Solving Cyprus: the other Mideast conflict

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In today's clamorous world, where trouble seems only to spread, one long ordeal is moving quietly toward resolution. The island of Cyprus, only the size of Connecticut, has been a huge problem for NATO, Europe, and the Middle East. For 40 years, it has been torn apart. Its ethnic Greek majority and Turkish minority have clawed one another in civil war and ethnic cleansing.

Tucked in Turkey's armpit in the eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus has been viewed by Ankara as a major security concern ever since the island gained independence from Britain in 1960. For years, communal strife was the order of the day. In 1974, a military clique in Athens tried to overthrow the government of Greek Archbishop Makarios for the purpose of enosis - uniting Cyprus with Greece. Thirty-five thousand Turkish troops were rushed in to prevent that for all time and to protect the Turkish community.

The force has been there ever since, cutting the island in two, poisoning relations between Greece and Turkey - a perpetual worry for NATO, to which both countries belong, through much of the cold war.

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The United Nations has been in Cyprus since 1964, trying to promote peace, patrolling a buffer zone between the two sides, and urging negotiations. But the head of the Turkish community, Rauf Denktash, set up a nominally independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It is not recognized by any country except Turkey, while the government of the Greek community is accepted worldwide as the Republic of Cyprus representing the entire island. Mr. Denktash long demanded official recognition of his republic before he would talk, and Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit of Turkey loudly supported him, threatening to annex northern Cyprus if the Republic of Cyprus became a member of the European Union. Yet, this is precisely what will happen within the next 18 months.

Turkey, eager to join the EU, cannot keep Cyprus out. And the Turks of Cyprus, isolated and living in poverty, look forward to sharing the benefits of EU membership. The moment of truth is at hand. Mr. Ecevit stopped threatening. Denktash, having refused for years to meet his Greek Cypriot counterpart, Glafcos Clerides, has dropped his demand for recognition as a condition of talks. They have been conferring frequently since mid-January.

Yet, an enmity as intense as that between Greek and Turk cannot turn to sweet reason overnight. The negotiators must be stroked and encouraged. Years ago, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan assigned one of his ace troubleshooters, Alvaro de Soto of Peru, to live with the problem. He had been midwife to the El Salvador peace settlement. A man of infinite patience, he inspires trust in UN impartiality and gives the talks an international presence. The parties, facing a mountain of accumulated grievance and suspicion, need a stable framework.

The fate of some 2,000 Turkish and Greek Cypriots missing in the years of conflict must be cleared up. Nearly 200,000 Greek and more than 60,000 Turkish refugees from past ethnic cleansing must return home or be compensated. The Turks, about 18 percent of the 800,000 population of Cyprus, now hold 37 percent of the land. That must be adjusted. The 35,000 Turkish troops must leave. Would an international force be able to ensure peace?

Governance is a cardinal issue. The UN has set the goal of a bi-zonal, bi-communal state. Each community will certainly have cultural autonomy. How will they relate to the new central government of Cyprus? Will there be freedom of movement, land ownership, and investment? Turks fear that the immensely richer, more experienced Greeks might simply buy them out.

Cyprus is a most sensitive domestic issue for both Greece and Turkey. They also have others. Sovereignty and maritime rights in the Aegean Sea are vital for each. After years of nationalist demagogy building walls between them, they are moving closer. Greece, taking the long view, strongly endorsed Turkish membership in the UN. Both are ready to stop snarling and start talking about the Aegean. Their troops have joined in NATO maneuvers. They have agreed to exchange intelligence on terrorism, narcotics, and traffic in refugees.

For many years, the US and others have tried without success to soften Turkish obstinacy on Cyprus. But American support for Turkish financial reform, reinforced recently by many billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, may have helped alter Ankara's mood. As of now, the picture of Cyprus holds real promise.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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