On both sides of the 112-mile "Green Line" that slices this Mediterranean island, 1997 may be a watershed year.
An accelerating arms buildup by the opposing Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities has pushed the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations to attempt a new peace initiative.
The stakes are now higher, even though the tense standoff between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus has lingered for 22 years. If these two NATO allies were drawn into war over protecting their ethnic kin on Cyprus, it would cause chaos within an alliance already worried about its post-cold-war identity. NATO nations are obliged to aid both countries in time of war.
The international community has been able to keep an uneasy peace since 1974, when Turkey sent troops into northern Cyprus at the height of a coup thought to be engineered by the Greece's then-military government. Turkey took over 39 percent of the island. Since then, UN troops have patrolled the buffer zone - or Green Line - between the two ethnic communities.
But a new diplomatic initiative became crucial Jan. 4 with Russia's decision to sell the government of Cyprus, which is run by the majority Greek Cypriots, a battery of S300 ground-to-air missiles. The high-tech weapons are similar to US Patriot missiles.
The purchase was immediately condemned by Rauf Denktash, head of a Turkish-Cypriot regime that controls the northern third of Cyprus. His regime is not recognized by the international community. And Turkey made veiled threats of a preemptive strike against the missiles. "If necessary, the Turkish armed forces will do their duty," Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan said.
Greek Cypriot officials say the missiles are needed for protection against the Turkish military's superiority in controlling the island's airspace.
The missile purchase comes on top of a recent buildup of weapons by both sides. Cyprus is already, per capita, one of the world's most heavily militarized countries.
The Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus has 12,500 troops and more than 50 battle tanks (some purchased from Russia) to protect a #population of 657,000. And Greece has pledged to defend Greek Cypriots if Turkish Cypriots, backed by Turkey, mount an offensive.
On the other side of the Green Line, forces in northern Cyprus are out of proportion to defending the population of 175,000. Turkey's 30,000 troops are equipped with 265 tanks. Defense spending is more than 70 percent of gross domestic product, says the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Western diplomats point to events of last summer as evidence of the need to find a lasting political solution.
In August a group of motorcyclists arrived in southern Cyprus, set on ramming their way through the UN-patrolled buffer zone of sandbag walls and razor wire. Ultimately, most of the bikers backed down, but a few crossed the Green Line. Two were killed by Turkish defenders.
Another recent flare-up was when Turkey flexed its muscles by ordering Turkish jets to overfly Nicosia, the capital, in November. Greek Cypriots say the fly-over justifies buying the air defense system.
"The flyover is precisely the kind of thing we don't need if a solution is to be found," says Gustave Feissel, head of the UN mission to Cyprus.
Possibility for peace: joining EU
A new factor in the Cyprus equation could give rise to a settlement: the prospect of the country joining the European Union. The republic has already applied, and the EU says negotiations between Brussels and Nicosia can begin in less than two years.
Alecos Michaelides, the Greek Cypriot foreign minister, says the EU factor "could be a catalyst for resolution of this long and damaging confrontation." Greek Cypriot political analysts are hopeful, but cautious.
Joseph S. Joseph, professor of international relations at the University of Cyprus, says EU membership would "enhance the island's economic prospects and make it clear Cyprus is indeed part of Europe."
But Mr. Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot president, "does not want the government in Nicosia to negotiate on his behalf," Dr. Joseph says. Yet th#e internationally recognized Cyprus government has the "legal right" to speak for all Cyprus.
Also, Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots can't agree on the shape of a future constitution. Greek Cypriot President Glafkos Clerides concedes a bi-zonal deal will be needed, but he insists on a federation with a strong central government - and a Greek Cypriot at its head.
Denktash, backed by Ankara, wants a looser arrangement that would let him or another Turkish Cypriot rule the north. He insists on Turkish troops staying to guarantee any settlement.
In the end, Joseph judges that economic and demographic factors may help tip the balance toward the Greek Cypriots.
Even a superficial comparison of the two parts of Cyprus supports his view.
Yawning economic gap
South of the Green Line, streets are full of modern cars. Dozens of new hotels and office blocks have sprouted up since the 1974 invasion. Tourism is booming.
In the north, shops and offices are shabby and derelict. Most of the cars on the pitted roads are 1960s and 1970s vintage. A third-world feel pervades.
The gross national product per capita of Turkish Cyprus is only $3,897. In Greek Cyprus it is $13,200 and rising.
The key to a solution may lie in Ankara. "If Turkey were to stop supporting Denktash, he would be finished," says Joseph.
But Ankara's calculations are complex. Turkey too wants to join the EU, but its prospects are slim. So would Turkey allow Cyprus, backed by archrival Greece, to join a European club it is excluded from?
If Turkey refuses to budge, will the EU be willing to admit southern Cyprus, and leave the Turkish north in limbo?
As always in Cyprus politics, there are more questions than answers. But the search is on for an end to the conflict. "As time goes by," says Mr. Michaelides, "the chances for a solution are decreasing. I see the great urgency of finding a solution."
ISLAND'S KEY DATES
1571: Ottoman Empire (later Turkey) conquers Cyprus, which ancient Greece settled in the Bronze Age.
1878: Britain takes control of Cyprus.
1960: Cyprus gains independence.
July 1974: After a Greece-led coup, Turkey sends troops to northern Cyprus and secures 39 percent of the island before agreeing to a cease-fire.
1974 to present: UN peacekeepers patrol the 112-mile-long "Green Line" dividing the island's two sides.
Nov. 1983: Turkish Cypriots declare formation of an independent "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." It has been recognized only by Turkey.
July 1990: The Republic of Cyprus applies for European Union membership, irking Turkish Cypriots.
1994 to 1996: Turkey adds 30 battle tanks to its 235 tanks already in Cyprus. Greek Cypriots add $584-million worth of weapons to their already considerable arsenal.
Aug. 1996: Motorbikers from Greece spark tension, saying they plan to ram through the "Green Line." In the end only two cross the line. Both are killed by Turkish defenders.
Nov. 1996: Turkish jets overfly the capital, Nicosia, on a surprise mission.
Jan. 4, 1997: Greek Cypriots say they'll buy a battery of Russian ground-to-air missiles.
Sources: Political Handbook of the World; Jane's Information Group Ltd.