UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in Cyprus on Monday trying to inject new momentum into waning peace talks to reunify the divided eastern Mediterranean island.
In a show of peace, Mr. Ban, along with representatives of both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, released dozens of multi-coloured balloons along Ledra Street in central Nicosia.
As part of efforts to reunify the island, a symbolic wall dividing the two communities at Ledra Street was opened in 2008.
“I am here to encourage these two leaders to bring these talks to a successful conclusion,” Mr. Ban said as a group of 50 protesters, shouting “We Want Peace Now” could be seen demonstrating peacefully nearby.
The secretary general will meet with Greek Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat separately before convening a joint meeting later the same day.
Both Mr. Christofias and Mr. Talat have so far conducted 16 months of peace talks with no breakthrough in sight.
“I am under no illusions that the Cyprus problem is easy to solve or about the difficulties that you face. At the same time, I am confident that a solution is possible and within reach,” Mr. Ban said upon his arrival to the island on Sunday.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in response to a Greek-inspired coup.
Greek Cypriots currently live in the south and Turkish Cypriots in the north. The two sides are divided by a UN-supervised buffer zone, which runs through the heart of the capital, Nicosia.
The UN chief’s visit is seen as an effort to shore up the faltering negotiations, which began in September 2008.
The last time a United Nations secretary general was in Cyprus was when Mr. Ban’s predecessor, Mr. Kofi Annan, came eight years ago and urged both communities to seize an “historic opportunity.” However, the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted against a 2004 UN reunification blueprint in a referendum despite a Turkish referendum approving the plan.
The latest UN effort has led to significant progress in a series of areas of governance and power sharing. The two sides have, however, failed to agree on the core issues of property, security and territorial adjustments.
Any agreement between the two leaders will have to pass a referendum on both sides of the island.
Experts have expressed fears that the two leaders have little time left, with April elections in the occupied northern part of the island expected to bring a hardliner to power.
Mr. Talat is trailing in the polls to hardliner Dervis Eroglu. If he fails to secure re-election, the talks could be jeopardized.
European Union officials have said that progress at the Cyprus reunification talks are essential to helping Turkey’s slow-moving EU accession process move forward.
Although the peace talks and Turkey’s EU membership negotiations are separate processes, a breakthrough on one is likely to have a positive impact on the other.
Leaders have suggested that many of their differences revolve around how to deal with the thousands of property claims from people uprooted in past conflicts.
Greek Cypriot leaders have also criticized recent proposals by the Turkish Cypriots for separate rights to sign international agreements and control the island’s airspace.