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BOSTON GLOBE, NOVEMBER 17, 2002
2002-11-18 18:37:46

Hopes for Cyprus settlement emerge
By Helena Smith, Globe Correspondent, 11/17/2002
ATHENS - Glafcos Clerides, the president of Cyprus, has never been one for theatrics. The veteran RAF fighter pilot, whose political career goes back 50 years, has the reserve of an older generation who grew up on the Mediterranean island when it was still a British colony.

But this month, the leader of Cyprus' internationally recognized southern sector indulged a little as he launched the replica of an ancient sailing vessel off the coast of the divided island. ''This ship,'' he said, ''sends a message of optimism and hope for tormented and long-suffering Cyprus.''

Like the wooden trireme, which will soon make history by sailing all the way to Greece, Clerides carried high hopes yesterday as he arrived in Athens armed with a UN peace plan that has raised expectations of reunifying Cyprus 28 years after a Greek-orchestrated coup prompted Turkey to invade the northern third of the island. The proposed settlement foresees Cyprus operating as two ''component states'' with a central government, one seat at the UN, and a common currency.

World leaders, including President Bush, who telephoned Prime Minister Costas Simitis of Greece to discuss the plan Friday, agree that the 150-page document represents the best chance in decades to resolve the West's longest-running diplomatic dispute.

After 11 months of intense but fruitless talks between the main parties, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Monday submitted the settlement, drafted by US and British envoys, to the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Last night, Clerides hinted that the Greek Cypriots, the island's majority population, would almost certainly accept the UN blueprint as the basis for further negotiations when he answers Annan tomorrow. ''I don't want to show my cards at this stage,'' he said after discussing negotiating strategy with Simitis. ''I do know that both sides will want to make amendments.''

After the collapse of the two communities' lone attempt at cohabitation since Britain granted independence to the island in 1960, Cyprus has been regarded as the Rubik's Cube of diplomacy, pitting two obdurate NATO members against each another.

Tensions along the UN-patrolled cease-fire line that divides ethnic Greek from ethnic Turk have brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war. But a confluence of events - not least Cyprus's looming entry with nine other candidates into the European Union, and Turkey's long-stated desire to also join the bloc - has made a settlement ever more imperative.

Solving the Cyprus conundrum, US officials say, would not only bring peace to a volatile region but remove the greatest thorn in Greco-Turkish relations. With the prospect of war against Iraq still possible, a settlement would also ensure stability on NATO's edgy southeastern flank.

''We attach a great deal of urgency to a solution now,'' Thomas Weston, the US State Department coordinator for Cyprus, said last week after holding talks in Athens. ''It's very important that the proposals put forward are ... intensely studied, for they are an opportunity that has not existed in this form for a long time.''

Annan has given both rival parties a month to make peace before the crucial EU summit, where enlargement will be decided, on Dec. 12. Brussels says that while it is ready to admit Cyprus without a solution, it is nonetheless desperate to avoid having the bloc's borders ending at a barbed wire fence.

Since 1974, Turkey has maintained some 35,000 troops in the breakaway north of the island, which unilaterally declared independence 19 years ago. If Cyprus enters the EU while divided, Washington fears it would permanently derail Turkey's own bid to join the bloc because the country would be put in the unique position of militarily occupying a member state.

Turkish leader Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that if Cyprus unites under the UN plan, a proposal he supports, Cyprus should not join the European Union until Turkey does.

The veteran Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, has repeatedly threatened that Turkey will annex the northern sector if Cyprus joins the EU without a solution. The Greek government, in turn, has warned that it will veto the admission of nine other Central and East European states if Cyprus's candidacy is rejected.

''In a sense, it is us who have our fingers on the nuclear button,'' said one Greek ambassador, referring to the threat. ''Of course, we wouldn't want to scupper enlargement, especially when we're assuming the EU presidency in January, but if Cyprus is rejected we might have no other choice.''

The forthcoming negotiations, say officials, will ultimately boil down to trade-offs across issues.

Denktash has said that the major stumbling block will revolve around territory. ''Land is undoubtedly going to be the big issue,'' Denktash, who is in New York recovering from open-heart surgery, told reporters last week.

Under the UN plan, the Turkish Cypriots, who control 37 per cent of the island, would yield between 7 percent and 9 per cent of the territory snatched by the Turkish army in 1974.

But like Clerides, Denktash is under formidable pressure to accept the plan. Morale in the breakaway republic, which is recognized by no other country but Turkey, has hit rock-bottom in recent months.

The per capita income of the average Greek Cypriot, around $16,000 per year, is about seven times higher than that of the average Turkish Cypriot.

''If there is no settlement and we don't enter the EU along with our Greek compatriots in the south, it will be a catastrophe,'' said Mehmet Ali Talat, the leader of Turkish Cypriot Republican Party. ''Turkish Cypriots are internationally isolated and they're tired of having their lives dictated by the whims of Turkey. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say there will be an uprising in the streets.''

This story ran on page A10 of the Boston Globe on 11/17/2002. ? Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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