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Window for a Solution To Greece-Turkey Clash

February elections in Greek Cyprus, and island's bid to join EU, may spur peace talks.

Optimism is so rare a commodity in divided Cyprus that, even when many now say a "window of opportunity" for a solution will open soon, analysts pinch themselves to make sure they are not dreaming.

Cypriots have heard it all before: 1997 was supposed to be "the" year for peace in Cyprus, an eastern Mediterranean island half the size of New Jersey but, per capita, one of the most militarized places on earth.

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But hopes raised by President Clinton's past promises of a quick settlement and high-profile American involvement dissipated amid a growing arms race and continued mistrust.

Turkey reacted strongly on Jan. 26 to the opening of a Greek Cypriot air base over the weekend at Paphos, where Greek fighters are meant to be based. Turkey has warned that to counter any Greek presence it would upgrade a small civilian airport for military use.

The Paphos base was seen by the Turk-Cypriots and by Ankara as compounding a Greek-Cypriot move a year ago to bring in Russian S-300 antiaircraft missiles, which would challenge Turkish air superiority over the island.

Turkey has said it would destroy the missiles.

But despite an entrenched array of problems and stubborn leadership of both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, who have ruled a divided island since Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 - envoys again speak with hope in their voices and predict progress.

Current optimism stems from a confluence of several factors, analysts say, and sheer hope that all sides take accurate measure of their real interest in peace. But there are still plenty of potential pitfalls, they warn, that also must be overcome.

The new "opportunity" will occur after Greek- Cypriot elections in late February, and before the internationally recognized government of Cyprus begins talks over EU membership in the spring. Already largely agreed is the basic format of a solution: a bi-zonal, bi-communal state under a single federated umbrella.

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"Unlike the stalled Middle East peace process, in which outstanding issues like Jerusalem mean that no one knows the final outcome, in Cyprus all the bits and pieces are at hand," says Gustave Feissel, UN chief of mission. "It just takes the political will."

Why Cyprus matters

Tucked neatly beneath the underbelly of Turkey, Cyprus is barely noticeable on a world map, and its longstanding ethnic division is often forgotten.

But because it is so highly militarized, the slightest change in the military or political balance here sets off a chain reaction, locking Greece and Turkey in a battle for influence. Any sign of friction between these two Western allies, one a member of the European Union, and both part of NATO, brings superpower envoys running.

"Solving the Cyprus problem is never just a question of Cypriots, but it affects an area from the Balkans to the Middle East," says Niyazi Kizilyurek, a Turkish- Cypriot political scientist at the University of Cyprus on the Greek side of the capital, Nicosia. He is critical of Turkish and Greek policies in equal measure.

"The whole area can't be stable until you solve the Cyprus problem - it is a global interest," he says. "But there are very serious dangers because of how easily each side antagonizes the other."

The key sticking point remains security for each community. Turkish troops invaded Cyprus 24 years ago, calling the act a "peace operation" to protect the rights of the ethnic Turkish minority. Turks on the island felt threatened by a Greek-led coup engineered to unify Cyprus with Greece. Some 3,000 Turkish troops remain on the northern third of the island, and Turkish Cypriots want their rights guaranteed by any peace.

Ethnic Greeks, on the other hand, fear their military inferiority in the face of Turkey, which - after the United States, has the largest conventional force in NATO. Greek-Cypriot forces numbering 10,000 rely on the "motherland" Greece for leadership and support, though that logistics line is long and vulnerable.

"More than 70 to 80 percent of Greek Cypriots believe that Turkey ultimately aims to occupy all of Cyprus," says a European diplomat. "This is a deep-seated belief that, even if untrue, creates instability."

A bid for world's attention

President Glafcos Clerides has said the Paphos air base decision was made to draw attention to the Cyprus problem - to show that it was a "volcano" capable of erupting at anytime - and that he might cancel the $416 million deal if there was progress toward peace.

But diplomats say the ploy backfired by sidetracking diplomatic efforts, especially American ones. And on Jan. 9, Mr. Clerides restated his call for the missiles.

Turkish planes are equipped to counter the S-300, but the ministry of defense has exaggerated the threat, claiming these short-range defense missiles can be equipped with nuclear warheads to target Ankara.

"The security of both communities on Cyprus will be the key to any solution," says Fatma Azgin, a Turkish Cypriot peace activist. "The Turkish Cypriots have a security problem because they are a minority on the island, while the Greek Cypriots have a security problem because they are a minority in the region."

This dynamic, analysts say, means that regional power Turkey, more than any other player, must decide peace in Cyprus is in its interest.

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