Breaking The Deadlock

For three decades the infamous green line has divided Cyprus, a strange little slice of the cold war transplanted to the sleepy Mediterranean. Sentries slouch drowsily over their machine guns, amid sandbags and barbed wire. Greeks and Turks on either side live as separately as East and West Berliners once did, their mutual suspicion running deep and seemingly unbridgeable. Yet soon all that may crumble into the dustbin of history, leaving Cypriots blinking in the sunshine and wondering what the fuss was about. The instigators: two men who have known each other for more than half a century--the past 30 as implacable political adversaries. Last week the president of the Republic of Cyprus, Glafcos Clerides, 82, and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, 77, sat down at a U.N. mansion on the Green Line. Their mission: to break the two-generation-old deadlock and reunify their island homeland.

No one pretends it's going to be easy. Dozens of talks have been held since the island's division in 1974, none leading anywhere. But this time may be different. As the island prepares for membership in the European Union, both sides know they have a lot to lose. Like a playground fight that threatens to get both squabblers banned from lunch, the Cypriots realize it's time to make up. As Denktash put it, heading into the talks: "This is going to be our last tango."

And a complicated dance it is. After years of careful diplomacy in Brussels, Greece has persuaded the EU to accept the ethnic-Greek Republic of Cyprus as a new member, with or without the Turkish third of the island. In fact, Cyprus tops the list of candidates for accession in 2004; final negotiations begin this fall. If the ethnic-Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, fails to rejoin the republic, the Greeks say they'll go ahead and join the EU anyway--leaving the Turks out in the cold. Eurocrats hate that prospect but have little choice. The EU is hell bent on enlargement to the East, and Athens threatens to veto the whole show without the inclusion of Cyprus.

That puts the pressure on Turkey, northern Cyprus's de facto sponsor and sole ally. Ankara aims for admission to Europe, as well, albeit on a later schedule. And irony of ironies, little Cyprus will be able to keep it from doing so, once the republic itself becomes a member. (When it comes to the club of Europe, unanimity still rules on matters of admission.) Turkey thus finds itself on the spot. If mainland Turks don't put the screws on their island brethren to do a deal on reunification, they themselves will pay a heavy price.

All this explains why diplomats have never been more optimistic. But there's more: the mood among Cypriots has changed as well. U.N. Special Envoy Alvaro de Soto calls it "a new wind that is blowing"--a growing realization by ordinary people on both sides that it's time to put old grievances behind them. A day before the meeting, hundreds of Turkish Cypriots marched in Nicosia, holding candles and singing (get this) Greek folk songs. "Denktash, sign or resign," they chanted. On the other side of town, several hundred Greek Cypriots also marched and chanted, "Forward to a united country." "We no longer have the luxury of not talking," says Umit Suleyman Onan, a former Turkish Cypriot negotiator. "The world has changed. We have to reach an agreement and live on this island in tranquillity."

Doing so will take a major adjustment of attitudes. To outsiders, the Cyprus standoff has all the intimate bitterness--and pettiness--of a family row. A Turkish general recalls how one set of negotiations in the late 1980s got off to a bad start when he asked for Turkish coffee. His Greek counterpart said no, sorry, they had only "Greek coffee." Thus began an argument about the Turkish Siege of Vienna in 1683, which introduced coffee to Europe.

As with all such disputes, the roots go deep, fed by history, real or imagined. Greeks and Turks coexisted peacefully on Cyprus until British colonial rule ended in 1960. After several years of uneasy calm, sectarian fighting broke out, spurred by terrorist vendettas. The Turks withdrew from the government and, in 1974, after nationalist Greeks attempted a coup against the government with the aim of merging Cyprus with Greece, the Turkish Army invaded and occupied the northern third of the island. Greeks and Turks on both sides fled their homes and businesses. To this day, hotels along famed Famagusta Beach stand empty, suitcases abandoned by fleeing holiday makers still lying open in the rooms. More than 1,600 Greek Cypriots disappeared in the invasion, along with around 600 Turks. Their fate remains one of the most emotive issues in the talks. Another is whether Greek Cypriots will be able to reclaim property in Turkish territory, and vice versa.

Today, the two communities seldom meet and mutual ignorance is the rule. "They might as well be living on the moon," said a Greek Cypriot of his Turkish counterparts during a recent town-hall meeting, jointly organized by mainland Greek and Turkish television. It is physically impossible to telephone one side of the island from the other, let alone cross the Green Line. And the economic divide is vast. Turkish Cyprus is poor and seems stuck in a time warp, with shoeshine boys, dilapidated cars and cafes with (Turkish) newspapers on sticks. And to the south? It's not quite Havana to Miami, but close. Greek Cyprus is modern Europe, with per capita incomes three or four times higher than in the north--and the gap widens every year. For Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike, that financial fact may in the end be the most compelling argument of all.

The deal isn't yet done, of course. Push officials in Ankara hard enough, and you will hear talk of their reluctance to "lose" Cyprus, as the Turkish media routinely put it. That's partly because the Turkish military deeply distrusts the Greeks, and partly because it was Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit who sent the Army to Cyprus in the first place--and who as recently as last week in Washington was still talking of "two states" in Cyprus. Nonetheless, the challenge is clear. "If Cyprus isn't solved this year it may never be solved," says Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. Whether that deal takes the shape of a confederation of Cyprus or a return to the pre-1974 federation, with the island's Turks fully involved, remains to be seen. The 30,000 Turkish troops stationed in northern Cyprus will be an issue, as will Turkish Cypriot fears of an economic recolonization of the north by rich Greeks. But on paper, at least, "there are no issues that can't be negotiated," says the former Greek Cypriot president George Vasileou. As he sees it, there is no longer a choice. Here's hoping that the two old men, talking over Cypriot coffee in their villa in no man's land, understand that, too.