Global stakes in Cyprus peace

January 20, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

Away from the world overwhelmed by conflicts in Central Asia and the Middle East, two old men who have been at odds for the better part of half a century are finally talking to each other trying to make peace.

The two men are Rauf Denktash, the septuagenarian leader of the minority Turkish community on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and Glafkos Clerides, the octogenarian leader of the majority Greek community. Clerides is the elected president of the Republic of Cyprus, a fact that all nations but Turkey accept.

For the last two months, and for the first time in years, Clerides and Denktash have been getting together informally. Last week, they agreed to a schedule of intense talks to get a settlement of the blood-soaked differences dividing the island where their people have coexisted for more than five centuries.

At about one and a half times the size of Delaware, Cyprus is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean. It lies off the coasts of Turkey and Syria. It is hundreds of miles from Greece, but about 78 percent of the population is Greek and less than 18 percent Turkish.

A lot is at stake in these talks. For the almost 800,000 people of Cyprus, a settlement would mean the end of a fight that's been going on for more than 40 years and prosperity not only for the majority Greek community but for the relatively impoverished Turkish community, too. Equally important, a Cyprus settlement would eliminate one of the greatest bones of contention between Greece and Turkey - both members of NATO. It would clear the way for the eastward enlargement of the European Union, which would include Cyprus if a settlement can be reached, and possibly Turkey. A lot of other countries have a stake in these talks - the Europeans, the United States and countries such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, among the ones hoping to join the EU by 2004.

European Union expansion has been the catalyst for Denktash and Clerides to get together, in addition to the widely accepted notion that each of them wants to leave a legacy of peace. Given their advanced ages, time is running out.

The EU dimension of what's going on in Cyprus arises chiefly from the influence of Greece in the EU. No one wants a divided Cyprus as a member of the EU, but Greece has made it clear that if the Republic of Cyprus - presently Greek Cyprus - does not become a member, it would veto the whole eastward expansion. Turkey wants to become a member of the EU, too, but it has threatened to annex the Turkish part of Cyprus if the Greeks prevail.

Greece and Turkey are old, old enemies. Their Aegean rivalry always has unsettled NATO, particularly the United States, where the enormous influence of the Greek-American lobby places Washington on the side of Athens even though Turkey has been the more strategically important of the two. This was so in most of the Cold War while the United States maintained bases in the country neighboring the Soviet Union. It is true today in the U.S. dependence on Turkey for bases near Iraq.

The Turkish problem is that it has never had a very good public relations apparatus to counter the Greeks, who are about as adept at getting what they want from Washington as the Israelis are.

When Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, it called its front line in the eventual seizure of more than a third of the island the Attila line. I remember asking a Turkish general about this at the time and his explaining that Attila was a great general and that many Turks are named after him.

The cause of the Turkish invasion in the summer of 1974 was an attempted coup masterminded by the military junta then in power in Athens and carried out by Greek officers in the Cyprus National Guard and other supporters of union with Greece. They ousted Archbishop Makarios from his presidential palace and installed in his place a man named Nikos Sampson, a rascal from the militant movement for union with Greece. Sampson was quickly replaced with Clerides who tried to reassure the Turks they were safe.

But it was too late. The military has a decisive place in the politics of Turkey, and Bulent Ecevit, then, as now, the Turkish prime minister, could not have resisted the generals' determination to invade Cyprus if he had wanted to.

They invaded just as the sun was rising on the morning of July 20, 1974. I watched the Turks dropping paratroopers from the sky, later strafing seaside tourist hotels and finally landing on the beautiful beaches of Northern Cyprus. It looked like something from a D-Day film, except the Greeks were no match for the Turkish army.

Hundreds were killed and wounded in the war. Tens of thousands were left homeless. Northern Cyprus was effectively cleansed of ethnic Greeks. Turks moved north from their homes in the south. Today, repatriation and compensation are among the issues that Denktash and Clerides will have to agree upon.

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