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CAN TURKS AND GREEKS LIVE IN PEACE ON CYPRUS?
Miss Turkey wasn’t even born when her country last invaded Cyprus. But in May the dark-eyed beauty queen skipped this year’s Miss Universe 2000 pageant, held in Nicosia, after Cyprus turned down Turkey’s demand that she travel through the Turkish-occupied northern part of the island.
Despite such occasional prickly little dust-ups, however, this is one international conflict that appears headed for a friendly resolution—spurred in part, ironically, by the devastation of last year’s earthquakes in the region.
Cyprus is a Mediterranean island country inhabited mostly by people of Greek or Turkish descent. In addition to ethnic differences, the population is divided between Christians and Muslims.
The disputing parties may never go walking hand-in-hand into the sunset; but with a new round of United Nations-sponsored reconciliation talks expected soon, they appear closer than ever to agreement on how to live in peace—an object lesson for other parts of the world.
"Cyprus can and must become a showcase—living proof of how different races and religions can live together in harmony," Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou told the American Jewish Committee in early May.
UN TALKS POSTPONED
A United Nations negotiating session scheduled for early May in New York was postponed due to the illness of Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides. But in a meeting in Athens, high-level Greek officials agreed that the talks should be expedited, especially in light of applications by both Cyprus and Turkey to enter the 15-member European Union.Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash also urged the United Nations to avoid delay. A new date for the talks was set for early July in Geneva.
Greece already has gone a long way toward easing tensions with Turkey by declaring its support for Turkey’s EU application.
Relations between the Greek and Turkish communities on the island suddenly became a lot warmer in the aftermath of a series of earthquakes last year. The worst tremor resulted in more than 15,600 deaths and 600,000 driven from their homes August 17 in a magnitude-7.4 quake in northwestern Turkey. Greeks were prominent among the more than 1,000 relief workers from 19 countries that responded. Turks joined in relief efforts when Greece was shaken.
The turnaround in attitudes was startling. Another recent tragedy that helped bring the two sides closer was the case of two children with leukemia, one Turkish Cypriot and the other Greek Cypriot. Blood donors turned out from both sides of the dividing line to offer assistance. An even more concrete signal of easing tensions was the arrival last week of a dozen Turkish F-16 warplanes on a Greek military airfield, the site of a NATO exercise as part of the alliance’s annual maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean. The Turkish fighter pilots—whose government has come to the brink of war with Greece three times in the past 26 years—saluted the Greek airfield commander as they landed.
These favorable signs notwithstanding, a "green line" patrolled by UN peacekeepers remains in place, dividing the Turkish northern third of the island from the Greek-dominated southern part. Richard C. Holbrooke, a special envoy of President Clinton, has described the bitter animosities that have separated the two communities as far worse than the differences between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims.
European Union talks begun in 1998 aimed at admitting Cyprus have been another recent source of mutual hostilities. The Turks fear admittance of the Greek government of the south only, leaving the self-proclaimed Turkish government in the north facing an enemy endorsed by all of Europe. The current troubles in Cyprus have their roots partly in medieval conquests and partly in the breakup of 19th and 20th-century British colonial rule.
Inhabited by Greeks since antiquity, Cyprus came under the domination of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. During a period of 19th-century Russian imperialistic expansion, the weakened Ottoman government in 1878 induced the British to administer Cyprus—which nevertheless was to remain formally under Turkish control.
By that time, Greek Cypriot nationalism and "enosis," the idea of uniting all Greek lands with the newly independent Greek mainland, already had taken hold on the island.
Agitation for union with Greece developed even as Great Britain annexed Cyprus at the beginning of World War I, and peaked in the 1950s, after Britain announced that because of Cyprus’s strategic importance, it would not allow any change in the island’s political status.
After prolonged negotiations and a terrorist campaign, Cyprus became an independent country in 1960. Fighting between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who demanded setting up their own enclave, followed. UN peacekeepers arrived in 1963 when the Turkish contingent withdrew from the government.
After a failed coup by supporters of union with Greece, Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and almost immediately set up a provisional government. The northern third of the island in 1983 proclaimed itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—a nation recognized to this day only by itself and Turkey.
The United Nations has long advocated creation of a federal state consisting of two politically equal communities, rejecting the North’s continued demand for sovereignty. Greece has indicated it would support something along the lines of two separate zones locally administered under a federal government.
But before any agreement can possibly be reached, centuries of suspicion and blood grudges will have to be overcome.
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