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Next big push for peace: Cyprus

President Clinton's visit this week to rivals Turkey and Greece isplacing more pressure on the two to reconcile.

First there was South Africa. Then came the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Two by two, warring communities around the world have come together in search of reconciliation.

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Now comes Cyprus, the Mediterranean island partitioned for the past quarter century between Turks and Greeks.

Nobody expects President Clinton's visit this week to Turkey for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit, with a later stop in rival Greece, to resolve their differences overnight. The president last week described that goal as "perhaps the hardest challenge" now facing US foreign-policy makers.

But the trip is being seen in the region as evidence that Washington is ready to throw its weight behind the two countries' efforts to come to terms with each other in the strategically sensitive eastern Mediterranean.

"There will be pressure the likes of which the two sides have not seen until now," predicts Soli Ozel, who teaches international relations at Istanbul's Bilgit University. Adding to that pressure will be the European Union, a grouping that Turkey is anxious to join, and in which Greece is keen to play a greater role.

The two neighbors and fellow NATO members have long been rivals in the Aegean; they have been on the brink of war three times in the past 25 years. But international efforts to stabilize the region have enjoyed a boost from an unexpected quarter - ordinary Greeks and Turks.

The outpouring of popular sympathy and aid from Greece for victims of the massive earthquake that struck Turkey in August, killing more than 17,000 people, took political observers by surprise. When Turks showed a similar response after an earthquake shook Greece a month later, the brighter mood spread.

Though official relations between Athens and Ankara had been quietly warming for some months, the expression of popular feeling made "a critical difference," says Mr. Ozel. "The earthquakes eliminated the excuse that the people would not stand for an amelioration" in ties.

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The quakes tumbled preconceptions as well as buildings, adds Theodore Couloumbis, director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens. "They burst the bubble of permanent enmity, the idea that the two peoples are chemically incompatible," he says.

Motivating both sides as they move cautiously toward each other is a common desire to bind their futures to Europe. Turkey is expected finally to be accepted as a candidate for EU membership at an EU summit next month, while Greece, already a member, is struggling to meet the economic criteria necessary to join the euro, the common European currency.

At the same time, international pressure is growing because the two countries' differences further complicate a region where instability has already proved catastrophic, as in Kosovo.

"Cyprus is such a poisonous issue that it renders NATO's southeast flank unstable," points out Ozel. "With security and stability in Southeast Europe more critical now, there is less tolerance of this" in Washington and other NATO capitals.

That does not mean it will be easy to reach agreement on the future of Cyprus, the thorniest of the problems that divide the two countries. A former British colony, the island has been partitioned since Turkish troops invaded the north in 1974 to defend ethnic Turks in the wake of a coup by Greek Cypriots who wanted to unite the island with Greece.

A ray of hope has broken through, with the Nov. 14 announcement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan that Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders have agreed to resume negotiations they broke off two years ago.

Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash - who have been under heavy pressure from Washington, European leaders, and the United Nations - will hold "proximity talks" - meaning that they will not be in the same room - in New York in December.

Mr. Denktash, supported by Ankara, is holding out for two separate and independent states in Cyprus. Mr. Clerides is seeking a unified state that gives ethnic Turks broad autonomy.

In the meantime, Turkish and Greek foreign ministry officials are meeting regularly to discuss low-profile issues such as double taxation, tourism, the environment, and terrorism, before tackling tougher territorial disputes.

This "bottom up" approach is designed "to create an atmosphere of mutual confidence," explains Seyfi Tashan, director of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara. "This is in process."

It will not necessarily be a fast process, warns Professor Couloumbis. "We haven't crossed the threshold; we are not out of mutual mistrust yet," he says. "But I am guardedly optimistic ... that we are entering a new era."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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