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WASHINGTON POST, November 26, 2002
2002-11-26 19:45:46

EU Deadline Gives Reunification of Cyprus New Urgency
Failure of U.N. Plan Would Further Split Divided Island
By Karl Vick
ISTANBUL, Nov. 25 -- The plan to reunite Cyprus that was unveiled this month by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was only the latest reunion bid floated toward the Mediterranean island since it divided into two hostile enclaves separated by blue-helmeted peacekeepers 28 years ago.

But the new plan arrived with an immediacy other reunification proposals did not enjoy: As of Dec. 12, the thriving, internationally recognized two-thirds of the island inhabited by ethnic Greeks is due to join the European Union. If unity has not been restored by then, Cyprus's division will take on an increasingly permanent appearance, leaving the poorer third inhabited by ethnic Turks far out in the cold. And with the window of opportunity closing, the complex U.N. proposal already is in danger of receding into the diplomatic netherworld where the Cyprus conflict has loomed for almost three decades.

The leader of the Turkish Cypriots, the economically isolated minority population that would gain most by EU membership, offered his opinion of the U.N. plan on Thursday, 11 days after Annan asked the principals to take no more than a week to think it over. "We will not accept the document as a basis for negotiations," said Rauf Denktash, who heads a government recognized only by Turkey, whose invading army carved the independent enclave out of the island's northern end in 1974. "We can negotiate if we will or will not accept it as a basis, and we have to say what changes we want, so we can accept it. We need time for this."

But time is what the Turkish side does not have. The Dec. 12 deadline is firm, according to EU officials and foreign diplomats trying to urge the two sides together. When the 15 current EU member states vote, as expected, to receive an entity called Cyprus along with nine other candidate countries, the union will begin integrating whatever government is recognized on the island at the time.

Unless a reunification bargain is struck before then, the new EU member will be the current Republic of Cyprus, which takes in two-thirds of the island's territory and the Greeks who make up 80 percent of its 750,000 inhabitants. If settlement negotiations take hold, however, the EU could stretch its transition to accommodate a newly reunited republic, comprising two "component states."

Annan announced Friday that he would press ahead with the negotiations despite the ambiguity from the Turkish Cypriot leadership. The governments of Greece, Turkey and the Greek Cypriots have agreed the plan has merit.

"The secretary general is encouraged by the generally positive reaction to his plan that is emerging and wants to press ahead," said a U.N. spokesman, Stephane Dujarric. Emphasizing the Dec. 12 deadline that "is part and parcel of the plan," the spokesman said Annan "looks forward to receiving the substantive reactions with a view to moving ahead in earnest."

The stalemate grew out of age-old hostilities between Greece and Turkey, ancient rivals whose thawing relations in recent years are laid largely to the economic prospects of EU membership.

Ethnic brethren from both nations reside on Cyprus. Residents had been clashing for a decade when Turkey sent troops to protect the Turkish minority in 1974, after Greece engineered a coup. Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that emerged as a result of the invasion.

The U.N. plan asks the Turkish side to surrender some land in exchange for the economic windfall of EU membership. The same incentive is being dangled -- but without any guarantee -- before Turkey. The Muslim nation of 67 million desperately wants to join the EU, but its prospects are bound up with the outcome in Cyprus.

"We have a much higher prospect for a Cyprus settlement than we have ever had," said a senior U.S. official involved in the effort. "Which, if it were to happen, would be incredibly positive for Turkey's prospects with the EU."

Turkey, however, appears inclined to brinksmanship of its own. The EU allowed Turkey to become a candidate country in a 1999 bargain that let Cyprus's accession to the union proceed. Once it does, Turkey will be without leverage, a prospect that prompted its new government to seek an explicit link between Cyprus and Turkey's own candidacy.

The new pitch, which also includes a Turkish promise to allow a new EU military force to use NATO facilities, is being laid out to EU members by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party, as he tours European capitals this month, said Egemen Bagis, a Turkish parliamentarian in the delegation.

"Our offer is, Turkey is willing to accept the U.N. plan as a starting point for a Cyprus settlement in exchange for a date to start negotiating for membership in the EU," Bagis said. "European Union membership is the solution to all the problems in the Aegean."

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