War could come closer to home than Iraq

Rupert Cornwell on a divided island
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NICOSIA - It's not so much a wall as a no-man's land of crumbling villas, sandbagged pillboxes and coils of rusting barbed wire, populated by semi-feral cats. This is the Green Line, the physical barrier running through the heart of Europe's last divided city. But green could soon shift to red, as in red alert. For the "Cyprus Question" - that tangle of Greco-Turkish rivalry and nationalism, steeped in history and in blood - is with us again.

At this point, readers may already be throwing up their hands. A UN plan (or to put it in the curious jargon of Cyprus peacemaking, a "non-plan" complete with "non-maps") has been around since 1992. It provides for a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation between the estranged Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot parts of the island. So it's having a rough ride - but what else is new? Despite the best efforts of the cleverest diplomats to achieve a settlement, Cyprus has been partitioned since the Greek-inspired coup and subsequent Turkish invasion of 1974. So why not accept the status quo: why try to federate communities that cannot abide each other? Unfortunately, the status quo is highly unstable. Cyprus is a mess, and a dangerous mess.

Consider a few facts. Greece and Turkey, the patron powers of the two communities, are snarling at each other across the Aegean. They carry out regular military exercises around Cyprus, including such confidence- building measures as buzzing planes carrying each other's defence minister. The Turks have stationed 35,000 soldiers in the unrecognised "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC). In response, the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, covering the Greek Cypriot two-thirds of the island, is about to install Russian anti-aircraft missiles. Turkey has said it will "take out" the missiles. But the Cyprus Government has a defence agreement with Greece, so any Turkish intervention could trigger war with Greece.

On top of this, the European Union is about to open entry negotiations with Cyprus. When the EU gave the green light in 1995, it seemed a good idea - a catalyst that one way or another would change the Cyprus equation. Well, it's changed it, but for the worse. Turkey's own relations with the EU have plumbed new depths as a result of the rejection of its own application for membership, while the TRNC is furious, maintaining the Greek Cypriot government has no right to act on its behalf, and that the EU has tilted unpardonably to the Greek cause. And so all is blocked.

Raul Denktash, the President of the TRNC, has vetoed any Turkish Cypriot participation in the entry negotiations, and now insists there will be no restart of intercommunal talks for a Cypriot settlement, until his Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is acknowledged as a party with equal status to the purely Greek Cypriot, Republic of Cyprus. No way, says the latter. But Denktash insists on recognition: "If we don't put our backs up and fight for our rights then the other side will do us in," he told me in his Presidential Palace a few hundred yards north of the Green Line. By "do us in" he does not mean war. The Greek Cypriots realise that even with Russian missiles and modern Russian tanks, they are outmatched by the Turkish troops already on the island, not to mention the firepower available on the mainland just 40 miles distant.

Peaceful defeat, however, is another matter, and the future as seen from northern Nicosia offers little cheer. The south may boom, but only Turkey recognises the statelet of 180,000 people over which Denktash presides, meaning that a politically unstable country with a shambolic economy and a wheelbarrow currency is his sole commercial, financial and diplomatic outlet to the world. In a modest pizzeria by the old harbour at Girne - better known as Kyrenia, where the Turks (invaders or rescuers depending on which community you belonged to) landed in 1974 - a million Turkish pounds, equal to pounds 3 sterling, buys just a beer and a sandwich. But Denktash has no choice but to snuggle closer, asking Ankara for more money and placing his men as unofficial diplomats in Turkish embassies abroad. Yet the last thing he wants is full political integration with the motherland. Northern Cyprus's per capita income may be a mere third that of the south. But it's still a great deal richer than mainland Turkey.

Now it should not be beyond the wit of man (or more precisely the wit of Richard Holbrooke, who knocked heads on Bosnia and is now US special envoy on Cyprus) to find a means of fudging the recognition issue. And in two weeks, when the south's election is out of the way, a Cyprus president with a fresh mandate - perhaps the incumbent Glavkos Clerides - may find it easier to make concessions. But don't bank on it. Like Ireland, Cyprus wears history as a boulder round the neck. For Denktash and Clerides, as with Gerry Adams and David Trimble, the same principle obtains: if it makes the other guy happy, it must be bad for me.

And so stalemate festers. It's hard to imagine two communities with different languages and faiths, whose last memory of each other was coup, invasion, and reciprocal bloodletting, ever getting together again. But it's harder still to swallow the prospect of deepening partition, a reciprocal arms build-up, and smouldering hostility between the patron powers, Greece and Turkey, that could be re-ignited by a single careless spark in Cyprus. Clerides and Denktash have been sparring about the Cyprus Question for nearly half a century. It's rarely been so important they finally reach an accommodation. And, sadly, rarely so unlikely.