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European Union begins discussions on expansion

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Five former communist nations opened membership talks with the EU Tuesday, as did Cyprus, which asked the union not to let Turkey hinder the entry of the divided island.

Cyprus causes concern for many European Union members who fear they will become entangled in the bitter dispute between Greece and Turkey over the Mediterranean island.Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third of Cyprus in 1974 after an abortive coup by supporters of union with Greece. In 1975, Turkish Cypriots established a federal republic considered still part of Cyprus.

The EU started membership talks Tuesday with the Greek Cypriot government, ignoring protests from Turkish Cypriots who won't join the talks unless they get equal treatment.

Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides told EU members his government invited Turkish Cypriots to join his negotiating team but they did not come along. "We regret that they are not here with us today," he added.

Kasoulides said the division of Cyprus had occurred "not through a fault of its own people," and added, "Our future lies in Europe. Our people, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, understand this very well."

Of all six candidate nations that opened membership negotiations here, Cyprus is economically the most advanced and membership talks could last five years.

Negotiations with the other five - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia - will also likely last at least five years and focus primarily on how to speed up market reforms and make their economies and laws compatible with the EU's.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Boris Frlec, whose country is one of the most promising candidates, said EU accession would fulfill the "elemental wish" of Slovenians.

"Historically embedded in Central Europe, we are returning to the world whose values we'd like to share, which are also Slovenian values," Frlec said.

A second batch of candidates - Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria - was present Monday for an enlargement launch ceremony but they are on a much slower track and the union will engage them in "preparatory" membership talks shortly.

The EU has already begun involving its eastern neighbors in its affairs.