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Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Cyprus, Dec. 8-11, 2009

December 14, 2009

On The Elders' third trip to Cyprus, I joined Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi. This concentration of our visits on Cyprus was because of the importance of a successful effort to bring peace and unity to the troubled island, and the growing likelihood of success. As president, I inherited a situation where the Turks had occupied the northern third of Cyprus in 1974, following an unsuccessful coup attempt by the Greeks. Despite our every effort to resolve the dispute, the strong negative influence of leaders in Greece and Turkey made any progress impossible. Later, in 2004, Turkish Cypriots approved a peace proposal drafted by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, but Greek Cypriots rejected it. Now, with minimal outside interference, Cypriot citizens and their elected leaders will, for the first time, decide their own future.

Polling results indicate that about 75 percent of citizens in both zones now support a peaceful resolution based on one nation: a "bi-zonal, bi-communal federation," but citizens are doubtful that this goal will be achieved. Fortunately, the Greek Cypriot leader, Demetris Christofias, and the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, have known each other for many years as young communists, and can negotiate with each other with little reticence. They realize that the middle of February, 2010, is something of a deadline for resolving major issues because Talat will commence his re-election campaign against a Turkish Cypriot opponent who has rejected most of the balanced decisions that will be necessary for success. Their negotiation sessions will become much more concentrated and extensive during January 2010. At the same time, both are very cautious because they realize that their own fellow citizens will have to approve any negotiated agreement in a referendum.

Greek Cypriots are relatively well off, with their portion of the island comprising the Republic of Cyprus and enjoying international acceptance, membership in the European Union, and easy access to the outside world. The Turkish Cypriot government is recognized only by Turkey, and most communication, travel, or commerce from their northern community must be routed through Turkey.

As on our previous visits, we met with both leaders and found them to be dedicated to resolving the questions of governance, divided authority, ownership of disputed property, security, and Turkish "settlers." With only about 20 percent of the population, being occupiers of Greek Cypriot property, protected by perhaps 40,000 Turkish troops, and having seen the Greeks reject a previous peace proposal that they approved, it is difficult for Turk Cypriots to feel confident that they will have an equitable role in a unified Cyprus. Many Greek Cypriots are expecting some "improvements" in the Annan plan, and believe they have less to lose if the peace effort fails.

Our goal was to encourage the two leaders and help convince the two communities that their best interests lie in a peaceful, unified, sovereign nation with almost unlimited prospects for a better social and economic life for all citizens.

We also attempted to publicize and strengthen the remarkable work of the Committee for Missing Persons in exhuming the bodies of Turk and Greek Cypriots who perished in previous conflicts, identifying the remains, and sharing this information with bereaved families. In addition to bringing the losses to "closure," there is an additional healing component in that both sides now must realize that the other has experienced similar suffering and loss. So far, about 600 remains have been recovered, with 200 identified and returned to families for burial.

We worked closely with four remarkable young people: Thalia Ioannides and Michael Panayi (Greek Cypriots) and Idil Cazimoglu and Tayfun Altaner (Turkish Cypriots). During the past year they have worked and traveled together and are now close friends. Our discussions with them and our visits to burial sites and to the forensic laboratory were filmed and a video program will be prepared for viewing in Cyprus and perhaps more widely. We also participated in a public discussion with about 100 community leaders and in the opening of a community media center in the buffer zone between the two communities.

Tragically, there are powerful religious, commercial, and news media leaders, especially Greek Cypriots, who are using their influence to maintain the status quo and discourage progress toward peace and national unity. Others realize that if this current effort fails, the island will remain divided, foreign troops will stay in place, and there will be no restitution of property claims that resulted from past conflicts. Failure may result in an abandonment of hope, with a permanent division of the island and escalating distrust and animosity between the two communities. There is little doubt that this would exacerbate disharmony between Turkey and Greece and make the goal of peace more difficult within the European community.

Although Cypriots do not want or need mediation or interference from foreigners, they desire and will benefit greatly from the strongest possible support and encouragement from the European community, the United Nations, and from the United States and other influential governments. Cypriot unity and peace are goals worthy of every effort.

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