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?

Not exactly. When it comes to the U.N.'s redrafted "Basis for Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Cyprus Problem" (totaling 157 pages), both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot negotiators have issues that still need to be addressed. The Republic of Cyprus wants a right of return for its citizens who fled south after the arrival of the Turkish army in 1974. Denktash doesn't agree with this. Nor does he want a readjustment of borders that would lead to a loss of territory. If reunification happens, then Turkey has a problem with the more than 100,000 Turkish settlers whom Greek Cypriots consider to be residing on the island illegally. As one Greek Cypriot diplomat explained to me, "most of [the Anatolians] will have to be repatriated to Turkey in the context of a solution." Indeed, they would need passports to travel back and forth from a non-E.U. nation.

The Turkish Cypriot representative in Washington, Osman Ertug, agrees that the battle is far from over: "I do not regard the present protestations as reaching critical mass." He even discounts the magnitude of the protests, saying "the numbers given are highly exaggerated." He estimates the real number of protestors to be about half of the official reports but admits that "no one can claim to have the exact figure."

Ertug (and his government) does not deny there is visible dissent in the north, and there does exist what he calls a "desire for a settlement and reconciliation." But the current plan, which calls for a "Swiss style" confederation of cantons and overall reunification under a weak central government and a rotating presidency between the two federal regions, is still deemed by Denktash as unacceptable. Meeting yesterday with Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides, Denktash insisted the plan has little support among his people.

Contradicting this, however, is a January 6 poll taken by Kibris, the largest-selling daily newspaper in northern Cyprus, asking 1,194 people if they were in favor of a snap referendum on reunification. 65.4 percent said "yes," while 28.2 percent said "no." Ertug counters by saying "there are polls showing exactly the opposite. In the final analysis, there is only one poll that I fully trust and that is the democratic elections [for] the Parliament and the President. What happens in between, although not irrelevant, cannot and should not determine the fate of a government or a leader."

At 78 and ailing from a bad heart, Rauf Denktash may not be up for reelection. In fact, as the Turkish Daily News noted, if he falls under pressure from Ankara to sign a deal he finds unacceptable, Denktash may very well step down. That pressure, according to Gerald Robbins, a Turkey expert, is more than palpable: "The incoming Justice and Development Party's mentality towards Cyprus and particularly Denktash is 'we don't owe you anything.' The traditional thinking within Ankara used to be that Turkish blood was shed in 1974, so until recently it was always a nationalistic issue soaked with emotions. The 'bloody shirt' doesn't resonate with the new government however. Part of this is due to the differences between Anatolians and Turkish Cypriots, Denktash being considered more of a hindrance than an asset when it comes to E.U. accession talks, and the view among a majority of Turks that a Cyprus accord is a back door for keeping that membership drive going."

Ertug, on the other hand, points out that despite some of the statements issued by the Turkish government, Denktash still has the strong support of Turkey's own National Security Council. This council is still the most powerful force in the country with the authority to intervene in national affairs. And as long as it backs the "TRNC" position, reaching an agreement will be a tremendous challenge, no matter how many people protest--thus making a complicated situation even more complex. The entire island will technically join the European Union, but 37 percent of the northern territory will not be able to enjoy E.U. privileges. And some experts speculate that Cyprus as a member of the Union will in all likelihood vote against Turkish accession in retaliation.

Robbins, however, disagrees: "The [Turkish] military seems to be on the sidelines with this. I'd conjecture that the 'bloody shirt' scenario has given way to a consensus that the E.U. push is more important, the ultimate destination of Ataturk's eighty-year-old secularist policy. As long as Greece is amenable (which their newly assumed presidency is), the brass will go with the flow. The Eastern Mediterranean in 2003 isn't 1974."

For Rauf Denktash, it still is.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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