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Signs of Thaw on Divided Isle of Cyprus

September 25, 1988|G. H. Jansen | G .H. Jansen, based in Nicosia, has covered the Middle East for many years.

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — The worldwide wave of detente and rapprochement has at last washed up on the fabled shore of Cyprus, an island divided between warring camps of Greeks and Turks for 16 years. Optimism emerged from a meeting 10 days ago between representatives of the two communities, President George Vassiliou of the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. Appropriately, the session took place in a former hotel that is now the barracks of a Canadian contingent of the U.N. Peace Force. The building straddles the green line that divides the island.

This first negotiating session was agreed to when the two leaders, after a gap of three years, met in Geneva last month. Progress has been built into the schedule of their meetings: The two will settle things directly between themselves; committees will only consider the minor details; the meetings could take place two or three times a week, and "peace in Cyprus" is supposed to be agreed on by June of next year.

This surge towards reconciliation has a basis in personality: the Greek Cypriot side has a new interlocutor. Vassiliou, in office since February, is an open and cheerful man, in contrast to his somewhat dour predecessor, Spyros Kyprianou. Vassiliou and Denktash established a personal rapport, notably lacking between leaders on both sides for many years.

So far so good, and all the auspices are favorable, but the harsh reality of the situation on the ground is expressed in a curiously prim placard displayed high on the precipitous rampart of the old Nicosia city wall built by the Venetians. Just across the road leading to the hotel lies the Turkish sector of this divided city and beneath the flags of Turkey and Turkish Cyprus, next to a steel-helmeted sentry, this sign says, "Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted." Meaning, "If you Greek Cypriots try to cross the green line you will be shot."

When a group of Greek Cypriot women tried to walk back to their old homes in the north a few months ago, they were stopped abruptly by a heavily armed, bazooka-pointing unit of the Turkish army.

That incident and others--like the flying of kites bearing friendly messages across the dividing line, described by the U.N. force as "provocative"--show there is a strong desire to get together again on the Greek Cypriot side.

Yet the warning sign is typical of the response from the breakaway regime led by Denktash. At the popular level, however, there are hopeful signs even on the Turkish Cypriot side. Encouraged by the Geneva meeting and the talks here, the two main Turkish Cypriot parties opposed to Denktash--and they are almost 50% of the electorate in the north--have launched a signature campaign for a petition to the United Nations asking for negotiations, a peaceful settlement and a federal solution. Greek and Turkish Cypriot correspondents covering the meeting here mingled without the slightest sign of hostility.

Denktash may be the major impediment to peace. He still seems rooted in the past, with memories of old Turkish grievances--some justified. He has been the Turkish Cypriots' advocate for more than 30 years. On the day before the Geneva talks began, he referred to the government of the republic as "a false government," even though it is recognized by more than 150 states, while his administration is recognized only by Turkey. A few days ago Denktash said the reunification of the island could take 20 or 30 years. The new spirit of bonhomie between two leaders cannot conceal the fact that they disagree profoundly on important issues of political principle. Thus, both have given their approval, publicly, to the idea that a settlement must be on the basis of "a bizonal federal structure," but they differ greatly on the details.

The Greek Cypriots, 80% of the population, want a federation with one state, one president, one foreign policy and one economy. In Geneva, however, Denktash spoke of "a federation with boundaries"--meaning Greek Cypriots would not be permitted to live, move freely or own property across certain lines. These "three freedoms," as they are called, are the humanitarian heart of the Greek Cypriot case because they directly affect Greek Cypriots who are refugees from the northern area occupied by the Turkish army since 1974.

The Greek Cypriots, who have proposed a wholly demilitarized Cyprus placed under U.N. protection, want the Turkish army contingent of 29,000 men to be withdrawn. Denktash agrees, but only after every detail of the settlement is approved, and that could take a long time. He has also rejected the idea that the 55,000 mainland Turks who have settled in the north--to the dismay of the native Turkish Cypriots--should be asked to go home. His party is kept in power with a slender majority provided by the political parties representing these settlers.

Underlying these political problems is another personal one. For the last 13 years, Denktash has been the "president" of his breakaway statelet. In Turkish he bears the high-sounding style and title of cumhurbaskani --leader of the republic. Small wonder he opposes any federal arrangement that would take him down a peg to become cumhurbaskani yardincisi , or vice president.

Several years ago and again more recently, the Greek Cypriots have discussed the possibility of getting around Denktash's personal ambitions by offering to make him the president of a united Cyprus--with suitable safeguards. Denktash may be sorely tempted but he is unlikely to yield to temptation from the other side.

So the intercommunal talks are bound to be prolonged and difficult, but even when the two leaders agree to differ, at least it will be with smiles and cordial handshakes.

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