Deadline On Cyprus

People power, Cypriot style. What else to call it when 30,000 demonstrators--nearly 20 percent of the population of the Turkish part of the divided island--turn out on the streets of Nicosia? Five hundred kilometers away in Ankara, the old man against whom they were protesting watched and, he told reporters later, wept.

Rauf Denktash, 78, is the besieged last defender of a fading order. Once he was the firebrand leader of Cyprus's Turkish community. For more than 30 years he has passionately--even fanatically--opposed any attempt to reunify Cyprus. But as the Greek side of the island prepares to join the European Union, his own people are delivering a clear message: they don't want to be left behind. "We are stuck in a time warp," says Cem Ozturk, 23, an activist in the Turkish Cypriot opposition. "We say, 'Enough, take this chance before it's too late'."

That chance is the opportunity to finally reach a settlement reunifying Cyprus--and give the island's Turks, as well as its Greeks, a share in the wealth and progress that membership in Europe will bring. But the clock is ticking. The EU has given the two Cypriot factions until Feb. 28 to sign a deal. The United Nations has drafted a plan that could be a blueprint for peace, but old man Denktash remains obdurate. "I'd rather die than sign," he said last week, despite the massive protests against him. His wish almost came true late last year, when he underwent heart surgery and negotiations stalled. If Denktash continues to duck deadlines, for reasons of ill health or otherwise, the last chance that Ozturk and other young Cypriots dream about will pass. Turkish Cypriots will be left in limbo, neither inside Europe nor part of Turkey--a constant source of friction, not only between Greece and Turkey but also for all of Europe. A failed deal in Cyprus could well sink Turkey's own bid for EU membership, crystallizing a fast-emerging fault line between Muslim and Christian Europe.

Denktash may yet be thrust aside. Apart from the growing disaffection of his own Cypriots, there are signs that his support in Ankara is also ebbing. The Turkish military occupied the northern third of the island in 1974 and has been the northern Cypriots' financial and political sponsor ever since. But recently a new government has taken power, led by the Islamist-rooted but fervently pro-Europe AK Party. Its leaders have so far shown little willingness to be held hostage by one man's stubbornness. "You cannot ignore public feeling," the party's leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said recently, declaring his opposition to Turkey's past four decades of policy on Cyprus. "Thirty thousand people demonstrating means that northern Cyprus is moving in a new direction."

Such opinions are widely held throughout Turkey these days. The country's media increasingly describe Cyprus as an "anachronism" and a "liability." Business groups decry the damage done to Turkey's EU bid by the continuing impasse. The problem is Turkey's so-called deep state--the unelected Army generals and senior bureaucrats who play at least as important a role in Ankara's decision making as its elected leaders. This nationalist old guard sees Cyprus as a vital Turkish interest and supports Denktash's hard line. Yet their influence on policy seems to be weakening under growing international pressure. The EU, the United Nations, Greece, the United States and Britain, Cyprus's former colonial master, are all pushing both Denktash and the Greek Cypriot leader Glafkos Clerides to reach a deal--and they are warning Turkish conservatives not to interfere. "The sound of Cyprus over the next month will be of heads being knocked together," says a U.N. official in Nicosia.

The diplomats will have to overcome two basic sticking points. The first: now that the Greek Cypriots are formally "in" the EU, they have less incentive to cut a deal with their impoverished Turkish neighbors. Indeed, 65 percent oppose it. Without unification the Greeks won't have to share structural funds with the north and will keep their ethnic homogeneity. The second problem is even thornier: how to handle the large numbers of Turkish settlers living in houses taken from their Greek owners in 1974, and vice versa. Should properties be returned? Should there be financial restitution? The U.N. plan envisions a full return of property, over 20 years, with aid for those affected. It remains to be seen if Ankara's new government can outmaneuver Denktash and his old-generation cronies. But it's fitting that the most visible force for change should be the young. A new generation of Turkish Cypriots is trying to wrest their future out of the hands of the old men. Sooner or later, they will win.