Ending Cyprus conflict takes on new urgency Old game of chicken with new missiles, F-16s, warships


NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Standing at the checkpoint that divides the capital city of this island, Andreas Kouloufides shows his 4-year-old daughter a grisly photographic display of the violent clashes that mark the Greek Cypriots' centuries-old conflict with their Turkish cohabitants.

"It is the way she is going to live," the 54-year-old bank employee explains.

His matter-of-fact attitude reflects the intractable nature of an abiding conflict that has divided Cyprus along ethnic fault lines for decades. The struggle engages rivals Greece and Turkey, whose historic enmity has flared with deadly consequences on this sun-baked, pine-scented island.

Resolving the conflict has taken on a new urgency as American emissaries try to forestall a fall shipment of Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to the Greek Cypriot government. Turkey, which keeps 38,000 troops in the north, has threatened a military strike if the missiles arrive. Cyprus is a mere 40 miles from the southern coast of Turkey.

Greece, which has about 2,000 soldiers stationed in the south as part of a defense pact with the Greek Cypriots, has said a Turkish strike would mean war.

Missiles aren't the only problem. Four Greek F-16 fighters and a cargo plane briefly stopped at a newly completed airport on the Greek side of the island Tuesday, angering the Turks. Five Turkish warships showed up off the northern coast yesterday, infuriating the Greeks.

Making matters worse, the European Union once again rebuffed Turkey's attempts to join the EU, while proceeding with the plan to allow Greek-run Cyprus to become a member.

The United States recently stepped up efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the conflict. It opposes the missile purchase.

"We've never denied that Cyprus has a right to make its own defensive decisions," Thomas J. Miller, the state department's coordinator on Cyprus, said in a recent interview.

"The missiles are not the deterrent that they might be; what they are in fact is a magnet. They make the resolution of the Cyprus problem that much more difficult."

Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Cyprus, described the overall problem succinctly in an interview this month with the Los Angeles Times.

"It's not a quiet, peaceful place. It's always one spark, one overflight one misunderstanding away from fighting," he said. "This, in turn, leaves us with two NATO allies -- Greece and Turkey -- very important to our security, always also one event away from fighting."

Recent efforts by Miller and Holbrooke to spur Cypriot negotiations have been unsuccessful. Holbrooke, who brokered the Bosnia peace accords, blames the Turkish side for the standoff.

Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader, who relies on Turkey's military and financial support, issued new demands for the start of talks, insisting on the Greek Cypriots' withdrawal of their EU application and on full recognition of his self-declared Turkish Cypriot republic, which no one except Turkey recognizes.

"We want them to accept reality," said Denktash in a recent interview. "Two people, two languages, two religions, two governments, two states. The problem is the claim of the Greek Cypriot side that they are the government of Cyprus and they can speak for Cyprus."

The island's tranquil beaches and bucolic mountains belie a suspended state of unease.

Scattered across both sides of the island are ghost villages, emptied during the population exchange that followed the 1974 Turkish invasion. A U.N. peacekeeping force of about 1,200 patrols the 112-mile length of the cease-fire line.

"It's an island of two embattled, threatened minorities," said one Western diplomat. "Each side focuses on a different part of history. Each side has missed opportunities."

Cyprus always has been an embattled place, envied by empires for its strategic location. The Greek presence on the island dates to 1600 B.C. The Turks arrived with the Ottoman Empire's conquest of the island in 1571. The British gained control of the island in 1878.

Cyprus won its independence in 1960 -- with the help of Greece and Turkey. Treaties established a government in which Greek majority would share power with the Turkish minority. But they also guaranteed the right of Greece and Turkey, the so-called motherlands, to intervene on behalf of their respective countrymen.

In 1974, a Greek Cypriot-led coup, backed by the military junta then in charge in Athens, ousted the elected president, Archbishop Makarios.

Turkey, saying the coup plotters would seek annexation by Greece, invaded the island. Fighting ensued with massacres perpetrated by both sides. By the time a cease-fire was called Aug. 16, Turkish forces controlled 36 percent of the island.

More than 160,000 Greek Cypriots in the north were moved south and about 65,000 Turkish Cypriots were sent to the occupied north. The land and homes lost in the population exchange remain a thorny problem for today's negotiators.

Over the years, numerous attempts to rectify the Cyprus conflict have met with no success. In the meantime, the Greek side, with full international recognition, has flourished. The Turkish side has not.

The Greek Cypriot side is flush with tourists, more than 2 million a year, compared to the north's 365,000. It has dozens of offshore banks, offices of multinational corporations, and problems with money-laundering.

The economy and people of the Turkish side rely on Turkey for financial support. The average income among the 170,000 Turkish Cypriots is $4,000, substantially less than the $20,000 average among the 657,000 Greek Cypriots.

There have been few violent incidents between the two sides since 1974, but the brutality of past events is vividly recalled and magnified by both sides. Many Greek Cypriots view their government's purchase of the Russian missiles with those events in mind.

Sociologist Nicas Peristianis, 44, was a young Greek Cypriot soldier during the 1974 Turkish invasion. He remembers the Turkish planes flying overhead. They might not have moved so freely if the Greek Cypriots had had a stronger defense system.

"This is probably the only place where even the pacifists support the S-300s," said Peristianis. "We feel we are totally exposed. In Cyprus, there is an uneasy balance. Maybe that's why the impasse is so intractable."

Yet, he acknowledges. "It's a difficult and dangerous game we are playing."

Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader and a lawyer who helped draft the island's 1960 constitution, said in his interview the Greek Cypriots are "playing with fire."

"We are taking precautions in order to enhance our security against the missile danger. Turkey is doing the same," he said.

While their leaders rail at each other, ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots have had little contact in 24 years.

Neither group can travel freely across the island, which is less than half the size of Maryland.

Relations were dealt another blow in December when Denktash stopped his citizens from attending programs aimed at breaking down the wall between the two communities.

The programs -- concerts, youth camps, mediation workshops, scientific meetings and Internet projects -- drew 2,000 participants, a relatively small but important number, supporters said.

"What we were trying to do is start some kind of communication between the two communities, build up trust and encourage the leadership to be more brave about finding a solution," said Dervis Besimler, a Turkish Cypriot businessman.

Besimler and his Greek Cypriot colleagues have been called traitors for promoting cooperation between the two sides. But he and others believe their work will help bring about a solution to the Cyprus problem.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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