Cyprus in search of a solution


Washington -- HIS ENEMIES insist that Rauf Denktash is the imaginary president of an imaginary country. He says, to the contrary, that he is the real president of a real country. It gets worse.

The European Human Rights Commission avers that Denktash's Turkish Cypriots, who inhabit the northern third of the beautiful and divided island of Cyprus, do not exist as a "body politic." But U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar says that the two Cypriot communities -- Greek and Turkish -- not only exist but do indeed comprise "two politically equal communities."

That gives Rauf Denktash, a physically big man with an agile political mind, cause for some optimism -- finally.

"For the first time, the resolution of Javier Perez de Cuellar has given us some hope -- for the first time, the political equality of the two groups has been officially underlined," he told me as he visited here. "The secretary-general has said in his report that there is no minority in Cyprus and that the two communities now have to agree totally on everything."

Cypriot President George Vassiliou (a Greek Cypriot, and officially the president of all of Cyprus), not surprisingly, does not agree at all with that. "The Turks," he has sniffed, "are 400-year-old guests in Cyprus."

If the gulf war were to have an effect on any of the multifarious problems lurking in the political casbahs of the Middle East, probably the first place to look would surely be Cyprus. The divisions there -- between the Turkish quarter of the population and the majority Greek population -- are ancient ones that were frozen in the apparently permanent division of the island in 1974. Turkey, which supports with troops Denktash's widely unrecognized, self-proclaimed "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus," played a major role in the gulf war and is actively playing a new and activist role in the Middle East. But . . .

Cypriots on both sides of the conflict have paused only to argue vociferously that Cyprus is most definitely not to be compared to Kuwait -- and, thus, a problem with a potential solution. Only, Denktash adds still another twist to the convoluted situation. "If the Turkish troops here were to leave," he told me, "what happened to the Kurds in Iraq would happen to us Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus."

In sharpest contrast to the world that most Americans perceive, beautiful Cyprus is a riddle, an eternal "problem" for which there are no solutions, a thorn in the sensitive skin of reason. Americans like to think that every problem has a solution. The American view of the world -- the view that sends secretaries of state scurrying about the Middle East like errand boys -- finds it impossible to accept that the Arab-Israeli conflict probably has no solution in our lifetimes; and neither does Cyprus.

And so we see, once again this year, the dour leaders of all sides making their appointed rounds at the United Nations with new "peace plans" so heavy they can barely carry them. We see President Vassiliou meeting May 30 at the White House with President Bush and we see volumes of fusty legalese being applied to the search for, in Perez de Cuellar's words, a "new constitutional arrangement for the state of Cyprus that will govern the relations between the two communities on a federal basis . . ."

The inexorable passing of time, with the Greek and the Turkish Cypriot communities now physically and psychically frozen into their areas, with almost no passage permitted back and forth, does bring about its own clarifications. Glavkos Clerides, one of the most respected politicians on the Greek Cypriot side, recently wrote a book, "Cyprus: My Deposition." In it, he said that in the '70s, the Greek Cypriot position was to make the Turks "a minority in a Great Cyprus republic" and that the late Archbishop Makarios would not allow Clerides to sign a peace agreement with the Turkish Cypriots because they would not accept minority status. This certainly seems to confirm the Turkish Cypriots' oldest status-conscious suspicions.

Some new foreign policy elements may well come out of the gulf war. Some may take a little longer than the administration hoped. But in confounded conflicts like that of Cyprus, where antagonistic nationalities have since ancient times fought endlessly over questions of legitimacy, it is almost as if the war had only passed quietly into the night.

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