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Cyprus braces for election

As friendships grow, politics could set peace talks back.

A mosque in northern Cyprus is seen behind an abandoned house in Nicosia's buffer zone April 4, 2008. Greek and Turkish Cypriots pulled down barricades that had separated them for half a century, reopening a street which became a symbol of Cyprus's ethnic partition. (Yiorgos Karahalis/Reuters)

LYTHRAGOMI/BOLTASLI, Cyprus — Each Saturday, Trifonas Papayiannis makes a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Virgin of Kanakaria, in the village of his birth. In the empty church, stripped bare of its decorations and mosaics, the Greek teacher lights a candle and says a prayer.

Afterward, in a nearby teahouse decorated with fading posters of Turkey, he has coffee with Soyloy Mexmet, the head of the Turkish community that now inhabits the village Papayiannis’s family fled after the island’s division in 1974.

It’s an unlikely friendship, built warily over the chasms of language, religion and Cyprus’ painful past. But its very existence is evidence of lingering hopes for peace — and the potential perils still standing in the way of a permanent solution to the Cyprus problem.

“I want reunification,” said Papayannis, shaking his head. “This will always be my home. But I don’t know if these talks will work,” he added, referring to the current round of talks between Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.

After nearly 35 years of separation and a long list of failed peace initiatives, Cypriots are growing increasingly doubtful that an agreement acceptable to both sides is possible. And Sunday’s parliamentary elections on the Turkish side could deal a severe blow to the talks.

Polls indicate that the opposition Nationalist Union Party (UBP), which is skeptical of reunification, is likely to win a majority. Talat, president of the self-declared Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, will remain in his position no matter the outcome of the elections. But a loss for his Republican Turkish Party would undermine his legitimacy in negotiations.

“Turkish Cypriots are increasing skeptical and this does help to some extent the fortunes of the opposition parties that are more nationalist,” said Erol Kaymak, chair of the international relations department at the Eastern Mediterranean University in the Turkish north.

“Assuming the opposition wins, they could presumably sabotage Talat. He’s the chief negotiator, but he has that position through the support of parliament.”

In April 2004, Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N.-brokered deal known as the Annan Plan in a referendum, but were allowed to join the European Union a few weeks later. For four years, the peace process was essentially frozen.

But the election by Greek Cypriots in February 2008 of Christofias, a communist and long-standing friend of Talat, breathed new life into hopes for a settlement. Since then, Cyprus has been inching toward a reunification plan, with the two leaders meeting on a regular basis.

Another pair of unlikely friends, Papayiannis and Mexmet, say they believe Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities can live together again in peace. Papayiannis dreams of reclaiming his family home, which is currently inhabited by settlers from Turkey. And Mexmet hopes reunification will boost the north’s ailing economy and give him the benefits of European Union citizenship.