NICOSIA, CYPRUS — GONE are the tourists who once gazed at the sea from their balconies. Now, Turkish soldiers make quick passes through Varosha's beachfront hotels before disappearing behind overgrown grass and signs that say ``Military Zone. Photographs Forbidden.'' Otherwise, this Greek Cypriot-owned resort town stands vacant, a bargaining chip in negotiations over the future of this eastern Mediterranean island.
Fifteen years ago today, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, five days after a short-lived coup by Greek Cypriot extremists seeking to unite the island with Greece.
The island has been divided ever since. The 2,300-square-mile southern part is inhabited by 540,000 ethnic Greeks - including 200,000 who fled the north in the year following the invasion - and a few hundred ethnic Turks. In the northern 1,300 square miles live 140,000 ethnic Turks, bolstered by 30,000 immigrants from Turkey live, along with some 20,000 Turkish soldiers and 600 Greek Cypriots. (See story below.) A UN peacekeeping force guards the 113-mile border in between.
The north proclaimed itself the ``independent Turkish Republic of North Cyprus'' in November 1983, but only Turkey recognizes it. Greek Cypriots insist that the island must be reunited.
Talks on resolving the issue took place at the United Nations at the end of June. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Cyprus President George Vassiliou agreed to prepare jointly an outline for a settlement by September.
But Turkish Cypriot officials are quick to add that nothing binding came out of the New York meeting ``as far as we are concerned.'' Talks in April produced a similar decision that led nowhere.
``The two leaders are working on common points for an agreement, but the question is - are there any common points? We feel the two positions are very far apart now,'' says Osman Ertug, an undersecretary in the north Cyprus entity's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense.
Another Turkish Cypriot analysts adds: ``Who knows what will happen in the next two months? Denktash and Vassiliou almost didn't even meet this time after Denktash offered to resettle Bulgarian Turkish refugees in Varosha. One has to wonder how serious both sides are about compromising.''
Greek Cypriots call for reunification, with little if any barriers placed on people's right to settle and buy property. They also want the settlers to return to Turkey.
But Turkish Cypriots recall years of discrimination and threats at the hands of Greeks wanting enosis - unity with Greece - after Britain relinquished control over the island in 1960. Turkish inhabitants want a bi-zonal federation, leaving them with control over the north.
``We want a united island, but not in the sense of unitary rule, which means majority domination and no security guarantees for us. Otherwise, everything we have fought for since 1974 goes down the drain,'' Mr. Ertug says.
Mr. Denktash, who says his Varosha proposal was made for ``purely humanitarian concerns for the plight of homeless Bulgarian Turkish refugees,'' insists he did not mean to provoke the Greek Cypriots.
``I can't decide each issue on the basis of what the Greek Cypriots would like, because I know they would not even like me to exist,'' Denktash said in an interview. In any case, his proposal was turned down by Turkish officials in Ankara.
Yet, if negotiations were to break down, few of the 170,000 people in the northern part of the island would be upset.
``I hope the talks stop,'' says Arman Ratip, editor of a magazine on local politics. ``There is no future for us on this island with the Greek Cypriots. Even with a bi-zonal, equal partnership federal system, we will end up on the wrong side of the stick.''
Turkish Cypriots have adjusted to their international isolation. Travelers can use Turkish passports, while overseas calls and mail are routed through Turkey, as are internationally bound airline flights. Construction is booming in the north, where unemployment is only 2 percent.
``Official diplomatic recognition doesn't really matter to us because we are recognized by one big country - Turkey. Everybody is happy with this as a solution,'' says "Unal Ersoy, a government spokesman.
But officials here are not immune to international pressure, nor is Turkey's prime minister, Turgut "Ozal, whose bid for entrance into the European Community has brought calls for him to help resolve the Cyprus question.
``There is that sentiment here that likes the status quo, but we have to think of the long term. There is a very strong international consensus favoring one Cyprus to which we are not insensitive,'' Ertug says.
``We feel there could be a way to reconcile our differences, but that is very far away,'' he says.