded that with a "renewed international effort" that could now happen by the end of this year in Cyprus.