Eleven days ago in Cyprus, a Greek Cypriot man was shot to death by a Turkish Cypriot soldier after straying into the Turkish-Cypriot zone while collecting snails. That comes after August clashes between Greek Cypriot motorbikers and Turkish troops that left two Greek Cypriots dead. In September, a Turkish Cypriot soldier was killed near the cease-fire line by an unknown assailant.
These deaths put another obstacle in the way of feelers by the US and others to negotiate an end to the 22-year division of the island. They also raised tensions between US allies Greece and Turkey. This was going to be Washington's "year of Cyprus."
That diplomatic thrust, however, got sidetracked. The Turkish governing coalition fell apart, Greece and Turkey rattled sabers over an Aegean "islet" called Imia, and the Greeks held elections.
Rep. Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, has discussed the matter with President Clinton. He believes there is "not sufficient commitment to negotiating a settlement, because people believe it's a problem that can't be solved." The situation in Cyprus, says Mr. Torricelli, "wants presidential attention; it wants a high level of shuttle diplomacy."
The US should make Cyprus a priority. This island country could become a sorely needed model of communal reconciliation between warring Christians and Muslims. Also, US security interests on the southern flank of NATO, bordering the Middle East, are severely compromised when NATO partners Greece and Turkey are in a cold war.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when a right-wing Greek Cypriot coup attempt against the government of Greek Archbishop Makarios prompted military intervention by Turkey. Turkish Cypriots, 18 percent of the population, had been living in enclaves, having fled attacks by Greek Cypriot militants in the years after independence from Britain in 1960. The current Greek Cypriot-led government is internationally recognized; only Turkey accepts Turkish Cypriot rule over the northern 37 percent of the island - a rule enforced by 35,000 Turkish troops.
There have been some American initiatives. In July, US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright visited Cyprus and proposed a meeting of the commanders of the Cyprus National Guard and the Turkish forces to establish communication. But the details weren't worked out in advance. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash agreed, but insisted that the Turkish Cypriot commander attend. The Greek Cypriots, who don't recognize the Turkish Cypriot authority, backed out. The killings came a few weeks later. This month, the Greek Cypriots accepted a proposal from the UN peacekeeping force on the island for an indirect military dialogue between the Greek Cypriot National Guard and the Turkish Army.
This fall, Secretary of State Warren Christopher encouraged officials from Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey to proceed with diplomatic efforts. Presidential envoy Richard Beattie will visit the island in December. With Greek Cypriot presidential elections in February 1998, "proximity" talks would have to begin before the end of the year, followed by face-to-face negotiations during the first half of 1997, before campaigning started.
The Turkish Cypriots want to preserve a separate geographical and governmental entity to avoid being swamped by the majority Greeks. The Greeks want a united country, with free movement across the north-south divide.
So far, neither side agrees even on a basis for holding pretalk discussions. Each side gives contradictory versions of its own and the other's position.
For example, the Turkish Cypriot representative in New York, Osman Ertug, told me, "If they mean formal proximity talks, this is the wrong approach. We need to talk face to face." The Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, say proximity talks are needed to come up with "common ground" as the basis for negotiations.
What might that "common ground" be? Cypriot Ambassador to the UN Nicos Agathocleous says it could involve the ultimate demilitarization of Cyprus. But the details of that will be discussed "later," he adds. The Turkish Cypriots accept demilitarization "as an objective in the context of an overall settlement," says Mr. Ertug, but the current "treaties of guarantee" would have to remain intact.
The Greek Cypriots dislike that formulation, because it gives treaty signatory Turkey the status which it used in 1974 to intervene.
Mr. Agathocleous says his side could not go into negotiations without knowing "that the basic agreements we had so far" will stand, "including the definition of equality which guarantees enough numerical participation to give [the Turkish Cypriots] effective voice in the government, but not absolute 50-50."
The current attention to an expedited negotiation process is related to Cyprus's application to enter the European Union. The Europeans don't want to take in a divided Cyprus. Taner Etkin, foreign and defense minister of the Turkish Cypriot authority, told representatives of Western countries at the UN, "If you accept the Greek Cypriot sector into the EU, we will integrate with Turkey."
The clock is ticking for Washington and its allies to avert a looming crisis that could threaten more than its protagonists.
*Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who visited Cyprus in the spring.