Cypriot showdown draws near

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The Independent Online
Despite powerful urgings from the West and even blunter warnings from Turkey, the Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus seems hell-bent on going through with its potentially explosive plan to install Russian-built S-300 anti-aircraft missiles in the south of the island, whoever wins this month's close-fought presidential election.

Earlier, the 78-year-old incumbent, Glavkos Clerides, seemed to be coasting to victory, but weekend polls now put him neck and neck with the former foreign minister, George Iakovou, for Sunday's first round. This means a second-round run-off on 15 February, in which all will depend on how minor party voters switch their support.

Whatever happens is, however, unlikely to change the prospects for the island as it embarks on arguably its most perilous year since the partition of 1974, during which it will open entry negotiations with the European Union, amid new tensions between its rival patrons, Greece and Turkey.

Mr Clerides again insisted yesterday that the missiles were an essential deterrent. And Mr Iakovou, having once warned that installation of the missiles could "blow up" the situation on the island, now promises that, if elected, he would deploy them even faster than the 18 months foreseen in the deal with Russia. In practice, the campaign has largely turned into a bidding war, as to who can be "tougher on Turkey".

One small comfort is that Ankara, which has threatened to destroy the missiles, or seize them en route as the ships carrying them passed through the Dardanelles (thus almost certainly provoking a military conflict with Greece), is now talking less belligerently. But such is the threat to the fragile stability of the eastern Mediterranean that Britain, the EU and the US want deployment put off indefinitely.

An infuriated Ankara is threatening to knit the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus even more fully into Turkey proper - in which case, hopes of the bi-communal, bi-zonal federal settlement for which the UN is working would be dashed, probably for good.