"I am extremely concerned that the option of a mutually agreed settlement of the Cyprus problem, i.e. a formula for the reunification of the island acceptable to both sides, is fading and will not be available for much longer", UN Secretary General's Special Representative for Cyprus Colin Stewart says.
Speaking this morning at the Cyprus Forum, which began on Thursday in Nicosia, on "Inclusion: Inclusivity: Unleashing the power of diversity", Stuart said that at the moment there is a political stalemate on the Cyprus problem and that the positions of the two sides are really far apart - they cannot even agree on what the solution talks will be about and on the conditions for returning to the negotiating table.
"I don't think this impasse is necessarily insurmountable in the medium term, but realistically I don't see much prospect for talks before the upcoming elections on the island and in the region next year," the UN official noted.
"And after those elections, we may find ourselves in a new context, better or worse. It is impossible at this point to predict," he noted.
He added that "while there is an unfavorable prospect of talks soon, there is something much more fundamental at stake right now: I am extremely concerned that the option of a mutually agreed settlement of the problem - in other words, a formula for the reunification of the island acceptable to both sides - is fading and will not be available for much longer."
Mr. Stewart also referred to the work of the bi-communal technical committees, noting that these are the foundation of bi-communal achievements that will lay the groundwork for future talks and stressing that the technical committees and the Confidence Building Measures are neither a substitute for talks nor a distraction from such talks, but a pathway to talks.
He underlined that he is working intensively with the representatives of the two leaders to complete a wide range of joint initiatives that will not only benefit Cypriots across the island but will also create an important pathway to the settlement talks. He also said that "official trade across the Green Line will double by the end of the year".
The UN official said that "the division of the island is growing and the integration of the north - economically and politically - into Turkey is accelerating because of the very difficult economic situation on that side of the island."
"Greater dependence of the north on Turkey, especially economically, necessarily means less interdependence between the two sides on the island. And interdependence is the glue that can hold the island together," he noted.
As he said, "if current trends continue, the idea of a mutually agreed solution will soon become unviable."
"Therefore, time is running out and we cannot afford to simply wait until the next time the sides are ready to talk," he said.
He noted that the economic pressure in the north and the growing economic divide between the two sides on the island were also breeding resentment and a lack of trust between them.
"I hear from many Turkish Cypriots that they are unhappy with the current trend, but they don't see any alternative. Providing an alternative from north and south would be a maximum step - perhaps the most crucial step - towards reviving hope for a comprehensive settlement," he said.
Stuart also said that the economic disparity between the two sides of the island creates all kinds of adjustment challenges that make a settlement agreement another major challenge, and in the meantime gives impetus to a movement of all kinds along the buffer zone, which is a serious problem for both sides.
"For all these reasons, the dire economic situation in the north undermines the prospects for a settlement. It does not help, as some people continue to believe, to move the north towards a settlement," he said.
Mr. Stewart expressed confidence that the majority of Cypriots want the division of the island to end. "But they are losing hope. And when the populations do not yet have any enthusiasm for a settlement, it is hard to imagine political leaders making a deal on their own initiative," he said.
He noted that "it is for this reason that it is so critical and urgent to rebuild the links between the two sides - through active, frequent interactions between all parts of society and all sectors of the economy. For there to be any hope of a final settlement, Cypriots need to learn to live on the island together."
He said that in this context, any interaction - even when they do their shopping - is better than no interaction at all. When people interact, myths and walls come crashing down. Misconceptions and taboos are put aside. Greater mutual understanding is the foundation for building trust, and without trust, there can never be a sustainable solution, Stewart said.
"Many Cypriots tell me that there is no problem between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, the problem is at the political level. But while democracy is never perfect, elected politicians cannot turn a deaf ear to the wishes of their constituents, especially if those wishes are strongly felt," he said.
He said that "nothing brings people together faster and more strongly than economic interest. Expanding trade and business ties, and ensuring the infrastructure to support them, is the surest way to restore confidence in a solution."
Mr. Stewart said he was working intensively with representatives of the two leaders to complete a wide range of joint initiatives that would not only benefit Cypriots across the island but also create an important pathway to settlement talks.
On economic initiatives, he said they were working on expanding trade through the Green Line Regulation, removing barriers to banking between the two sides, addressing insurance problems and decongesting crossing points.
The UN official said there is a direct mutual interest in increasing trade and that both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who shop find some goods cheaper and more attractive on the other side.
He noted that in addition to the formal proposals made by both sides, they are exploring the possibility of common ground to address the migration issue affecting both sides on the island and are looking at the possible development of a photovoltaic park in the buffer zone for the benefit of both communities at a time when energy prices are rising.
We are jointly addressing environmental issues on the island, issues that know no borders even though the dividing line on the island is known as the green line, and we continue to support bi-communal activities focused on women and youth, he said, adding that notable progress is being made in this regard.
He also said that "official trade across the Green Line will double by the end of the year, including raw processed non-animal food items such as olive oil, tahini and carob."
"Crossing points are starting to become more efficient and less of a barrier," he added.
He said that "on their own initiative, guilds on both sides based on "the need for labor in the south and available workers in the north have so far provided income to about 500 families".
"And there have been successes in a wide range of sectors from health, culture, policing to waste management," he noted.
He also said that sport has a lot of potentials and that announcements would be made on this later.
Stuart said that "many areas where achievements have been made in recent months have gone through the technical committees set up by the leaders of both sides. And they are working on over 20 other initiatives right now."
However, he noted, there are people - on both sides - who are concerned that these committees are simply consolidating or normalizing the status quo.
"On the contrary, these committees are building the foundations of bicommunal achievements that will lay the groundwork for future talks. Technical committees and the MEAs are neither a substitute for talks nor a distraction from such talks. They are the pathway to talks," he said.
He noted that "each of these initiatives will have a positive impact on the lives of Cypriots on both sides of the island. But more importantly, each initiative will also provide a small piece of positive experience, will create a small amount of goodwill and thus piece by piece the road to a mutually agreed settlement of the Cyprus problem will be created. But we don't have much time," he suggested.
[This article was translated from its Greek original]