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U.N. Secretary General Looks For Diplomatic Win In Cyprus

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are working on plans to reunite the divided island of Cyprus. They've been meeting almost daily this month to try to resolve a conflict that has confounded diplomats for decades. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is hoping a deal can be reached this year. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hosted the leaders of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot north at the U.N. last month, he vowed to see through these negotiations as best he can. Ban is leaving office at the end of this year.

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BAN KI-MOON: The leaders asked me to step up my personal engagement in the process. I stand ready to support them in whatever they may require.

KELEMEN: Ban's envoy on Cyprus tweeted today that he's just concluded the fourth high-level meeting in five days. And he's encouraged by the, quote, "dedication and leadership of the president of Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot leader." U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland came away from her meetings there a couple of days ago, saying there are a lot of creative ideas on the table and both sides are working hard toward a solution. But there are plenty of spoilers. A government official from the North was making the rounds in Washington recently, saying he is no fan of this peace process.

TAHSIN ERTUGRULOGLU: I do not believe that the negotiations that have been going on for 50 years are capable of producing a mutually acceptable just and lasting settlement.

KELEMEN: That's Tahsin Ertugruloglu, who calls himself the foreign minister of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey is the only country that recognizes his government. And he says he has Ankara's full backing, even though Turkey has other concerns like Syria and Iraq.

ERTUGRULOGLU: There is no way Turkey will leave the Turkish Cypriots at the mercy of the Greek Cypriots. There is no way Turkey will allow the island of Cyprus to turn into a Greek island. No way, no matter how many problems there may be on the Turkish plate - Cyprus is number one.

KELEMEN: He's not part of the negotiations. And as one Cyprus watcher, James Sawyer explains, the Turkish Cypriot leader who is involved in the talks - Mustafa Akinci - is also close to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, having been one of the first to denounce a coup in Turkey earlier this year.

JAMES SAWYER: And since then, relations between the two leaders have improved dramatically. And that's one of the reasons why we think that Turkey will continue to support a deal is this uptick in relations between the two leaders.

KELEMEN: Sawyer, who's a researcher for the Eurasia Group, is giving this diplomatic push a 55 percent chance of success. Cyprus was divided in 1974, when Turkey intervened following a Greek-backed coup. The two sides have tried for years to negotiate what diplomats call a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation on Cyprus. Sawyer says there are economic interests at stake, as Israel and others eye the development of offshore natural gas.

SAWYER: There is the possibility for greater regional cooperation and the eventual formation of a gas corridor from Israel through Cyprus up and through Turkey. That's probably the most viable route over the long term if reunification happens. And that's one of the U.S.'s strategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean as well.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State John Kerry says he thinks peace is within reach if the Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators do finalize a deal. They're expected to put that to a referendum. The last time that happened and diplomats thought they were close, Greek Cypriot voters turned it down.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.