Resolving the Cyprus Problem

This article appeared on Copley News Service, December 7, 1999.

The old French Embassy stands mute, a ghostly presence in theU.N.-controlled Buffer Zone in Cyprus. It, like scores of other buildings, was abandoned 25 years ago as invading Turkish forces battled ethnic-Greek Cypriot troopsin the island's capital of Nicosia. U.N.-brokered talks, with a major push from Washington, D.C., have begun in New York to end Cyprus' division. ButWashington should beware attempting to impose a short-term fix masquerading as along-term solution.

Cyprus is one of the most vexing international issues. Settled by theancient Greeks, the island later fell under the Ottoman Empire, which ceded Cyprusto Great Britain a century ago.

Independence came in 1960 as an uneasy compromise between ethnic Greekswho wanted "enosis," or union, with Greece, and ethnic Turks who preferred "taksim," or partition. Britain retained bases on the island and agreed,along with Greece and Turkey, to act as guarantor of the new state.

But the divided government soon broke down, with ethnic Greeks takingfull control. Inter-communal violence broke out in 1963, pushing ethnic Turks,about 18 percent of the population, into small enclaves. A U.N. peacekeepingforce arrived in 1964, but was unable to prevent continued ethnic killing.

The two sides sharply disagree over causes and casualties. However,argues one American official familiar with the issue, the exact number is lessimportant than the resulting sense of insecurity.

In July 1974, the military junta in Athens fomented a violent coupagainst the leftish Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Turkey then led atwo-stage invasion, capturing 37 percent of the island, including many of the mosteconomically important areas.

Virtually all ethnic Greeks fled from the north and ethnic Turksabandoned the south, leaving Cyprus effectively ethnically cleansed. The BufferZone, established along the cease-fire line, now divides the island and ispatrolled by U.N. forces.

Discussions on resolving the impasse commenced almost immediately andhave persisted intermittently for a quarter-century. The bitterness of thecontroversy and depth of antagonism match the barrenness of the lifelessBuffer Zone.

The divide is reflected in the language, which itself is highlypolitical. The current round of negotiations almost foundered because one U.N.communique referred to President Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash.

Clerides represents the Republic of Cyprus, which is recognizedinternationally as the government of the entire island. Since only Turkeyrecognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the United Nationsreferred to Denktash. But he is demanding official recognition and politicalequality for Turkish Cypriots.

This is, in fact, the most critical issue. Will there be one sovereignor two? The difference is not easily bridged between proposals for onenational government, as recognized today, with substantial zonal autonomy, and twonational governments, as demanded by Turkish Cypriots, with cooperation ona few national issues.

There are myriad other vexing issues: mobility between zones,compensation for lost property, security guarantees, presence of Turkish troops,membership in the European Union, accounting for missing people, status of Turkishimmigrants. Decide sovereignty, however, and answers to these othersshould be within (though not easy) reach.

The Clinton administration deserves credit for pushing the "twosides," as they have been officially termed, to talk. Even though the discussions arewith U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, not each other, in what are called"proximity" talks.

Greece and Turkey are participating indirectly. Turkey's application tojoin the European Union, which requires the acquiescence of Greece, isuniversally viewed as an informal part of any package deal.

The latest negotiations may set the stage for future progress, but theadministration should not attempt to spirit the two leaders off to someisolated location and create a Dayton-like accord for Cyprus. It is critical thatany agreement be sustainable over the long term unlike the Dayton treaty forBosnia.

Today, Bosnia is no closer to real peace than when the agreement was originally signed in 1995. The three different ethnic groups remain lockedin a cold war and would prefer to live separately; the "nation" survives onlythrough military occupation by the West; pervasive corruption andfavoritism cripple Bosnia's administration; reconciliation remains an unattainableideal.

Cyprus cannot afford a similarly unsustainable settlement imposed from outside. Ethnic conflicts are devilishly complicated to resolve. Trust is devilishly difficult to re-establish. Compromises are devilishly hard tomake.

The abandoned buildings, barbed-wire fences, and more than 100minefields in or near the Buffer Zone stand as silent witnesses condemning the hatredsthat have divided an island.

A solution to what both sides call the Cyprus problem is long overdue.But Cypriots need a solution that will survive, enabling them to live togetherin harmony.