When the fortified "green line" in Nicosia's Ledra district was opened last month for the first time in more than 44 years, curious residents of both the Greek and the Turkish halves of Cyprus rushed across to get a rare taste of the other side. Gary Robb was not among them. "I could have made a dash for it," jokes the burly native of northeast England, who has lived in Turkish Cyprus since 1997. Had he done so, he'd probably now be in an English prison awaiting trial on the drugs charges he ducked 10 years ago, when he fled to this sunny but troubled bolt-hole in the eastern Mediterranean.
Robb, 45, is one of more than a dozen fugitives from Britain and elsewhere who aren't thrilled at the prospect of a thaw between the island's two governments. Their colorful presence has given northern Cyprus a somewhat louche reputation. Over the years, the likes of convicted drug baron Brian "the Milkman" Wright (he always delivers) and Pete "Maggot" Roberts (convicted of selling tainted meat) have holed up there. Last month the chief suspect in Britain's biggest heist, the 2006 theft of $100 million from a security depot, was rumored to be on the island, or to have sent his loot there. (Authorities deny he's there.) With nearly 30 casinos, the tiny territory has also attracted a flourishing nightlife. "It's a beautiful place, a paradise," sighs Robb, who now builds holiday homes.
For decades, the two parts of Cyprus have been separated by a heavily guarded buffer zone manned by U.N. peacekeepers. The southern, primarily Greek part of the island joined the European Union in 2004; the northern, mainly Turkish part has been an international pariah since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded the country after Greece's then ruling military junta vowed to annex the island. Only Turkey recognizes the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus; Greek Cypriots refer to it as "occupied territory." The North has just one extradition treaty (with Turkey), and scant police and prosecutorial cooperation with the outside world. "It's a legal black hole," says one Greek Cypriot official.
But new talks aimed at finding a political settlement to end the island's division could change all that. In February the Greek Cypriots elected President Dimitris Christofias, an old left-wing acquaintance of the Turkish Cypriot President, Mehmet Ali Talat; the two are more open to an agreement than their predecessors were. And while cooperation improved somewhat after a first crossing opened in 2003, there are now real hopes that some form of loose federation is in sight. Formal negotiations could begin in June.
Not everyone is delighted. Northern Cyprus' unregulated legal environment has allowed casino operators to flourish there, attracting clients from Turkey and parts of the Middle East; on busy weekend nights, Israelis and Iranians fly in to lay bets side by side. The island's nightclubs have also been free to bring in women from Eastern Europe to perform as exotic dancers for foreign tourists and Cypriots from both sides of the line.
As the North's isolation eases, Turkish Cypriot leaders concede that their territory has fallen into ill repute. "Mistakes were made," Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Ferdi Soyer told TIME by e-mail. "We are determined to clean up our country and remove all these people who have done bad things." A settlement, if it materializes, would probably lead to tougher regulations and extradition treaties. Dervis Deniz, a former Economy Minister of the North, says it's high time: "The longer we stay isolated, the longer we attract the cowboys and gangsters."
But nothing on Cyprus moves quickly. Negotiations between the two communities have been going on sporadically for more than 30 years. Gary Robb says the latest overtures don't worry him yet. Even allowing for an agreement, extradition proceedings could take years, his lawyers tell him. Robb dons a pair of rimless Ray Bans and stares out to sea. "As long as you're on Turkish Cyprus, there are no real problems," he says. And the weather is better than it would be in other possible hideouts. Minsk, anyone?