UN chief names a new envoy to scope out the chances of reviving Cyprus peace talks

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NICOSIA, Cyprus — U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Friday named a former Colombian foreign minister as his personal envoy to scope out the chances of reviving talks to resolve Cyprus’ ethnic divide, an issue that has defied international diplomacy for nearly five decades.

María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar will work on Guterres’ behalf to “search for common ground on the way forward” and to serve as the U.N. chief’s advisor on Cyprus, U.N. associate spokesperson Stephanie Tremblay said.

Cuéllar served as Colombia’s top diplomat during 2010-2018 and as the country’s representative to the U.N. during 2004-2006.

She is expected to travel to Cyprus soon to sound out Greek Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and the leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots, Ersin Tatar.

Cyprus was divided into ethnic Greek and Turkish sides in 1974, when Turkey invaded just days after a coup mounted by supporters of union with Greece. Only Turkey recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence and keeps some 40,000 troops in the Mediterranean island nation’s breakaway north.

A Cyprus peace deal would reduce a source of potential conflict next door to an unstable Middle East and allow for the easier harnessing of hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean Sea’s natural gas-rich waters.

But Guterres’ appointment of an envoy to inform him whether it would be worth trying to jumpstart the long-stalled peace talks reflects a more cautious approach as a result of numerous failed attempts to produce an accord. If anything, the two sides have grown further apart since the last major push for progress in the summer of 2017.

Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots say they have ditched an agreed-upon framework that called for reunifying Cyprus as a federated state with Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot zones. Instead, they are advocating fpr what effectively amounts to a two-state deal.

Turkish Cypriots argue that the majority Greek Cypriots want to lord over the entire island by refusing to equally share power. They also support Turkey’s insistence on maintaining military intervention rights and a permanent troop presence on the island as part of any deal.

Greek Cypriots strongly oppose a deal that would formalize the island’s ethnic cleave and reject a Turkish Cypriot demand for veto powers on all government decisions at a federal level. They also reject Turkey’s stipulations, arguing a permanent Turkish troop presence and a right to military intervention would would undercut the country’s sovereignty.

Before Cuellar’s appointment, the two Cypriot sides appeared to have eased up on antagonistic rhetoric, but tensions between them linger. In recent months, there were Greek Cypriot accusations of stepped up, unauthorized Turkish Cypriot incursions into the U.N.-controlled buffer zone in a suburb of Nicosia, the country’s divided capital.

In his New Year’s message, Christodoulides called the envoy’s appointment a “first important step” to reviving peace talks. He said he was “absolutely ready” to move things forward but acknowledged that the “road will be long and the difficulties a given.”

Tatar told a Turkish Cypriot newspaper last week that he had “no expectations” of any peace talks in the new year. He said Cuellar’s assignment to identify areas of agreement won’t lead anywhere if Turkish Cypriot “sovereignty and equality” are not accepted.

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This version corrects the name of the U.N. spokesperson who announced the envoy’s appointment. It was Stephanie Tremblay, not Stephene Dujarric.

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