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In Search for Cyprus Solution, Two Personalities Offer Promise

Jovial but tough old rivals meet Monday in Switzerland to look for peace on divided island.

It is a paradox that amazes United Nations mediators: Cyprus has proved one of the world's most intractable problems, yet the leaders of the divided island's estranged Greek and Turkish communities get along famously.

With the UN's most determined drive to reunite Cyprus now under way, negotiators are relying heavily on the personal chemistry between Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides, and Rauf Denktash, who heads the Turkish Cypriot community, to help break the logjam. The two are scheduled to meet on Monday in Montreaux, Switzerland, following up on a successful meeting last month at a resort called Troutbeck in Amenia, N.Y.

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"I found the atmosphere excellent, and people who are Cyprus-ologists tell me that the discussions were unprecedented in their cordiality," says Diego Cordovez, a seasoned UN negotiator who oversaw the talks. They have been hailed as an important first step in a long process toward reunifying Cyprus under a federal system.

Mr. Cordovez gleefully contrasted the scene there to when he headed the UN negotiations that led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Then, he says, it took years to get rival leaders to even enter the same room.

Before Troutbeck, Mr. Clerides and Mr. Denktash had not met face to face for nearly three years. But through journalists and diplomats, they continued to exchange good-natured insults about their age and weight: Both are rotund septuagenarians who enjoy a bantering rapport. When Clerides's only child, Kaiti, married last year, he sent a piece of wedding cake to Denktash across the UN-controlled buffer zone that divides the island. "It has always been a good relationship," Denktash said in a recent interview. "He is one of the leaders on the other side with whom I can talk about the past."

The two men, both charismatic, British-trained lawyers and first-rate raconteurs, certainly go back a long way. They knew each other well before the island was split along religious and ethnic lines in 1974, the year Turkey invaded northern Cyprus following a coup by right-wing Greek Cypriots who wanted to unite the island with Greece.

Clerides, the son of a prominent lawyer, and Denktash, the son of a judge, have been sparring over the negotiating table for nearly three decades. But their adversarial relationship goes back to the 1950s, when they squared up on opposite sides of a British colonial courtroom. Clerides was a leading defense lawyer for men suspected of working for Eoka, the underground organization fighting British rule in order to unite the island with Greece.

Denktash, who helped found TMT, the paramilitary Turkish Cypriot group established to counter Eoka, was prosecuting.

Their friendship apart, the two men have different visions for Cyprus's future and what is best for their respective communities. While the Greek Cypriots want a strong central government under a new federal system, the Turkish Cypriots want as much autonomy as possible.

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For older Turkish Cypriots, who remember the excesses of Greek Cypriot nationalists before 1974, Denktash has provided what they most cherish: security. He has never disguised the fact that his ultimate goal is recognition for the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which he declared unilaterally in 1983. The tiny state has been recognized only by Turkey.

Denktash has complained that by pushing for a federal solution, the UN is trying to force a second marriage between partners who divorced acrimoniously years before.

A week after the Troutbeck talks, Denktash made clear he had little appetite for the UN-sponsored process, claiming he was taking part only because Turkey had encouraged him to do so.

He trusts and respects Clerides, but insists most Greek Cypriots are not really prepared to enter a genuine partnership with the Turkish Cypriots. He repeatedly threatens to fully integrate northern Cyprus with Turkey and, in what was widely seen as proof of his strong opposition to coexistence, he recently transferred his mother's ashes to northern Cyprus from his birthplace in the south of the island.

For most Greek Cypriots, Denktash is a man they love to hate. They accuse him of opposing a solution because he does not want his power to be diluted or to relinquish any territory. The Turkish Cypriots, one-fifth of the population, control 37 percent of Cyprus's territory. Clerides wants a future federation to have as strong a central government as possible and for most of the 180,000 Greek Cypriots displaced by the Turkish invasion to be able to return to their homes. "I will never surrender my country smaller [than it is]," Clerides has said on many times.

He insists the Turkish Cypriots will have nothing to fear under the UN-proposed bi-zonal federation, where each community would retain a majority in the area it controls.

With such seemingly irreconcilable views, negotiators like American Richard Holbrooke, the godfather of the Bosnian peace accords who is now also assigned to solving the Cyprus problem, will have their work cut out. "Clerides and Denktash are utterly charming and civilized, but I think Holbrooke might find them as tough ... as the Balkan bullies he dealt with at Dayton," says a European diplomat in Nicosia.

Yet mediators are convinced that it would be impossible to find two men better placed to sell a deal to their respective peoples, whose trust and respect they command.

And both realize the alternative is more instability that could even bring their rival motherlands, Greece and Turkey, into war.

Clerides's experiences as a young bomber pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force in World War II helped shape his political career by showing him the horrors of armed conflict at an early age. He was shot down over Germany, taken prisoner, and managed to escape after spending a year in chains.

But his most haunting memory is of a bombing raid over Hamburg, Germany, in which 1,000 aircraft dropped 4,000 tons of explosives in just five minutes: "When you witness that," he says. "You begin to have a belief that problems should be solved by means other than by war."

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