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The Bitter Cyprus Issue Continues to Divide

Compounding the problem are the fierce and long-standing suspicions between Greece and Turkey

The most explosive problem in Europe is not the murderous mess in the former Yugoslavia. It is the old and bitter feud between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.

Explosive is not hyperbole. Greece and Turkey, although NATO allies, have been on the brink of war several times in the past 25 years. Nowhere else has casus belli been so frequently and earnestly invoked. The Arab-Israeli melodrama is simple stuff in comparison with the Greco-Turkish farrago in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Taking the offensive

Even now there is an open threat of conflict over Cyprus's purchase of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles. The Cyprus government, elected by the Greek Cypriot community, is vigorously expanding its arsenal against Turkish military superiority.

Turkey has 35,000 soldiers on the island, where it has set up an independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It has air supremacy backed up from bases on the Turkish mainland only 40 miles away. The range of the S-300 is nearly 100 miles, so the Turks see it not as an air-defense equalizer but as an offensive weapon capable of, for instance, neutralizing their big airfield at Adana. They promise to destroy the missile sites if the S-300 is deployed, as scheduled, in early 1998.

The Cyprus issue has been burning for more than 40 years. After almost a century of British rule, guerrilla war forced Britain to leave; in 1960, Cyprus was given independence. But independence was not what the Cypriots wanted. Nearly 80 percent of the population, who are ethnically Greek, wanted enosis - union with Greece. A little less than 20 percent, who are ethnic Turks, wanted haksim - partition.

NATO, and especially Britain, however, preferred that the island become a single political entity. A constitution, meant to paper over the increasing friction between the Greek and Turkish communities, failed to do so. Bloody intercommunal fighting carried overtones of ethnic cleansing.

In 1964, a United Nations peacekeeping force moved in, and it is still there. Ten years later, with Greece then under military dictatorship, Athens sought to cut the Gordian knot by overthrowing the government of Archbishop Markarios and annexing Cyprus. Turkey at once invaded, seizing 37 percent of the island's territory. Partition is still a fact.

In mid-July of this year, Greek President Glafkos Clerides met the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, in New York at UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's urging. Innumerable efforts and a multiplicity of suggestions over the past three decades have led nowhere. For the past year, nearly a dozen European trouble-shooters have been at work, charged by their increasingly anxious governments with finding a way out. This summer, Washington added the redoubtable Richard C. Holbrooke, who engineered the Dayton agreements on Bosnia.

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But the Cyprus split is beyond the reach of clever diplomacy. The Greeks propose a bicommunal, demilitarized state having a single sovereignty with freedom to own property and settle anywhere. The Turks hunker down in their "republic," recognized by no one but Turkey, afraid of being overwhelmed by the much larger and infinitely more prosperous Greek community.

Compounding the Cyprus affair are the fierce suspicions between Greece and Turkey. The largest bone of contention is the Aegean Sea, involving both countries' vital interests. Asserting Greek sovereignty over the 2,400 Aegean islands could make the sea and the continental shelf below it Greek territory, potentially blocking shipping to western Turkey, Istanbul, and the Black Sea. Needless to say, this is a casus belli for Turkey.

Fortunately, no oil has yet been found in the area or war already might have broken out. It almost did when Turkey sent a survey ship into the Aegean a few years ago - and again last year when Turkey claimed an uninhabited Greek islet very near the Turkish coast. Turkey and Greece also are at daggers drawn over Aegean air space.

There must be a starting point in grappling with this system of dilemmas. Mr. Holbrooke and others see Turkey as the key. For one thing, Turkey's strategic importance has gone up, not down, with the end of the cold war. Geographically, it has access to Transcaucasia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Balkans. It has links with the Turkic people of Central Asia, as well as with Azerbaijan, from whose rich Caspian fields oil is to move west through Turkey.

A lot depends on Turkey

Regional stability will depend largely on how Turkey copes with internal difficulties: Islamic extremism, which loomed so large in the past year that the military changed the government; democracy, which is not helped by military intervention; and the huge Kurdish minority, still seen by Turkish nationalists as a bone in the throat.

It stands to reason that urging Turkey to normalize relations with Greece and to cool the Cyprus issue would take Turkish sensibilities into account. This means persuasion and incentives, not pressure or threats. It is already clear that one Turkish condition will be met: Cyprus will not be brought into the European Union until the intercommunal conflict is resolved.

Greece and the Greek Cypriots, for all the sympathy they enjoy in the west, may find that they do not count as much as Turkey in the cold calculus of Realpolitik.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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