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Cyprus Rut Gets Deeper

In an episode of war games better suited to Hollywood than to two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey last week faced off in the sky over Cyprus.

Turkish warplanes buzzed the plane of Greek defense minister Akis Tshohatzopoulos on his arrival and departure from Greek military exercises on the east Mediterranean island.

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Though no harm was done, the situation was left no less tense, as subsequent threats between Athens and Ankara intensified.

Only after the intervention of NATO's Secretary General Javier Solana and the US State Departmenthave things died down - for now, at least.

While such an incident might easily be dismissed as another round of melodramatic confrontation between Greece and Turkey, this episode was particularly ominous for its relation to Cyprus, and the collapsing state of political affairs between the island's Greek Cypriot south and its Turkish Cypriot north.

Cyprus is about to undergo a political and military upheaval that will strongly affect the island's fate: likely EU membership for Cyprus (internationally recognized under its Greek Cypriot leadership) and next spring's deployment of a sophisticated missile system in the south.

Turkey, as the sponsor of the breakaway "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," has responded to such moves with threats of war and further "integration" of the north of the island with Turkey. No, diplomats - including Richard Holbrooke, the newly appointed US mediator on the island - are working overtime to avoid just that.

As one former State Department envoy to Cyprus recently noted: "With the level of tensions running this high, no one can rule out war at this point."

While the island's situation is probably best known for the stubborn positions of each side's leadership, it is the long legacy of failed international efforts - mainly from the UK, the US, and the UN - that is more remarkable.

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Twenty-three years since Turkey's 1974 invasion of the island, persistent questions remain: Why has this country been left in heavily militarized obscurity as Europe's last divided country? What has made the so-called "Cyprus Question" an annual spectacle of frustrated diplomacy?

Has such failure been simply by chance or because of poor design?

Increasingly, it seems the latter. These efforts have been limited to the attempt to accommodate the hard-line views of both sides, resulting in ambivalent, often contradictory positions - a classic case of diplomatic wheel-spinning.

This double-edged diplomacy has been demonstrated in three main areas:

* First, there is intense political competition between the Cypriot government and Turkey to gain favor with the two main power brokers on the island, the EU and the US.

Greek Cypriots see the EU as a strong ally, with whom they are eager to secure their rich economy and political position.

Turkey, resentful of the EU's snub of its candidacy, sees a stronger partner in the US, whose regional political and economic interests in Turkey it believes will keep Washington tilted in its behalf.

* The second aspect is the UN-designed plan for a reunification of Cyprus's north and south, which calls for a "bi-communal, bi-zonal" federation of the two sides under a weak central government.

Yet such a plan seems to promote more division than unity, allowing as it does for separate flags, separate foreign policies and separate legislatures.

Again, the message is mixed. Greek Cypriots, who have been pining for the island's full unification, wonder if this is a formal partition of the island.

Turks ask, if the plan goes this far, why are we simply not recognized as the sovereign state we have so long wished for?

* The third aspect concerns the confused moral question of Cyprus. There is - or should be - something disturbing about a country the size of Maryland divided by a "green line" of 1,200 UN troops, 30,000 additional Turkish troops, and the apartheid-like containment of two populations.

Oddly, international leadership has weakly shied away from taking any strong stance.

Hundreds of UN resolutions abound on Cyprus, calling for everything from the removal of Turkish troops to the return of property, yet nothing is enforced.

This too leaves a message: We have some idea of what should be done here - we just aren't sure what.

For over two decades the situation on Cyprus has amounted to little more than the international community's acceptance of what is otherwise a reprehensible status quo.

Officials will insist that the best that can be done on Cyprus is to keep the two sides from each other's throat - little is said of how diplomacy will change its actions to insure that.

* Marcia Christoff Kurop is a former UN correspondent for the Monitor and writes frequently on Greek affairs.

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