Weapons Buildup On Cyprus Puts EU, US on Edge
Plan to buy antiaircraft missiles riles Turks
On both sides of the 112-mile "Green Line" that slices this Mediterranean island, 1997 may be a watershed year.Skip to next paragraph
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An accelerating arms buildup by the opposing Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities has pushed the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to attempt a new peace initiative.
The stakes are now higher, even though the tense standoff between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus has lingered for 22 years. If these two NATO allies were drawn into war over protecting their ethnic kin on Cyprus, it would cause chaos within an alliance already worried about its post-cold-war identity. NATO nations are obliged to aid both countries in time of war.
The international community has been able to keep an uneasy peace since 1974, when Turkey sent troops into northern Cyprus at the height of a coup thought to be engineered by the Greece's then-military government. Turkey took over 39 percent of the island. Since then, UN troops have patrolled the buffer zone - or Green Line - between the two ethnic communities.
But a new diplomatic initiative became crucial Jan. 4 with Russia's decision to sell the government of Cyprus, which is run by the majority Greek Cypriots, a battery of S300 ground-to-air missiles. The high-tech weapons are similar to US Patriot missiles.
The purchase was immediately condemned by Rauf Denktash, head of a Turkish-Cypriot regime that controls the northern third of Cyprus. His regime is not recognized by the international community. And Turkey made veiled threats of a preemptive strike against the missiles. "If necessary, the Turkish armed forces will do their duty," Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan said.
Greek Cypriot officials say the missiles are needed for protection against the Turkish military's superiority in controlling the island's airspace.
The missile purchase comes on top of a recent buildup of weapons by both sides. Cyprus is already, per capita, one of the world's most heavily militarized countries.
The Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus has 12,500 troops and more than 50 battle tanks (some purchased from Russia) to protect a #population of 657,000. And Greece has pledged to defend Greek Cypriots if Turkish Cypriots, backed by Turkey, mount an offensive.
On the other side of the Green Line, forces in northern Cyprus are out of proportion to defending the population of 175,000. Turkey's 30,000 troops are equipped with 265 tanks. Defense spending is more than 70 percent of gross domestic product, says the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Western diplomats point to events of last summer as evidence of the need to find a lasting political solution.
In August a group of motorcyclists arrived in southern Cyprus, set on ramming their way through the UN-patrolled buffer zone of sandbag walls and razor wire. Ultimately, most of the bikers backed down, but a few crossed the Green Line. Two were killed by Turkish defenders.
Another recent flare-up was when Turkey flexed its muscles by ordering Turkish jets to overfly Nicosia, the capital, in November. Greek Cypriots say the fly-over justifies buying the air defense system.
"The flyover is precisely the kind of thing we don't need if a solution is to be found," says Gustave Feissel, head of the UN mission to Cyprus.
Possibility for peace: joining EU
A new factor in the Cyprus equation could give rise to a settlement: the prospect of the country joining the European Union. The republic has already applied, and the EU says negotiations between Brussels and Nicosia can begin in less than two years.
Alecos Michaelides, the Greek Cypriot foreign minister, says the EU factor "could be a catalyst for resolution of this long and damaging confrontation." Greek Cypriot political analysts are hopeful, but cautious.