Creating peace in Cyprus

When the presidents of Greek Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus this week begin negotiating a settlement to their 25-year dispute over the future of the island, success will only come if both set aside the tortured history of their antagonism.

Creative thinking - rare in these interminable ethnic, religious, and territorial divisions - is necessary. Fortunately, after numerous failed attempts, the time is ripe for conceptual and political breakthroughs.

The talks in New York have been brokered by the United Nations and the United States. Special envoys will shuttle between President Glafkos Clerides of the Republic of Cyprus (a member of the UN and the British Commonwealth) and President Rauf Denktash of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (unrecognized internationally except by Turkey).

Both septuagenarian presidents were colleagues when Britain still ruled the colony of Cyprus, and later, before Greek Cypriot attacks and Turkish Cypriot responses drove Turkish Cypriots into ghettos. The final division came in 1974, when a mainland Greek-inspired coup in Cyprus resulted in what Greeks call a Turkish military invasion and Turks term a preemptive intervention.

As a result of the brief war of mid-1974, Turkish Cypriots (20 percent of the population) gained control of 40 percent of the island and half of the capital, Nicosia. The Republic of Cyprus, created at independence from Britain in 1960, lost all its Turkish Cypriot population and control over 40 percent of what Greek Cypriots still consider the republic's legitimate territory. Many Greek Cypriots forfeited their homes and land in the north, as Turkish Cypriots had earlier lost theirs in the south.

Negotiations between the two have been stumbling for several years over the Turkish Cypriot side's determination to be recognized internationally and the Greek Cypriot side's worry that recognition would legitimize the "invasion" and lead to the secession of northern Cyprus or its union with Turkey. Indeed, Mr. Denktash has in recent years refused to negotiate unless regarded as Mr. Clerides's equal by international peace brokers.

The New York talks could founder on how to recognize without recognizing.

Or they could come up against unreconcilable differences in re-creating a new island-wide government. Both sides will agree to an umbrella government, but the north seeks a government with limited powers and the south wants a central government with considerable power. Both sides now accept that the existing north and south governments will also remain. But what powers should be reserved to them? How will presidents and legislators be selected - from the two entities and by an island-wide vote?

There are a number of other questions that could continue to divide the two presidents.

The Greek Cypriot side wants some territory returned so that those who lost lands and homes in the north can return. They seek island-wide freedom of movement. But Turkish Cypriots fear being swamped by Greek Cypriot settlers, and don't want to lose their hard-won autonomy. Each side distrusts the other. Although the older generation still shares the English language and educational experiences, and both sides of the island still adhere largely to the British legal tradition, people on both sides remember in detail the slights, hurts, and massive injuries suffered at the hands of their fellow - ethnically different - islanders.

Turkish Cypriots now complain about a Greek Cypriot boycott of their exports; Greek Cypriots resent Turkish Cypriot prohibitions on contact and dealings with them.

The Greek and Turkish Cypriots cannot easily be reintegrated. What can be accomplished now, however, is to negotiate a fresh settlement based on physical and geopolitical realities of the moment:

*Provided Turkey is admitted to the European Union, a united island would likely be admitted too, boosting economic prospects of northern Cyprus, now five times poorer than the south.

*Two distinct jurisdictions exist on the island.

*Only limited territorial adjustment or return of lands and homes is likely or possible.

What appears realizable is a common-sense acceptance of a joint central government that will add to, but not supplant, the existing entities. Both sides can win more than they lose. Even so, the larger population will lose some of its cherished aspirations and the smaller population will give up the daily protection of Turkish soldiers.

The result, if these negotiations are indeed creative, would inaugurate a vaguely federal United States of Cyprus, and bring sustainable peace and prosperity to the island.

*Robert I. Rotberg, president of the World Peace Foundation, is director of Harvard University's Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict, in Cambridge, Mass. He wrote 'Cyprus 2000: Divided or Federal?' (World Peace Foundation, 1998).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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