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Articles & Speeches by Amb. Alfred Moses

After 40 years, a united Cyprus may soon be a reality; A promising breakthrough

Alfred H. Moses
International Herald Tribune, April 4, 2002

With the world's attention focused on the U.S. war against terrorism, scant attention is being given to a potential breakthrough in the longstanding conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on Cyprus. The Cyprus problem is a microcosm of the larger ethnic conflict that extends across much of Europe and Asia.

Since early this year the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, and his Greek counterpart, President Glafcos Clerides of Cyprus, have been quietly meeting face to face three mornings a week negotiating the details of an agreement to end the ethnic conflict that broke out after a shrinking British empire pulled out of Cyprus in 1960. The breakthrough occurred after Denktash agreed late last year to meet with Clerides to try to end the impasse.

A year before, Denktash had scuttled United Nations-led "proximity talks," insisting on international recognition of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus before face-to-face negotiations could begin. This was not the first time Denktash (with Turkey's support) had pulled the rug out from under UN efforts to solve the Cyprus problem.

Denktash, the leader of the Turkish Cypriots for more than 40 years, enjoys hero status in Turkey, where he is seen as the savior of the Turkish Cypriots on an island where Greeks outnumber Turks by more than four to one. When Denktash pulled out of the UN-led talks in November 2000, he was supported by Turkey's prime minister, Bulent Ecevit, and its influential military. This might have been business as usual in the long-playing Cyprus saga, but for the fact that Turkey is now a candidate for European Union membership. When Denktash said "no" this last time, voices in Turkey proclaimed "enough." Media, business leaders and, for the first time, responsible politicians realized that the unresolved Cyprus problem stood in the way of Turkey's larger strategic interests in moving toward the West. As they saw it, the Cyprus tail was wagging the Turkish dog. They realized that, for Turkey, the road to the EU runs through Nicosia, Cyprus's capital.

With Cyprus's own accession to the EU expected in December, Denktash and his supporters in Turkey were faced with a hard choice. Either they abandon hope for a political solution and allow Cyprus to enter the EU, with the Turkish northern third of the island left behind, or they come to an agreement with the Greek Cypriots before Cyprus slipped away. With few cards left to play, Denktash reversed course, leading to the negotiations now under way.

Major hurdles remain. Territory in the north will have to go back to the Greek side. Property claims on both sides need to be settled. Security arrangements must be put in place and a new government for a unified Cyprus agreed to.

That said, there is a genuine basis for optimism. Both Denktash and Clerides realize this is their last hurrah. These venerable leaders, one 78, the other 83, have been at it for more than four decades. Neither can see anyone on the horizon to take their place. The next generation will not have known a time when Greeks and Turks lived peacefully together as neighbors. Moreover, if agreement is not reached this year, Cyprus will slip away and the division on Cyprus is likely to become permanent. If that happens, the northern third of the island, which is not self-sustainable, will look to join Turkey, making Ecevit's threat to annex real, scuttling Turkey's EU ambitions.

If Denktash and Clerides are serous about a united Cyprus that protects the fundamental interests of the two sides, it can happen now; and if Muslims and non-Muslims can live together on Cyprus, it could turn out to be the harbinger of peace in the larger conflict that affects the world. Having set the stage for the present talks, the United States and others should stand back and quietly encourage both sides to reach agreement.

The writer, who was the U.S. special presidential emissary for the Cyprus problem from 1999 to 2001, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.

Copyright 2002, International Herald Tribune