Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Of Missiles and Mediators: On Cyprus, Tensions Rise

Greek, Turk Cypriots yesterday recalled a Turkish invasion, then resumed saber rattling.

Dawn broke yesterday in Nicosia, the divided capital of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, to the wail of Greek Cypriot air-raid sirens marking the Turkish invasion of the island's north 24 years ago that displaced a third of the population.

Greek Cypriots held church services in memory of the estimated 3,000 soldiers and civilians who were killed.

About these ads

Across the "green line" in northern Cyprus, it was a day of celebration, a time to remember Turkey's "peace operation," which Turkish Cypriots say saved them from the violent excesses of right-wing Greek Cypriot nationalists determined to unite the island with Greece.

To the fury of Greek Cypriots, Turkey yesterday sent five warships and seven military aircraft to northern Cyprus for the ceremonies, which were watched by Mesut Yilmaz, Turkey's prime minister.

Nearly a quarter of a century after the island was divided, the international community is far from its goal of reuniting Greek and Turkish Cypriots under a federal roof. Both are drawing closer to their respective motherlands, while the attention of foreign mediators focuses on preventing renewed military conflict as the clock ticks toward the Greek Cypriots' planned deployment in November of Russian-made antiaircraft missiles. Turkey has threatened to knock them out. As Greece has a defense pact with Cyprus, this could ignite a Greco-Turkish war.

According to President Glafcos Clerides, the Greek Cypriot leader, the Cyprus problem is facing its "most crucial period since the Turkish invasion."

Earlier this month Russia demonstrated the missiles' potency to visiting Greek Cypriot servicemen, launching several at dummy rockets flying over the remote Astrakhan desert. A week later, Turkish warplanes practiced evading such missiles during an exercise in Israel, according to Turkish press reports.

Even if Turkey can be persuaded not to attack if the missiles arrive, there are fears of an explosive arms race on what the United Nations already has classified as the most heavily militarized piece of real estate on earth. Mr. Yilmaz this month threatened installation of missiles in northern Cyprus, while the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, told Greek Cypriots "you will get a response to whatever you do."

The coming weeks will see a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at defusing tensions. Thomas Miller, the US State Department's envoy to Cyprus, flies to Nicosia Friday, while Britain's diplomatic big gun, Sir David Hannay, arrived on the island yesterday.

About these ads

They come just days after Mr. Clerides met Russian President Boris Yeltsin at the Kremlin, where both leaders confirmed the $420 million missile deal was on track. The controversy over the S-300 missiles has generated valuable publicity for Russia's arms industry while deepening the rift in NATO's southern flank.

YET foreign mediators say there is a window of opportunity to defuse the crisis. Despite Clerides's public posture, diplomats are convinced he is seeking a face-saving way out of the missile deal, the announcement of which he used to help win reelection in February's presidential elections.

He argued the missiles were vital to Cyprus's defense in the face of Turkey's superior forces. But privately, Greek Cypriot officials made clear the missiles had been ordered mainly to focus the world's attention on Cyprus.

With that now achieved, further brinkmanship is beginning to threaten tourism, essential to the economy. The missiles are also distracting international attention from Clerides's main goal: a Cyprus solution.

He has set what he regards as a modest price for cancellation: substantial progress in UN-sponsored negotiations to reunify the island or an agreement to demilitarize Cyprus. Washington has been lukewarm to a Greek proposal for the US or NATO to police a no-fly zone over the island.

It would be "very difficult for any NATO country to get involved in enforcing a no-fly zone that involved other NATO countries," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said last week.

But Mr. Miller is expected to urge both Greece and Turkey to support a UN Security Council-supervised, self-policed "moratorium" on overflights. Miller and Sir David will also press for the resumption of peace talks. Clerides and Mr. Denktash have not met for nearly a year.

Denktash declared the peace process "dead" last December when the European Union decided to begin accession talks with Cyprus, represented by the Greek Cypriot administration.

Denktash insists that the EU freeze these talks and that the international community recognize the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Washington's last major initiative collapsed in May when Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's special envoy, left Nicosia after blaming the Turkish side for refusing to drop these same demands.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.