NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Cyprus is the little island that the big powers dare not ignore. This 3,500-square-mile outcropping in the azure waters of the Mediterranean is already one of the most militarized pieces of land in the world.
And recent combative moves by the parties to this long-running conflict have further raised the stakes - and even threaten plans to add East European members to NATO and the European Union.
Today, for instance, Turkish warships plan to cruise off northern Cyprus in a show of solidarity with Turkish-Cypriots, who have controlled about 40 percent of the island since 1974.
On Tuesday, the Greek Cypriots, who control the southern part of the island, rejected a US proposal to reduce tension by banning flights over Cyprus by Greek and Turkish war planes.
The Cyprus government, which is recognized by all nations but Turkey, argued that acceptance of the plan would imply a previous acknowledgment of the right of the Turkish Air Force to fly over northern Cyprus, the tiny state that only Turkey recognizes.
"We are disappointed that this opportunity to move forward has not been taken," said the US ambassador in Nicosia, Kenneth Brill, after the Greek Cypriots rejected the US flight ban proposal.
Mr. Brill added: "We have had people taking far too many opportunities to move things backwards. It really is time to move the Cyprus issue in a positive direction." Despite plans for a major diplomatic initiative to solve the Cyprus conflict, US efforts might now have to be focused on "keeping tensions from rising," he said.
US influence in Turkey key
United States involvement is crucial, European countries say. They say their efforts stand little chance of success unless backed by US diplomatic muscle. The reason is American influence in Turkey. "We simply don't have the kind of leverage the Americans have in Ankara," says a European envoy.
Early next year, Cyprus is due to begin talks with the EU about membership, but the EU has no desire to usher in a country split by a Korean-style demilitarized zone. The danger if the EU delays Cyprus's entry, however, is that Greece could block the EU's expansion, including to Turkey. In turn, Turkey hints it may block NATO expansion into eastern Europe unless the EU delivers on promises of closer ties.
Little wonder then that the international community pledged a big effort at solving Cyprus in 1997. But there was dismay when the Greek Cypriots began the year by signing a $416-million missile deal with Russia. It came just as the US and Britain were set to launch a diplomatic offensive in support of UN plans to reunite the island under a federal system.
Greek Cypriots insist the anti-aircraft missiles are for defensive purposes to protect against further Turkish expansion.
Turkey invaded in 1974 amid a coup in Nicosia by a group that wanted to unite Cyprus with Greece. Turkey insisted it was acting to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots. The coup soon collapsed, but Turkey's 30,000 troops haven't left.
Greek Cypriot officials make no secret that they view the missiles both as a valuable bargaining chip with the Turkish side and as a means of ensuring continued global attention to Cyprus.
Western diplomats in Nicosia appreciate the strategy but prefer to see talks proceed with political concessions, not arms purchases. "That's a costly and very dangerous game," says one envoy.
Turkey sees the missiles, and growing military cooperation between Greece and Greek Cypriots, as a challenge to its southern flank. The missiles would be mainly used to protect a Greek Cypriot airport currently being extended to host F-16s from Greece. Few diplomats doubt Turkey will try to knock them out if they ever arrive.
In a hint of compromise, Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides assured a US envoy the missiles won't be deployed for 16 months, which, he says, gives the international community enough time to deal with Cyprus.
Washington's decision on how to proceed may rest on the outcome of UN-sponsored talks between military commands of both sides. Talks have dragged on for weeks, and the UN warns its patience is running out. But officials say no matter how frustrated the international community becomes, Cyprus isn't a problem it can afford to ignore.