US Grabs Reins in New Drive to Reunite Cyprus

A big push to reconcile two NATO allies over a historic hot spot could already be in trouble.

A Mediterranean island about half the size of New Jersey now looms large in the cross hairs of America's foreign policymakers.

President Clinton announced on Wednesday that he would dispatch to Cyprus his ace diplomatic troubleshooter - Bosnia peace broker Richard Holbrooke - as a special envoy.

That could signal real movement, and a much bigger role for the United States, in confronting one of the world's most bitter and deep-seated territorial standoffs.

Years of international efforts to get the two sides to agree to a UN-sponsored plan to unify the two sides under a single federal government have failed. Direct talks between sides broke down in 1994.

The basics of the dispute

In the Greek Cypriot south, the wealthy, internationally recognized government seeks the island's reunification. But the Turkish Cypriot north, a self-declared republic since 1983, aspires to full sovereignty.

Since 1964, the island has been monitored by a 1,200-troop, $50 million-a-year United Nations force and split by a highly militarized, 103-mile border.

But UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has optimistically called this "the year of Cyprus." And US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has expressed a "keen interest" in finding a resolution, and in keeping the tensions in Cyprus from further inflaming already shaky relations between two of America's important NATO allies: Greece and Turkey.

The new initiative, involving the UN, the US, Britain, and the European Union (EU), marks a push for a comprehensive settlement.

It calls for a series of face-to-face talks between Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, expected to take place early next month in New York and Geneva.

Why so tangled?

What should seem a manageable dispute for such experienced diplomats has eluded statesmen from Harold Macmillan to Henry Kissinger to Willy Brandt.

The historical baggage is considerable. Greece and Turkey have rattled sabers over Cyprus since the early 1960s.

The island is a flash point for ancient hatreds. Today, a visitor flying into Larnaca, a city on the west coast of the Greek side, is greeted by a sign reading "Turks are Barbarians." At a peace concert held last month in the capital, Nicosia, fights broke out.

"We go into these Cyprus talks year after year officially optimistic, but privately we could see this thing going on to perpetuity," says one senior UN official. "After 20-some years, you can't help but wonder if anything can get done."

While both sides have agreed in principle to the UN arrangement, suspicions keep even the most beneficial aspects of proposed unification the topics of hot dispute.

The EU question

One example is the question of EU membership for Cyprus - a move that many diplomats hoped would force the two sides into swift and final negotiation, but which has nearly backfired.

EU officials hoped the integration of the $15,000-per-capita Greek Cypriot economy into Europe, and the prospect of an end to Turkish Cypriot political isolation, would prove the magic formula. That hasn't been the case.

"European Union membership is a luxury, not a necessity," says Osman Ertug, the representative of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the UN.

"Yes, we would be better off financially, but frankly we'd sacrifice prosperity for our dignity," Mr. Ertug says.

For Greek Cypriots, who see themselves as being asked to make concessions to an illegal partition, a prosperous status quo would be acceptable, if only to further isolate Turkish Cypriots.

'A full-time commitment'

Since the outbreak of tensions in the 1960s, officials have been divided as to whether the two sides are better off as separate states or unified.

The UN's first envoy to Cyprus, Galo Plaza, favored a Greek Cypriot majority rule and criticized an equal power-sharing federation as "an extension of the Greece-Turkey frontier" and a "threat to international security."

Another prominent UN ambassador to the island, Hugo Gobbi, expressed his leanings toward separate states in a 1994 book called "Rethinking Cyprus."

"The UN plan is fair but unrealistic," Mr. Gobbi told the Monitor. "Today's world favors self-determination, especially for communities and ethnic groups. To simply face facts and allow for two republics will end this Cypriot cold war."

Other envoys to the UN, such as Britain's Sir David Hannay, see the problem as one of personal obstinacy.

"International mediation is possible - it got the Israelis and the Palestinians to the table. The problem here is that better people are needed. Too many see Cyprus as a part-time job," says Sir David, referring to recent UN envoys who have left the post after only a year. "Cyprus is a full-time commitment."

Still, a glimmer of optimism remains, and that is what keeps diplomats at it year after year.

"There is a tendency to look at diplomatic efforts here as a failure," says Gustave Fiessel, UN deputy envoy to Cyprus. "But when you see how far we have come - [to] the verge of a settlement - that stands for a lot."

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