- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Politicians and diplomats were stunned last month when thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots surged across checkpoints to look at their foes of yesteryear under an unexpected open-door policy.

The sudden contact between the hitherto hostile communities of this divided Mediterranean island was hailed as a victory of the people over the futile diplomatic proposals and stale slogans of the past 29 years.

Suddenly new slogans appeared: “The people have told the politicians to shut up.”

“We are now ready to think the unthinkable — even abolish politicians.”

“Europe’s last dividing line is crumbling.”

The open-door policy instituted by the Turkish side of the conflict was interpreted as a new beginning for the island after 40 years of conflict. It caught the Greek side unprepared for such a bold initiative by “the enemy,” which earlier torpedoed an elaborate United Nations proposal for a United Republic of Cyprus.

The U.N. plan satisfied neither side, but Rauf Denktash — president of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized by Ankara but no other government — took upon himself the responsibility of rejecting it. Then, incongruously, he followed this up by opening the gates to communal contact, claiming he wanted to see whether Greeks and Turks could live together side by side.

The stunned Greek side followed suit, and virtually overnight the checkpoints of the dividing Green Line were jammed by Turkish Cypriots heading south and Greek Cypriots going north for long-forbidden visits.

What followed was an unprecedented state of euphoria, of visits to houses abandoned more than a generation ago, of unexpected encounters among old friends and hopes for a better future.

It seemed that the protracted “Cyprus problem” that had defied international diplomacy and various special envoys simply vanished. But the architect of this sudden development remained cautious.

“This friendship, this honeymoon season is very good,” Mr. Denktash said. “But one should not be mistaken into thinking that it is here to stay forever, because the political reasons for conflict still exist.”

The basic obstacles include the presence of some 35,000 Turkish troops in the north of the island, the question of thousands wanting to return to their abandoned homes, the future of some 100,000 Turkish immigrants in the north, and disputes over lost property.

Above all, the Cyprus problem is not entirely in the hands of the Cypriots. It has been a major stumbling block in relations between Greece and Turkey, historic foes that consider themselves defenders and protectors of the two Cypriot communities. Without their agreement and approval, no permanent solution in Cyprus would be either practical or feasible.

A serious warning shot was fired May 9 by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister of Turkey. Visiting the northern area, which the Greek side regards as “occupied territory,” Mr. Erdogan warned that there were “two states, two languages and two religious” on Cyprus, and that any solution could only be “based on that reality.”

Tassos Papadopoulos, president of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, which controls 63 percent of the island, immediately branded Mr. Erdogan’s visit an illegal act. He described him as “the political leader of a country which invaded and still occupies illegally and with the use of force a great part of the Republic of Cyprus.”

While acknowledging that “Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have … proved in recent days that the common vision of a reunited country unites them,” Mr. Papadopoulos gave no indication that the politicians would allow the people to hijack the issue.

For the time being, the people on both sides have ignored political warnings. The Greek Cypriots poured into the north on brief visits regardless of the massive presence of the Turkish army. They ignored government warnings not to show their passports to the “pseudopolice” of the “pseudostate.”

The Turkish Cypriots, meanwhile, wandered happily through the streets of Greek Cypriot towns, lined with elegant boutiques and other signs of prosperity.

In a gesture after the opening of the checkpoints, the Greek side promised a series of social measures for “our Turkish-Cypriot citizens,” hoping to stimulate their participation in joining the European Union next year, a tantalizing idea for an area economically adrift.

The Republic of Cyprus — or more specifically its Greek-speaking part — is to become a full EU member next year. Turkish Cypriot authorities refused to participate in the EU accession negotiations, insisting on recognition of their part of the island as a sovereign entity.

Diplomats and area specialists wonder how long the open-door policy can be maintained. Observed one analyst: “Visiting together does not necessarily mean living together.”

The history of Cyprus — the “island of Aphrodite” for some and “the unsinkable aircraft carrier of the Mediterranean” to others — has a long history of conflict, mostly brought by foreign invaders.

They included the Ptolemies of Egypt, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Lusignans (1192-1489) — a French dynasty that fled the Holy Land after the fall of Acre, turning Cyprus into the easternmost bastion of Christendom and, as a leading trade center for silk, spices and exotic goods, made the port of Famagusta one of the wealthiest cities on earth — followed by the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks and finally the British.

In 1960 the island became independent from Britain, which, however, kept 99 square miles for sovereign military bases. But the constitution imposed by the former colonial power soon proved unworkable: Greek Cabinet members invariably dominated the three Turkish Cypriot ministers. Each community looked after its own interests.

Their precarious coexistence exploded in 1963, when Archbishop Makarios, president of Cyprus, decided to amend the constitution. Amid the chatter of machine guns in the first communal clashes, Turkish Cypriot Vice President Fazil Kuchuk declared “the republic is dead.”

Turkish ghettos were created in parts of Cyprus, and in 1964 the United Nations dispatched a peacekeeping force to police an island on fire. While many Greek Cypriots clamored for “enosis” — union with Greece — Turkish Cypriots sought “taksim” — partition.

In an increasingly charged atmosphere, on July 15, 1974, a Greek Cypriot organization know as “EOKA B” toppled for a short period Archbishop Makarios with the help of Greek mainland troops to link Cyprus with Greece.

Turkey landed its troops in Northern Cyprus, seized 37 percent of the island, ignored international protests and Greek tears and eventually created the TRNC. The military junta in Athens collapsed, and Archbishop Makarios eventually returned from exile, to die in 1977.

Meanwhile Cyprus was faced with “taksim” — to some extent provoked by Greek Cypriots who systematically underestimated Turkish intentions. A succession of Turkish governments has not changed the demand for two separate — albeit cooperating — Cypriot entities.

Last year U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed a referendum on a joint Turkish Republic of Cyprus and said its rejection by separate vote in each sector would be “the end of the line — possibly forever.”

The idea was to create a confederation with three flags, two languages, a plethora of institutions, a transfer of 42,000 Turkish Cypriots from their newly acquired Greek homes and the arrival of 90,000 Greek Cypriots into the Turkish-controlled zone.

The project — which collapsed this March — was ridiculed across the island as a blueprint for disaster. The Greek side accepted its principle, knowing it would be rejected by the Turks, which is what happened.

Most Greek Cypriot politicians described Mr. Denktash’s subsequent open-door policy as a trick — but were unable to either stop it or ignore it.

Greek Cypriot President Glafkos Clerides now says that the opening of the island’s barricades was not aimed at a solution “but to prove that there are two authorities that can function as legal authorities under a good-neighbor policy.”

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