- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

The European Union's arm-twisting of Turkey over Cyprus is giving ammunition to Turkish nationalist and Islamist politicians and could shake Turkey's already parlous political stability and its pro-Western policy course.

Washington should be far more concerned than it appears to be. Turkish political progressives are in a mess, and Islamist parties are already tapped to become the strongest single bloc after parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 3. Apprehensions over Cyprus not only loom large in the campaign, but are also aggravating regional tensions. This is all bad news for the United States at a time when continued Turkish cooperation is invaluable on several fronts, not least the war against terrorism.

The EU's high-pressure strategy on Cyprus has put Turkey's own membership prospects on the line as inducement for Ankara to extract deal-making concessions from its dependent Turkish Cypriot cousins. Brussels evidently reasons Turkey will not let ethnic bonds to 150,000 Turkish Cypriots stand in the way of its joining the EU. This is a questionable proposition, especially since the trade-off has been weakened by growing doubts over European readiness at the end of the day to accept Turkey.

Moreover, the Europeans have imposed other membership preconditions on Turkey. In response, pro-Western Turkish parliamentarians engineered a pre-election reform package to end the death penalty and improve treatment of minorities. This has fueled high expectations that Brussels will open formal accession negotiations. The EU has been unwilling to do so if it continues to hold back because of Cyprus among other concerns, backlash will compound Turkey's political woes and could sabotage the reforms.

The EU will issue a formal invitation to the Greek-controlled government of Cyprus in December 2002, and the island's membership will be ratified by 2004. As things now stand, Turkish Cyprus and its garrison of some 30,0000 mainland Turkish troops will be left out in actuality, but covered in a strictly legal sense this is no mere technicality, since it would sharpen the conflict and put Turkish soldiers on EU soil. The crisis could be avoided by a negotiated settlement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but they have been deadlocked for 25 years.

The EU-Turkey-Cyprus tangle has slipped from U.S. attention. Perhaps Cyprus is too complex or too boring after 40 years of Balkan-style haggling and recriminations. American apathy is unfortunate because there has been growing attention to Belgium's success as a model for Cyprus in bridging ethnic and linguistic differences. Confronted by similar deep splits between its Flemish and Walloon citizens, Belgium has evolved an extraordinary devolution of power from federal to regional levels while maintaining a unitary state.

Regrettably, the Belgian example has failed to invigorate the Cyprus talks. Turkish Cypriots still demand full sovereignty. Greek Cypriots, who can sit tight and get their EU membership regardless, want a stronger federal structure. More's the pity since Belgium as a functioning democracy within the EU is surely a more viable model than retooling the 1960 Cyprus arrangements, which failed a scant three years later and triggered communal violence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, stonewalled on his first visit to the island in May, will try again with the two Cypriot leaders in Paris Sept. 6. Mr. Annan is a consummate diplomat, but he needs the muscle of member-states to jar the Cyprus talks from their dreary rut.

Washington should act now on its vital interest in maintaining a stable, pro-Western Turkey. The first step should be an all-out diplomatic offensive for a breakthrough at Mr. Annan's Paris meeting. At a minimum the sides ought to agree on what the government of a reunified Cyprus will look like. The Belgian model should not be rejected without good reason or acceptable alternative.

To follow up once a new government emerges after the November Turkish elections, Washington should consider convoking all parties Cypriots, Greece, Turkey, the EU and the U.N. It may not be possible to solve all aspects of the Cyprus problem, but it will be essential to provide for the smooth transition of Turkish Cyprus into the EU, whether with or after the Greek Cypriots, and to work out an agreed role for Turkey.

Washington has a full plate and doubtless little desire to take on hoary Cyprus dilemmas. But no one else has the stature to do so, and if not soon defused, the question of Turkish Cyprus could haunt the United States by undermining Turkey's political stability and affecting Ankara's ability to work with the West.

M. James Wilkinson is a former U.S. special Cyprus coordinator and deputy representative to the U.N. Security Council. This comment is drawn from an essay for a forthcoming Century Foundation book on Turkey.

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