- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2002

NICOSIA, Cyprus The scenario could hardly be more difficult: Two elderly men meeting twice a week to solve by June a problem that has poisoned and defied international diplomacy for nearly 40 years.
They are Glafcos Clerides, the 82-year-old president of the Republic of Cyprus, and Rauf Denktash, 78, president of the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The two sectors on the eastern Mediterranean island are separated by a demarcation line policed by the United Nations. Today, many Greek Cypriots refer to Nicosia as "Europe's only divided capital."
The task before the two leaders is to determine whether it still is possible to link the two feuding parts of the island in a viable state. June is their deadline. Before the current round of talks began in January, the two men had been unable to agree on anything.
Weighing on the talks are the health problems of the protagonists, particularly of Mr. Denktash, who expects to have heart surgery in June.
The hopes of the international community are set on a flimsy basis that the two men have been "friends" since they both practiced law under British colonial rule, Mr. Denktash as a prosecutor for the crown, Mr. Clerides defending accused nationalists of the Greek EOKA independence movement.
Although their "friendship" has yet to overcome the deeply embedded differences between the island's ethnic communities, many diplomats feel the two protagonists are more likely to find a compromise than their successors.
The consequences of continued deadlock could affect Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and the European Union, which expects to admit Cyprus by 2004. Unless the two parts of the island agree to join, the internationally recognized Greek-speaking part will make the move alone.
If that happens, Turkey has said it would formally annex the northern region of about 200,000 people protected by Turkish troops.
The backdrop of the current phase of the talks is perhaps ominous for Cyprus. Britain, which owns 99 square miles of Cypriot territory containing three strategically important military bases, is beefing them up in expectation of some form of international punitive action against Iraq.
Consequently, Cyprus could be exposed to retaliatory action by Iraq, which would be devastating for tourism, the island's main source of income.
As the semiweekly meetings move into what United Nations sources describe as "the specific phase," Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem issued a warning that diplomats consider exceptionally significant.
Unless the two sides agree to form a partnership as two equal constituent states, Mr. Cem said, "they should not take up more of each others' time if they are not able to create a common vision for a common future."
In clarifying the position of Turkey, the only country to recognize and back Northern Cyprus, he pointed out that since the 1980s there had been "global ideological trends toward fragmentation of societies."
"Societies have been encouraged to split along ethnic lines. … To deviate from this overall trend in Cyprus is hard. There are two different nations, cultures, religions, languages and states, and a heritage of mistrust and bloody feuds."
Mr. Denktash's view has not changed in years. In countless statements, he has repeated that: "There is not and there has never been a Cypriot nation just Turks and Greeks living in Cyprus."
In a recent interview, he insisted that "the national view of the Turkish Cypriots is not to be subjugated by the Greek Cypriots, not to make a new agreement that would be destroyed in three years' time."
The "three years' time" is a reference to the period between the island's independence in 1960 and the ethnic clashes that exploded in December 1963.
An increasing number of diplomats wonder whether there is any point in continuing the discussions. According to Turkish Cypriot sources, the talks have centered on items that divide rather than unite the protagonists.
The two men have clashed over such issues as the presence of nearly 100,000 Turkish settlers in the North, the nature of compensation to about 150,000 Greek Cypriots who left their homes, and the freedom of movement between the two parts of what, ideally, should be a federated state.
They also have disagreed on the responsibility for some 2,300 people missing or killed since the Turkish invasion of 1974. The Turks landed in Northern Cyprus in response to a military coup aimed at linking Cyprus with Greece a concept known as "enosis."
George Vassiliou, former president of Cyprus who is now in charge of its accession to the European Union, prefers to diminish the importance of the divisive issues. He dismisses Turkey's threat to annex the North as incompatible with its role as a "guarantor power" of the island's independence.
"In practice, the North is already part of Turkey, with Turkish currency, army telecommunications and budget," he said. And he said he does not believe Turkish warnings that EU membership by Greek Cypriots could cause a major international crisis.
The Greek Cypriot side generally prefers a more positive view, albeit couched in cautious terms. Officials insist that the Turkish minority (18 percent before the 1974 invasion) was never mistreated despite the fact that many lived in ghetto-like conditions.
The hostility between the island's ethnic groups is rarely mentioned on the Greek side of the barricades, and officials prefer not to dwell on the causes of the Turkish intervention. In one of his better-known quips, Mr. Denktash has accused the Greek Cypriots of suffering from "a collective amnesia."
Last week, Greek Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides said the talks "did not justify any optimism for a solution." He added: "Allow me to be somewhat reserved in my outlook with regard to a settlement."
The United Nations has imposed a news blackout on the talks in order to reduce damaging speculation in the media. Nonetheless, the essence of the discussions is well-known.
In one form or another, and with different titles accompanying their names, Messrs. Denktash and Clerides have been talking since 1963 when the fragile Cypriot constitution drafted by Britain, the former colonial power, became irrelevant amid intercommunal strife.
Many diplomats say they feel that the project under discussion today may lead to another explosion because neither the Greek Orthodox majority on this eastern Mediterranean island nor its Turkish Muslim minority have anything in common besides their birthplace.
The Greek side prefers a "federal solution" in which the majority would have a decisive voice. The Turkish side wants a confederation, a much looser concept.
The Turkish side opposes the idea of free movement between the two zones, fearing attacks by Greek Cypriots whose homes were given decades ago to Turkish Cypriots or immigrants from Turkey. According to one Western diplomat, free travel between the two sectors "is a blueprint for disaster."
The main differences between the Cypriot protagonists is that the Greek Cypriots want to "liberate" what they consider to be "their" island, while the Turkish Cypriots are happy with the separation if only they could enjoy the same prosperity as the Greek side.
The final say in the matter lies in the hands of the all-powerful Turkish military, considered by many as the ultimate decision maker on the future of Cyprus.
About 35,000 Turkish troops have been stationed on the northern part of the island since the 1974 invasion. Cyprus may not be strategically vital to Turkey, but it is the latter's bridgehead in the Hellenic world. To the Turkish military leadership, a complete withdrawal from Cyprus would involve a great loss of face and honor.
The Greek side frequently has misjudged Turkey particularly its national pride and stubbornness in confrontations with the Hellenic world. Mr. Vassiliou, the man who is steering Cyprus toward the European Union, recently deplored what he called "the Turkish Maginot Line mentality."
He and other Greek Cypriots are convinced that Turkey would do nothing to jeopardize its own application for EU membership. And that includes any reasonable solution in Cyprus.
The Greek Cypriots see the EU as a potential guarantor of their security in the face of the massive Turkish military presence on the island. There has been no indication that the European club has any intention of becoming involved in the Cyprus imbroglio.


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