- The Washington Times - Friday, April 26, 2002

The U.N.-monitored, cloaked-from-the-media, discussions regarding the divided island nation of Cyprus may yet provide an example of how estranged ethnic communities can become reconciled.

At present, tiny Cyprus, with 3,500 square miles, or less than half the size of Israel, is making slow and uncertain but occasionally perceptible progress in a healing dialogue between the leaders of its once violently torn Orthodox Greek and Muslim Turkish groups, totaling less than 800,000 people.

The internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus controls less than two-thirds of the island, and a large majority of its population, chiefly those of Greek origin and culture.

The less populous Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is officially recognized only by Turkey. Turkish troops have occupied this area as a protectorate for their Turkish Cypriot compatriots since 1974, following a decade of intermittent ethnic clashes between factions of the indigenous Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

Four decades ago, many Greek Cypriots sought "enosis," or union with Greece. Today, the Republic of Cyprus seeks reunification of the island as a "bicommunal, bizonal, federated state," with a single international identity. The TRNC's Turkish Cypriot population has been diminished by emigration but augmented by citizens of Turkey (estimates range between 40,000 and 115,000) settled there over the objections of the Republic of Cyprus. The TRNC remains skittish about reunification, and has sought recognized sovereignty for itself and a looser confederation.

Held out to Turkish Cypriots and to Turkey are the benefits of Turkish-speaking communities becoming part of the European Union, after the Republic of Cyprus is finally admitted perhaps by the end of this year. Trade, tourism and EU aid would flow to both Cypriot communities. The relationship between the two ethnic communities would be managed in the larger context of EU human-rights assurances and other rules.

But Turkish Cypriots express worries about a reprise of the strife-ridden past and possible economic domination by the Greek Cypriots. Property-rights issues are another hurdle.

Greek Cypriots argue that Turkey's prospects for eventual EU membership would be facilitated by Turkish becoming an official EU language (as one of the languages of Cyprus), and by ending the island's division. Resolving the Cyprus question would, moreover, augur well for continued, closer rapprochement between NATO members Greece and Turkey and could provide a democratic example for a civil settlement of the longstanding tensions between the Orthodox Christian and Islamic populations throughout the nearby Balkan region.

Thus far, the Republic of Cyprus has held the cards of recognition and support by international organizations and has assumed a modern stance supportive of full rights for all citizens of Cyprus Greek and Turkish Cypriot alike.

The TRNC has held the cards of old injuries and grievances and of support by Turkey. But these may be diminishing assets as all parties look expectantly toward accession to the pan-ethnic EU and a wider future.

American sources familiar with the Cyprus question say key obstacles to its resolution include Turkey's security concerns plausible or not regarding any future role on the island by parties unfriendly to Turkish interests.

One U.S. source agreed that the issues involving post-1974 Turkish settlers from Anatolia could prove more difficult than Cypriot officials like to think. The Republic of Cyprus views the settlers as part of an illegal and internationally opposed occupation of the north by Turkey.

But Greek Cypriot officials display no disposition for wrenching expulsions. In recent discussions with journalists, former Cyprus President George Vassiliou emphasized financial incentives to facilitate repatriation of the settlers to Turkey. A right of settlement is evidently acceptable for those who have intermarried with the indigenous population.

There have been vague suggestions, difficult to pin down, that place of birth might provide a basis for certain rights. However, Demetris Christofias, president of the Cyprus House of Representatives, emphasized during a mid-April Washington visit that parentage would be the decisive element in citizenship. Mr. Vassiliou earlier mentioned limited residency rights or work permits might be possible for settlers who prove to be economic assets.

American observers note that financial commitments to Cyprus upon its accession to the EU involving hundreds of millions of euros will result in major development of the island's infrastructure with huge economic implications for a nation of its small size and population. Some of the present settlers, one U.S. source hinted, might turn out to be needed and preferable to other outside sources of labor from the Middle East.

Weighing on U.S. foreign-policy thinking is the crucial role of Turkey as a moderate Muslim nation, providing a counterpoint to Islamic religious extremism, and a staging area for the Western allies in any widened Middle East war. Cyprus itself would remain uninvolved, but large British air bases held there as British sovereign territory would be in play.

Nearly two generations after bloody intercommunal clashes, it would be better for both sides in Cyprus to recognize the inherent dangers of retaining or renewing what Mr. Christofias described as the "past mistakes of chauvinists on both sides."

The most modern and democratized society in the Islamic world and the culture that first articulated a democratic vision face a decisive moment, and an enormous shared opportunity. Can they afford not to grasp it?

Benjamin Tyree is deputy editor of the Commentary pages of The Washington Times.

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