Leading Article: Let's try harder to heal the wounds of Cyprus

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The Independent Online
The killing of two Greek Cypriots during anti-Turkish demonstrations on Cyprus is the most serious setback in many years to international efforts to keep the peace, reunite the island and settle one of the world's oldest disputes. Recent efforts, led by the United States, have concentrated less on the territorial and constitutional issues which are the core of the Cyprus problem than on measures to reduce military tensions along the United Nations buffer zone that separates the Turkish-occupied north from the Greek Cypriot south. This week's clashes threaten to destroy even this cautious US initiative.

Responsibility for the violence last Sunday and Wednesday lies partly with the Greek Cypriot protesters, some of whom were clearly trying to provoke an incident with the Turkish authorities by breaching the UN buffer zone and threatening to burst into the Turkish north. However, the Turkish response was too severe. Shooting unarmed demonstrators and UN peacekeepers (two British soldiers were wounded) cannot be justified under any circumstances. Moreover, the demonstrations were sparked by the fact that Turkey and its Turkish Cypriot clients have defied international opinion by perpetuating the division of Cyprus for 22 years.

Turks defend the 1974 invasion on the grounds that it followed a Greek- inspired coup intended to bring about Cyprus's annexation by Greece. Yet this serves as no excuse for everything that subsequently took place in northern Cyprus: the expulsion of almost all ethnic Greeks, the seizure of Greek property, the settlement of Anatolian Turks to consolidate the area's Turkish identity, and the proclamation of a separate Turkish Cypriot state recognised by no country except Turkey. Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots have done wrong to each other in their island's troubled history, but - as numerous UN resolutions and reports have recognised - the main obstacle to progress has long been the Turkish reluctance to reverse Cyprus's de facto partition.

Western governments, including Britain, as the former colonial power, can hardly be said to have made Cyprus a foreign policy priority over the past 22 years. That has served to strengthen the perception of Cyprus as the sort of problem that just never gets solved. Yet, for all the difficulties, there continue to be opportunities for imaginative diplomacy.

As in Bosnia, it may be too late to recreate Cyprus as a state where different nationalities live in mixed communities. An entire generation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots has grown up not knowing what it is like to have a member of the other nationality as their neighbour. Enemy stereotypes prevail in each side's view of the other. Ethnic separation has become a fact of life. However, to accept separation is not to accept partition of Cyprus into two states, each with international legal status. The best solution remains the UN proposal for a bi-zonal federation with cast-iron guarantees for Turks as the smaller nationality. There would be only one Cyprus for international purposes, but Turks would play a full role in the state's political, economic and cultural life and suffer no discrimination. In time, the question of compensation for those Greeks who lost property in the north would have to be addressed, but it should not delay agreement on setting up the federation.

As things stand, this proposal seems unacceptable to Turkey, which insists that northern Cyprus is a separate state. Yet Turkish and Turkish Cypriot attitudes may change as a result of the European Union's decision to open membership negotiations with the internationally recognised government of Cyprus. The talks will probably start in the first half of 1998 and could be concluded by 2001, because Cyprus's entry would pose few economic problems to existing EU members.

The EU hopes to bring in Cyprus as a united country, not just the Greek south, but says that failure to settle the island's Greco-Turkish disputes should not hold up Cyprus's admission. Should negotiations on reuniting Cyprus remain deadlocked, the EU could take in the Greek south alone. By raising that prospect, the EU aims to concentrate Turkish Cypriot minds and generate momentum towards a political settlement on Cyprus.

Yet if this strategy is to succeed, the EU must show the Turkish Cypriots over the next four to five years that it is overwhelmingly in their interest to join the EU with their Greek compatriots. A strong case to this effect can be made. Living standards in northern Cyprus are about one-fifth the level of those in the Greek south, and will continue to stagnate as long as the north is burdened with the presence of 30,000 soldiers from Turkey. Foreign investment is low, and unlikely to pick up while the north is stuck with the label of a pariah state.

Yet such arguments will make little impression if Turkey insists on maintaining Cyprus's partition. Here is where the US comes into play. As Turkey's major ally, it must make a more determined effort to break down Ankara's intransigence over Cyprus. The US should try to modify the apparent impression of Turkish leaders that Washington cares little about Cyprus when weighing it against Turkey's strategic importance to US interests.

Overcoming the Cyprus dispute is no easy task. It could still be with us 20 years from now. Nevertheless, we should not give up. The status quo is undesirable and, as this week's events have shown, full of latent dangers. More can, and should, be done.