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The Thin Green Line

Is Cyprus really on the verge of reunification?

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2003 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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WITH NORTH KOREA AND IRAQ dominating the headlines, you might have missed the news from Cyprus. Now before you hit that back button let me explain why this matters, and not just to Greeks and Turks.

The island of Cyprus has become a political pawn in Turkey's bid to gain entry into the European Union. Cyprus has been divided for the last 28 years, with more than 30,000 Turkish troops occupying the north after an abortive 1974 coup (which was backed by Greece). To this day, Turkey is the only country that recognizes President Rauf Denktash's "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus." If Greek and Turkish Cypriots agree on Kofi Annan's U.N. proposal for reunification, mainland Turkey will no doubt garner praise for its having applied proper pressure, and be given a date to start accession talks with the European Union. And if Turkey is invited to join the European Union, it would have to withdraw its troops from northern Cyprus--lest it be accused of occupying a fellow member's territory. Pulling out of the island would bolster its struggling economy--especially important if war in the Middle East breaks out. And Turkey will then be likelier to allow the deployment of 80,000 U.S. troops along its 250-mile border with Iraq. And having a base on that border would make the logistics of a U.S. invasion easier. So you see, it does matter what happens on Cyprus. Really.

But what's the news? Lately on the island, there's been a feeling (among some) similar to the days before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets and threatened to storm the barricades and dissolve the U.N.-patrolled "Green Line." Western media have been critical of how Denktash has handled the U.N. peace proposals. London's Independent called him an "obdurate old man." A New York Times editorial added, "Mr. Denktash refuses to get the message. Concerted diplomatic pressure, including Washington's, is needed to end his destructive opposition."

Some of that pressure may also come, for a change, from Ankara. In years past, Turkey has been steadfastly on the side of the Turkish Cypriot government, stationing its troops there and allowing large numbers of Anatolians (now more than 100,000, compared with 85,000 native Turkish Cypriots) to settle there. But after the recent elections in Turkey, Prime Minister-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Erdowan) raised eyebrows by saying he was "not in favor of following the Cyprus policy that has been followed for 30 or 40 years." Even more stunning, he said, "This business is not Mr. Denktash's personal business. . . . It's the struggle of a [Cypriot] nation for existence." He also commented on the recent protests' not being "an ordinary or chance event" and that "you can't just sideline what the people think."

Erdogan is right that the rallies were not just a chance event. In fact, they've been gaining momentum over the last few months. The first of these protests took place on November 28, 2002, when approximately 20,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets of northern Nicosia (the divided capital). Then, the day after Christmas, roughly 30,000 demonstrated. This week, police estimated that as many as 50,000 marched, demanding that Denktash agree to the U.N. peace proposal (Reuters says that some 70,000 participated). According to the BBC, "Schools and shops were closed and demonstrators were bussed in from other towns in the north of the island . . ." Some of the banners read "Give peace a chance" and "We want to be prisoners no longer."

If you ask Cypriot ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis in Washington, she will tell you that "2003 will be the year of Cyprus." "I am indeed more hopeful now than I ever have been before," she said. "The reason is Cyprus's E.U. membership, which is now a reality and the true catalyst for a peaceful reunification." She believes "Turkish Cypriots realize that they too have been victimized by the division of our country, imposed by Turkey. And they want out of that predicament. . . . Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots know where their real interests lie and they will continue their efforts, jointly or separately, to reunify their country and bring it as one country and one people, as a member of the European Union."

So you've got Turkey taking a more critical stand on the Denktash government, Western media issuing editorials in favor of reunification, and throngs of demonstrators taking to the streets. Not to mention pressure from the State Department and U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, who, in his annual news conference, said "we are within striking distance of reuniting Cyprus." It's just a matter of time, right?