- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

Post-September 11, 2001, and in the aftermath of the campaign in Iraq, the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly a focus of attention for policymakers, news organizations, academics and government leaders around the world. In this geographic neighborhood of perennial tensions, a U.S. ally, Turkey, continues to delay the economic and political development of Cyprus, regrettably refusing to end its military occupation of the island’s northern third.

For almost three decades, Cyprus has been a country characterized by economic growth, political maturation and determination to overcome the legacy of division wrought by Turkish intervention. Even though Cyprus will join the European Union (EU) in May 2004 and will someday be in a position to weigh in on discussions regarding future Turkish membership, Ankara continues to display an unfortunate and unnecessary intransigence that is not in its own long-term strategic interests. Maintaining roughly 35,000 troops and tens of thousands of Turkish settlers in the northern sector of Cyprus since 1974, Turkey has repeatedly defied U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of its troops from the island.

No one underestimates the value of Turkey’s geographic location and — prior to U.S. involvement in Iraq, at least — its value as a regional NATO member. Despite this key role, Turkey’s refusal to cooperate in the face of repeated worldwide calls to end its occupation of northern Cyprus cannot continue to go ignored.

As a member of the House International Relations Committee, I am troubled by this ongoing and unnecessary partitioning and weakening of what is proving to be a booming state — Cyprus. It is time we recognize this situation for what it is and insist Turkey cooperate actively in its prompt solution.

Measures that serve to build confidence should certainly continue, but not as an exercise to delay the inevitable: the reunification of the island state of Cyprus as a complex, modern, multi-ethnic Mediterranean state.

Due to this inexplicable separation, Cyprus holds the dubious distinction of being the only European state with its capital divided, as barbed wire quite literally carves the country in two. Two historically well-integrated ethnic communities of predominantly Christian Greek and Muslim Turkish heritage are required to live in a very artificial segregation. Turkey treats the northern third of the island it occupies as an impoverished, second-tier province, rather than allowing it to join in an increasingly successful Cyprus.

Despite a history of unsuccessful efforts by American and U.N. diplomacy to effect a resolution of issues that were created by the Turkish invasion, the government of Cyprus has persisted in its efforts to peacefully reunite the two communities and bring European prosperity to both. Meanwhile, the leaders of Cyprus have succeeded in creating a modern economy and have achieved a level of growth that qualified Cyprus to receive an invitation for EU membership, a Continental “seal of approval.”

Thereafter, EU leadership made it clear to Turkey that its own aspirations to join the EU depended upon its cooperation in tolerating the accession of Cyprus to the EU, and hinted that successful resolution of the Cyprus problem would go a long way toward reducing opposition to Turkey’s EU accession.

Turkey, although recently permitting limited buffer zone crossings within Cyprus, has dragged its heels on a strategy to resolve the overall situation, which will in effect deny the northern third the benefits of EU membership.

On April 30, the Cypriot government introduced a series of new economic, political, and social measures designed to ease the hardships of Turkish Cypriot compatriots disadvantaged by the status quo — such as providing improved medical care, expanded employment opportunities, facilitated trade and movement of goods, and participation in free and open national elections.

One must view these welcome developments, however, with utmost caution. Neither the recent partial relaxation of movement restrictions through the U.N. cease-fire line nor the government’s pro-active recognition of its Turkish Cypriot citizens’ most pressing needs should be mistaken as a substitute for formal diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated, comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus situation based on the UN’s internationally endorsed framework.

Today, Turkey faces economic and social challenges, although none of them pertain to its Mediterranean neighbor Cyprus, aside from the estimated $500 million a year that its occupation of Cyprus drains from the Turkish economy. Turkey’s difficulties in reforming its military and legal system, respecting the rights of its ethnic minorities, and heeding the EU’s advice on steps it needs to take if it wishes to join the EU should offer the necessary incentives for it to take progressive steps on the issue of Cyprus.

The time has come for the United States to advise Turkey’s leadership — in very clear terms — that its occupation of Cyprus must quickly come to an end. Turkey, today with lessened leverage over the United States, should not be allowed to continue blocking resolution of the situation in Cyprus. The only chance Turkey has to modernize by joining the EU is to release Cyprus from the grip of its aggression and show the world that Turkey itself has turned the corner and is an increasingly enlightened global citizen.

Then, and only then, Cyprus can be reunited, bringing security and prosperity to all its citizens and a glimmer of peace to the eastern Mediterranean.

Rep. Donald M. Payne, New Jersey Democrat, is a senior member of the House International Relations Committee.

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