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Cyprus’s Last Best Chance

NICOSIA – It is tempting to see the results of the recent parliamentary elections in northern Cyprus as a blow for the peace process. Voters in the Turkish Cypriot north rejected the party of their leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, who has been meeting almost weekly for eight months with his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Demetris Christofias, to work out the terms of a settlement to reunify the island.

But the election result has more to do with the dire state of the economy than it does with the peace process. Voters are feeling the pain of economic isolation, made worse by the global downturn. While he has lost his parliamentary majority, Talat is still head of the Turkish Cypriot administration and will continue to lead negotiations on behalf of the north. Both he and Christofias remain committed to finding a solution, despite the difficulties they face.

The election result nonetheless underscores the fact that time is running out to find a solution to the Cyprus problem. Talat has set the presidential election in early 2010 as a deadline for agreement, while Christofias is not without political challenges within his own coalition.

Cyprus presents visitors with a deceptive image. The sunny climate of the eastern Mediterranean draws a steady stream of tourists, and European Union membership in the south has pushed income levels for Greek Cypriots higher than the EU average. The island might be divided, but life for many is comfortable. However, Cyprus remains a conflict zone: there are still fortified streets in Nicosia, a United Nations peacekeeping operation patrols the buffer zone, and there is a substantial Turkish military force in the north.