Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides's June 18 visit to President Clinton comes in the midst of yet another effort to end Cyprus's 22-year division.
Cypriots like to say that to reach a solution, the stars must be in alignment in Ankara, Athens, and Nicosia. Now, add Brussels. The lure of Europe and the threat of exclusion from it will be the major factor in solving the Cyprus problem after years of diplomatic initiatives by the United Nations and others, including Washington.
The island, 40 miles south of Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, has been partitioned since 1974. After independence from Britain in 1960, attacks by the Greek majority had pushed the minority Turkish Cypriots - less than 1 in 5 of the population - into 3 percent of the land. In 1974, after a Greek Cypriot coup aimed at unification with Greece, Turkish troops invaded and occupied 37 percent of the country. Turkish Cypriots declared independence in 1976, but only Turkey granted recognition; the Turkish military remained to exercise control behind the scenes.
Greek Cyprus has prospered, with a per capita income of $15,000. It imports thousands of workers to fill jobs its 700,000 people won't take. It is one of three European countries (the others are Luxembourg and Germany) that meet the criteria for European monetary union set by the Maastricht Treaty. But, trade union leader Michael Ioannou said, "Employers are not willing to expand or invest in new technology, because they are afraid, unsure about the future."
The Turkish north is economically distressed, with many of its 170,000 people jobless and a per capita income of only $3,000. A few years ago, the European Court ruled that European Union members could not import goods from Turkish Cyprus, blocking 80 percent of its exports, mostly agriculture and textiles. Turkish Cypriot businessman Engin Ari said the embargo makes it impossible to compete in the world market. "I import computers from Istanbul," he said. "I tried to import them from Singapore, but because of the embargo, it takes three months to ship them here."
Cyprus joined the European Customs Union in 1972 and began pressing in the early 1990s to join the EU. Europe was unenthusiastic; it didn't want to import ethnic conflict. The British opposed the move, fearing loss of their bases and influence. "They were against our application to join the EU," Mr. Clerides said. "When the issue arose about fixing a date for commencing negotiations, they supported it very reluctantly." He said London finally bowed to Washington, which lobbied for Cypriot accession.
The United States was initially reluctant, but Greek Cypriots persuaded American officials that a solution lay in making all sides work together to reap the EU's benefits. It would be the protective umbrella under which the sides could coexist. Under the deal worked out, Greece lifted its veto on Turkey joining the European Customs Union. The EU in March 1995 then invited Cyprus to begin accession negotiations six months after conclusion of the EU Intergovernmental Conference, which puts the date for talks early in 1998.
US interest in the deal went beyond a Cyprus solution. Clerides said the Americans "told us quite frankly that one of the reasons they wanted to help was because they were worried about increasing fundamentalism in Turkey and that if Turkey joined the EU and got economic aid, this would help forces against fundamentalism in Turkey."
Greek Cypriots see the accession offer as a carrot to persuade the north to reach a settlement. Turkish officials see it as a card to play to win full membership in the EU, telling an EU representative they would back Cypriot entrance if Turkey were put on a fast track. But Turkish Cypriot officials are extremely unhappy, believing the offer gives Greek Cypriots an incentive to ignore them, since the south will enter the EU even without a solution.
"Is the EU so stupid to take Cyprus as a whole without a solution?" Turkish Cypriot Prime Minister Hakki Atun angrily asked. "Are they going to suppose we submit to the Greek Cypriot side? Do you expect us to give up our freedom just to join the EU?" But Mr. Atun also mentioned that his son is working in Istanbul. And Ergun Olgun, a businessman who is adviser to Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktash, said, "My children are in England. They don't want to come back, because there's no future for them. There are no economic opportunities." As a customs-union member, Turkey within five years must adhere to the embargo, blocking pass-through northern Cypriot trade.
Both sides agreed in 1977 to a bicommunal, two-zone federation - a Greek compromise - but Turkish Cypriots insist on keeping Turkish troops and oppose Greek Cypriot demands for open borders, return of most refugees to their property, and a single rather than divided sovereignty. Polls of Turkish and Greek Cypriots show they all want a solution, but the north suffers most without one. If Europe keeps its promise to Cyprus, Mr. Denktash and Turkey will have no choice but to move their stars into alignment.
* Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who writes on foreign affairs and recently spent several weeks in Cyprus.