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The Paradox of Cyprus: Right Against Right

CYPRUS, a divided island of 3,600 square miles and about 700,000 citizens, has become notorious as the site of one of the globe's most intractable conflicts. Greek and Turkish Cypriots are - for the most part - no longer killing and kidnapping each other. But past violence has left deep scars, and both sides have long memories. Underlying the intractability of the conflict are deeply seated, reciprocal fears that are difficult to bridge and even more difficult to erase. Like so many of the world's internal conflicts, the Cyprus dispute is a case of right confronting right. The dialogue between Cypriot President George Vassiliou and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash continued in the United Nations headquarters in New York April 6 when it was decided that the Secretary-General would attempt to create a draft outline of an overall agreement - a daunting task. The discussions began last August, under the auspices of the Secretary-General, and they hold out the modest promise of a peaceful reunification.

To the dispassionate observer, the present situation does have a semblance of stability. Major incidents of violence stopped almost 15 years ago, and neither of the external powers, Greece or Turkey, seems interested in igniting a new crisis. In the south, Greek Cypriots have constructed a great economic success out of a wrenching disaster. In the north, Turkish Cypriots - though less prosperous - seem to be managing, thanks to major financial underwriting from Turkey. More important, many of the Turkish Cypriots, and certainly their political leadership, are reasonably content with their ``state'' - the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus which was unilaterally declared in November 1983, though it remains unrecognized, except by Turkey.

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Yet, if the dispute seems to have crystallized into a stalemate, the metaphor itself reveals that the calm may be - like crystal - more fragile that it appears. It is not hard to imagine circumstances that could shatter the present, deceptive calm. Indeed, should the Denktash-Vassiliou dialogue fail, the result might be an escalation of tension growing out of desperation on the Greek Cypriot side and a worsening of relations between Greece and Turkey. Therein lies the need for urgency in bringing the Cyprus dispute to a peaceful end.

The anxieties of the two sides are reflected in the very different historical chronologies of the conflict. For the Turkish Cypriots, 1963 is the critical year when they ceased to play a role in the governance of the republic and were exposed to the risk of being submerged in a Greek Cypriot-dominated state. For the Greek Cypriots, it is 1974, when the Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation severely challenged their independent political existence and physical survival.

Greek Cypriots like to tell how the two communities lived side by side in peace before the Turkish invasion of 1974. But this is very unlike the version of events that Turkish Cypriots remember. Memories of surrounded villages, embargoes, and physical coercion are fresh and vehemently expressed.

Though Turkish Cypriots account for only 18 percent of the population, they argue that they were co-founders of the Cypriot state in 1960. The constitutional guarantees that were to protect their interests were upended by President (and Archbishop) Makarios's efforts in 1963 to amend the Constitution.

For their part, Turkish Cypriots refuse to concede that the majority of Greek Cypriots have rejected the goal of joining Cyprus to Greece. Greek Cypriots tend to see the basic problem as Turkish occupation. They freely admit that the Greek colonels precipitated the 1974 events by promoting the anti-Makarios coup, but they argue that the resulting Turkish invasion lost all justification when the Athens junta fell and the coup failed. Thus, the key issue is to get the Turkish troops out of the north, along with the approximately 35,000 Turkish settlers transplanted from Anatolia to northern Cyprus. The paradox is that while the Greek Cypriots may be the majority on the island, they see themselves as a threatened minority in the region.

Since 1977, both sides have agreed to seek a bicommunal federal republic in which the cultural autonomy of each side is preserved. But they are far apart on the authority of a federal government.

In contrast to the Greek Cypriots, the Turkish Cypriots want a minimal state that will preserve their autonomy. Though the proposed arrangement is defined as an example of federalism, in practice it sounds much more like a confederation. This leads many observers to wonder whether the Turkish Cypriots may simply want to partition the island.

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For Greek Cypriots, a minimal state is no solution, since it leaves many problems unsolved, especially the politically sensitive issue of the 170,000 refugees who lost homes and properties in the north. Though many Greek Cypriot politicians admit their negotiating position is not getting any stronger, there are limits beyond which they cannot go. For instance, it would be hard for President Vassiliou to win public support for any agreement that left the Turkish Army in the north.

It is far too much to ask that one side cultivate sympathy for the other, because sympathy requires more generosity than either side could be expected to muster. But empathy, a quality associated with self-interest, is attainable. Otherwise, the tragedy of Cyprus will continue.

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