A People's Revolution?

Does this story ring a bell? A country is divided by a frontier running through its major city, leaving one part poorer and politically backward, ruled by an elderly ideologue and kept going economically only by the support of a powerful neighbor to the east. The other part becomes prosperous and European. Suddenly the wall comes down, and thousands of easterners cross over for the first time in a generation to see the prosperity of their neighbors. Awed by the openness and obvious dynamism of this more modern world, they apply en masse for western passports--sending tremors through their own regime's legitimacy.

Berlin, 1989? Try Cyprus, 2003. Since April, when the government of Turkish Cyprus opened its borders, more than half a million Cypriots from both sides of the divided island have crossed over to see how the other half lives. Turkish Cyprus's fiercely nationalist president, the 79-year-old Rauf Denktash, hoped the move would defuse popular anger at the breakdown of U.N.-sponsored talks to reunify the island and strengthen support for his policy of independence. He was wrong. Instead, more than 40,000 Turkish Cypriots--nearly a quarter of the north's population, and climbing--have taken the opportunity to apply for Greek Cypriot passports that would allow them to travel freely not only in Cyprus but throughout the European Union.

That's created a crisis for Denktash, who insists that Turkish Cyprus must remain a sovereign state--a hard position to maintain when a growing number of your people are also citizens of a supposedly hostile neighbor. In July Denktash declared that Turkish Cypriots who had applied for Greek passports would be ineligible to vote. He backpedaled on that threat as soon as advisers told him he would have almost no voters left. "Many Turkish Cypriots are taking matters into their own hands," says one EU diplomat in the region. Faced with Denktash's continued refusal to sign a deal to reunify the island, they're doing the next best thing--unifying it themselves, one by one. Like East Germans in the waning days of communism, they are voting with their feet.

Back then, the desire to have passports and travel freely heralded regime change. Will it be so, today, in Cyprus? "People are fed up with being second-class citizens," complains Ridvan Karadag, a Turkish Cypriot journalist. "We want to travel like all normal Europeans." Passports issued by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are good only for travel to Turkey. But when Greek Cyprus joins the European Union next May, its passport holders will be allowed free travel, work and settlement rights throughout the Union--an attractive proposition for the impoverished Cypriot Turks, whose GDP is less than a third that of the South.

Denktash has lately enlisted the help of conservative allies inside Turkey to fight a rear-guard action. Ankara's Foreign Ministry quietly decreed last month that Turkish Cypriots couldn't leave Turkey on a Greek Cypriot passport. Ibrahim Yolcu, a local businessman, found out about the new rules the hard way. He'd gotten as far as Istanbul on his way to Germany with his new Cypriot passport when he was told he couldn't leave until he'd obtained a Turkish passport, plus a hard-to-get German visa. "Do you want me to go Larnaca [on the Greek side of Cyprus] and fly to Germany from there?" shouted Yolcu. No, leaving via Greek Cyprus would be illegal, too, he was warned by the Turkish border officials, because Denktash's government doesn't recognize Greek ports of entry.

Imposing this absurd bureaucratic twister isn't likely to endear Denktash to his people. Parliamentary elections will be held in the north in December, and polls show support for Denktash's policies down to 27 percent, with his strongest backing coming from those older than 55. But Denktash has one more card up his sleeve to cement his little republic's independence and woo back discontented voters--economic integration with Turkey. A bilateral Customs Union with Ankara was to be signed in August, making North Cyprus effectively a part of Turkey for the purposes of tax, tariffs and investment. (They already have the same money and phone system.) One problem: Turkey is itself a member of the EU's Customs Union, and Brussels was furious at a move which could undermine its longstanding efforts to reunify Cyprus. When the EU's Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen warned Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that the slated Customs Union could damage Turkey's own bid for EU membership, the plan was quickly sent back to the drawing board. Thanks to pressure from hawks in Ankara's powerful bureaucracy, it's expected to re-emerge in slightly watered-down form in late September, after Turkey's leaders return from a high-profile European tour to build support for Turkey's own EU bid.

All this means that the aging bosses of Turkish Cyprus are on a collision course with their people. Patriotic slogans about integration with the motherland ring hollow against the promise of an open Europe. If Germany is any guide, there's not much doubt about the outcome.