NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Recent changes in Cyprus are rekindling hope of progress toward finding a solution for this divided island, though serious obstacles remain.
For now, rusting barbed wire of the Green Line still cuts through neighborhoods. And soldiers on the two sides - ethnic Turkish and Greek Cypriots - daily level their guns at each other, following a time-honored routine that has so far outlasted every political attempt to find peace.
But behind this familiar standoff is an increasingly significant United Nations peace effort. Dame Ann Hercus of New Zealand has held confidential negotiations with leaders of both sides - an unprecedented step in a country where leaks to the press about progress toward peace are routinely seized upon for attack by hard-liners in both camps.
In December, one major hurdle to peace was removed: The Greek side reversed its decision to deploy Russian missiles on the island that Turkey had vowed to destroy. The crisis could easily have led to all-out war between conflict-prone NATO allies Turkey and Greece - the ethnic "parent" countries of the two Cypriot communities - and disrupted the fragile balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean.
Glafcos Clerides, president of the internationally recognized, Greek-led government of Cyprus, decided two years ago to purchase the S-300 missiles to offset Turkish air superiority over the island. It was a high-risk political strategy, analysts say, meant to draw attention to the Cyprus problem.
But the result instead was a self-created crisis that stalled all peace efforts, began to harm Cyprus's application to join the European Union - according to EU member Greece - and caused the Turkish Cypriots to harden their positions.
Just Feb. 1 on Cyprus, a court handed out three-year prison sentences to two Israeli agents caught near a military base. The men had initially been charged with espionage, and the incident has widened the rift between Cyprus and Israel.
Few diplomats these days wax lyrical about 1999 being a "year of peace" for Cyprus. 1997 was once given that title, and a year ago - despite the missile issue - there was heady talk here of a "window of opportunity."
But there has been high-profile attention: In an unusually strong resolution in late December, before the Greek Cypriot missile climbdown, the UN Security Council called the status quo on Cyprus "unacceptable" and noted its "grave concern at the continuing excessive levels of military force and armaments."
Negotiations, it said, "have been at an impasse for too long." President Clinton - though his own envoy Richard Holbrooke has been criticized for his hands-off approach - also said in late December that the United States would "take all necessary steps" to encourage peace.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the north of the island to "protect" the Turkish Cypriot minority after a brief Greek-inspired coup that sought union with Greece. Some 30,000 Turkish mainland troops still occupy the northern half of the island, against 10,000 Greek Cypriot national guardsmen whose officers come from Greece. After the two Koreas, Cyprus is the most militarized country in the world.
UN efforts focus on creating a bi-zonal, bi-communal state under a single federated government. But hard-liners on both sides discourage contacts and argue that the two communities are incapable of living together again.
The key to getting past the impasse this time may be the daily commitment by Dame Ann. "She is working in confidence, and that shows a seriousness of purpose," says a Western diplomat. "Both sides like what she's doing.
"We've had an unfortunate pattern in the past of high-profile personalities who come, hold discussions, and then they leave," the diplomat says. "This [UN mission] is sustained over time."
That is in contrast to the efforts of Mr. Holbrooke, whose star quality as America's top crisis trouble-shooter has come up against the same hardened attitudes that have bedeviled lesser mediators.
The colorful Holbrooke is best known for strong-arming recalcitrant Balkan leaders into signing the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which brought an end to the war in Bosnia. In 1996, he engineered an 11th-hour deal that averted war between Turkey and Greece over two Aegean islets.
He also brokered a cease-fire agreement for the Serbian province of Kosovo last October. A Clinton nomination to be the new US ambassador to the UN has been delayed by a Justice Department ethics probe; the investigation may be concluded soon by Holbrooke paying a fine.
But when it has come to Cyprus, "he's been distracted by Kosovo and his selection process, and frankly he hasn't focused that much on Cyprus," says a European envoy, echoing a widespread belief on the island. "He's got bigger fish to fry, and more colorful fish to fry. The Cypriots take it personally."
Defenders say his role is not to engage in the "day-to-day diplomatic drudgery," and that Holbrooke pushed hard to solve the missile crisis.
Despite relief over the end of the missile crisis, many other obstacles remain. Positions have hardened over the European Union's list of potential members: Cyprus is on the fast track, while Turkey's 36-year-old application has been snubbed. The result is an even tougher line from Turkish Cypriot leaders, who fear being left out.
Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash also refuses to resume face-to-face UN talks unless his breakaway statelet - declared in 1983 but recognized only by Turkey - is officially recognized and put on equal footing with the internationally recognized Greek-led government of Cyprus.
Another major hurdle, Cypriots say, is that Old Guard political leaders on both sides may be comfortable with things just as they are. "Now there are two nicely situated presidents, but if there is a solution, there can be only one president," says a prominent Greek Cypriot who wished to remain anonymous. "So the elite on both sides will do anything to keep their authority."
On both sides, that often includes acting at the behest of extreme nationalists. Mr. Denktash has refused since December 1997 for Turkish Cypriots to take part in bi-communal activities.
On the other side of the line, the Greek Orthodox Church has played an especially nationalistic role, preaching against bi-communal activities and any rapprochement that includes giving up land to ethnic Turkish control.
"There are always 'windows of opportunity' here, and 1999 could be the year," says another Western analyst. "It depends a lot on political will: [The people] follow what their leaders say."