Cyprus is a glimmer of hope in Mideast gloom

The world may be watching, albeit through a glass darkly, the actual resolution of one Middle East conflict - on the island of Cyprus. To be sure, the trajectory of history in that part of the world wobbles wildly, up and down. In this case, the positive ramifications of success would be enormous.

The very private talks now in progress between the ethnic Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus could end a separation that has divided the island for 30 years and defied innumerable peace efforts.

It's not that they've suddenly been enlightened.

The present Greek Republic of Cyprus will be joining the European Union on May 1, representing the entire island.

Should Greek Cypriots, content with the status quo, torpedo the talks, they'd be in deep trouble with the EU.

Should the Turkish "republic" in Cyprus (set up by military occupation in 1974 and never given international recognition) remain aloof, it would not share the benefits that EU membership will bring to the island - and it would remain an undigestible political lump in the body of an EU member state.

Continued Turkish sponsorship of the unrecognized Cypriot "republic," in turn, would disqualify Turkey from entering the EU - a bitter political and economic setback for the majority of Turks, who want to be part of Europe.

The federal formula for the island, now in the works, would give both communities autonomous equality within a single "United Cyprus Republic."

A major obstacle has long been the Turkish military's desire to retain control of occupied northern Cyprus. They have said, in the language of bygone ages, that taken out of Turkish hands, Cyprus would be a dagger pointed at Turkey's heart. However preposterous the idea of an invasion of Turkey via Cyprus is, the Turkish armed forces have been, from the birth of the Turkish republic after World War I, the guarantor of nationalism and secularism - even to the point of seizing power three times.

But the newly elected government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyit Erdogan, head of an Islamist party, sees the national interest in broader terms than does the Army.

As late as January, senior generals were denouncing the compromise as capitulation and treason.

But the government has apparently won, sharply increasing Turkey's chances of joining the EU.

Another positive aspect of the federal solution for Cyprus is the fact that the formula was devised and will have been shoehorned into reality by the UN. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his preternaturally patient Cyprus adviser, Alvaro de Soto, of Peru, have labored at it for 4-1/2 years.

The deal, known as the Annan Plan, is not yet in the barn. Shepherded by the faithful Mr. de Soto, the ethnic Greek and Turkish Cypriot parties are to settle remaining differences by March 22. Failing that, the Greek and Turkish governments will join the discussions for a week. Should the deadlock continue, they would hand the draft agreement to Mr. Annan to fill in the blanks of disagreement.

The finished plan would then be put to a referendum vote on Cyprus, and the new joint island entity would be ready to enter the EU on May 1.

Acceptance of the secretary-general as the impartial final arbiter in a problem of such magnitude could open the way to a new dimension of diplomacy.

It would also end a sour phase for the UN that began with the Bush administration's war in Iraq.

The US favors EU membership for Turkey, its NATO ally, and has endorsed Annan's Cyprus effort in the UN Security Council. It has inched around to soliciting UN help in Afghanistan and Iraq. The unilateralists in Washington may at last see that the UN can add international legitimacy to US policy.

Richard C. Hottelet is a former CBS correspondent.

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