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Last Tango in Cyprus

The leaders of the Mediterranean island's Greek and Turkish sectors are resuming talks in what many see as two wily old foes' final attempt at compromise.


NICOSIA, Cyprus — One is 82, the other 77. They met as opposing lawyers in a string of terrorist trials nearly half a century ago and have grown old trying to outfox each other in one of the world's most intractable armed standoffs.

Their common obsession has spawned a respectful but wary friendship. They have no doubt spent more time conversing than many married couples do, and their periodic estrangement has been punctuated by jovial barbs, traded through the media, about each other's advancing girth and age.

Over the decades, the bantering, backslapping chemistry between Glafcos Clerides, Greek Cypriot president of the internationally recognized government of Cyprus, and Rauf R. Denktash, his younger Turkish Cypriot counterpart, has become a legendary counterpoint to their chronic failure to negotiate an end to the 38-year-old conflict.

But faced with growing outside pressure and a one-year deadline, the two men have opened a new round of contacts that is viewed as their last and most promising effort to bridge the Mediterranean island's rigid ethnic partition.

At issue is Denktash's claim--recognized only by Turkey and enforced by about 35,000 Turkish troops--to rule the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on one-third of the island. Asserting sovereignty over all of Cyprus, Clerides' government insists on reunification in exchange for a wide measure of local autonomy for the Turkish Cypriots, who are outnumbered 3 to 1 by the far wealthier Greek Cypriots.

Face to face for the first time in four years, Clerides and Denktash met Dec. 4 in the U.N.-controlled buffer zone that has separated their parts of the island since 1974. They agreed to resume formal negotiations there today in the presence of U.N. envoy Alvaro de Soto.

Later in December, each leader crossed the cease-fire line for the first time since 1975 and dined as a guest at the other's home. They met again informally Friday to discuss how to search for the bodies of more than 2,200 people who disappeared in ethnic fighting in the 1960s and '70s.

The men, who call each other by their first names, are treating each step with a sense of urgency.

"As far as Clerides and myself are concerned, I think this is the last tango," Denktash said in a recent interview, noting that his rival is not expected to seek reelection early next year. "We cannot waste this opportunity."

"They know each other so well that there can be no tricks," said Greek Cypriot government spokesman Michalis Papapetrou. "If Denktash will be a little reasonable, we can reach a solution, because Clerides means business."

The new talks are being driven by an expected vote next December on Cyprus' bid to join the European Union and by hopes that EU membership can bring prosperity to both parts of the island if a rapprochement comes first.

As that deadline looms, each Cypriot leader is sounding eager to supplant his legacy as co-perpetrator of the conflict with the image of a peacemaker.

A History of Negotiating

Denktash was the Turkish Cypriot community leader and Clerides president of Cyprus' House of Representatives when ethnic violence erupted in December 1963, three years after independence from Britain. They were chief negotiators during the explosive year 1974, when Greece's military junta sponsored a coup that aimed to make Cyprus part of Greece, prompting a Turkish military invasion that left 6,700 people dead or missing and a total of 215,000 displaced on both sides.

The two British-trained lawyers go way back. In the 1950s, Clerides was a defense attorney for accused terrorists of EOKA, which resisted British rule. Denktash, who helped found a Turkish Cypriot paramilitary group to counter EOKA, was a prosecutor for the colonial administration.

Clerides lost those trials but not respect for his adversary. In 1964, he ventured into Nicosia's embattled Turkish quarter to drive Denktash's wife and children to the airport and get them safely aboard a flight to Turkey. Later that year, with Denktash under arrest, Clerides says he got wind of a plan to have the prisoner "shot while escaping" and helped win his safe release.

The Greek Cypriot leader's four-volume memoir, "Cyprus: My Deposition," is tinged with regret for his failure in the early 1970s to persuade then-President Makarios to restore the autonomy that Turkish Cypriots had lost in 1963. That, Clerides writes, would have prevented the island's violent partition.

Hope for a Cyprus accord has long been based on a belief that Clerides is driven to reverse the disastrous result of that miscalculation and that Denktash is equally determined to end the poverty and international isolation of his self-proclaimed ministate. But their decades of talks have frustrated a who's who of statesmen, from Henry Kissinger to Kofi Annan.

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