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Cyprus: Greek And Turkish Cypriots Still Separated After 25 Years

Twenty-five years ago today, Turkish forces occupied northern Cyprus in response to an effort by hardline Greek Cypriots to unilaterally join the island to Greece. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the prospects for movement in long-stalled efforts to mediate in the dispute over the still-divided island.

Prague, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Since Cyprus was divided in 1974, the international community has spent billions of dollars to keep peace on the island and on efforts to convince Greek and Turkish Cypriots to reunite as a single state. The peacekeeping has succeeded. But attempts to bring the two sides back together have become so firmly stalemated that there seems to be almost no hope of success.

The deadlock is clearly visible in how the sides are marking today's 25th anniversary of the Turkish army's arrival in northern Cyprus.

Martin Henry is the editor of the English-language Cyprus Weekly. He told RFE/RL by phone from Nicosia today that Greek Cypriots have been marking both the coup attempt and the Turkish occupation as days of mourning this week, just as they do every year. Henry says Greek Cypriots see both events as national disasters which resulted in the partition of the country and the creation of thousands of refugees in a forced redistribution of its population.

"This morning we were woken up at half past five by air-raid sirens going off to mark the beginning of the invasion when Turkish forces landed near Kyrenia on the north coast of Cyprus...The two occasions, the coup and the invasion, are referred to as the black anniversaries. 'Greek' Cypriots are very much sensitive at the moment to what is going on and the lack of progress, really, in solving the Cyprus problem, which has been going on now for a quarter of a century."

By contrast, Turkish Cypriots today are celebrating the anniversary jointly with Ankara. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit flew into northern Cyprus this morning accompanied by his foreign, defense and energy ministers. They are attending an official parade of Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot soldiers.

Twenty-five years ago, Ecevit was the Turkish prime minister who ordered Turkish troops to Cyprus. That move came just five days after a group of Greek Cypriot national guard officers staged an abortive coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the ethnic Greek majority island with Athens. The coup, encouraged by a nationalist junta in Greece, sought to overturn an agreement between Athens, Ankara, and London which had guaranteed Cyprus as a sovereign country since its independence from Britain in 1960.

Today, the northern third of Cyprus is populated exclusively by Turkish Cypriots and settlers from mainland Turkey. Some 35,000 Turkish troops are also stationed there. The north is separated from the Greek Cypriot southern two-thirds of the island by a so-called "Green Line" patrolled by a UN peacekeeping force. Turkish Cypriots declared an independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, but it is recognized only by Ankara.

The international community, which recognizes the Greek-Cypriot led government in divided Nicosia, continues in vain to try to bring Cyprus' two sides together in a bi-communal, federal state. It has been a process which only seems to have grown more complicated as the decades have consolidated the divisions on the ground.

Talks between the two sides now seem to have firmly run aground since they were broken off almost two years ago following the last meeting between Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. At that meeting in Switzerland, Denktash demanded that Nicosia recognize northern Cyprus as a sovereign Turkish Cypriot state as a pre-condition to any further talks. The Greek Cypriot government has refused.

Tensions between the two sides have only risen further as Cyprus has sought to join the European Union and this year opened accession talks along with five eastern European states. Nicosia hopes that by taking the whole island under the umbrella of the EU it will force Ankara to end its relations with northern Cyprus, because Turkey would then appear to be intervening in the affairs of an EU member. Nicosia also hopes joining the EU would provide it direct leverage over Ankara due to Turkey's own hopes to one day join the EU, something Cyprus as an EU member would have the power to obstruct.

But Ankara and the Turkish Cypriots have their own plans to scuttle such a strategy. They have jointly said that northern Cyprus will unite with mainland Turkey if the EU grants membership to Cyprus. To make good their threat, they last year formalized an association accord and announced creation of a "joint economic zone."

The international community regards the Cyprus conflict as a top priority precisely because of its potential to draw in outside powers. Analysts say that if northern Cyprus were in fact to unite with Turkey, the action could well lead to a war between Ankara and Greece, which is bound to the Greek Cypriots by a mutual defense treaty.

But that realization and 25 years of mediation efforts by the UN and more recently the EU have not been enough to break the stalemate.

Henry says that Greek Cypriots still very much hope that one day Cyprus will become a single country again with a federal system. But the Turkish Cypriots, who see the partition as the solution to ethnic violence which rocked the island in the early 1960s, have never gone further than speaking about a confederation of two states. That, says Henry, gives little prospect that the Cyprus problem will be solved anytime soon.

"The Greek Cypriots are following the course toward a federal solution to the Cyprus problem, which would mean a certain amount of power would be given to the Turkish Cypriot community in the north. But they still want there to be one state, one single state, with a single international identity and one government, whereas what the Turkish Cypriots are looking for is two separate states here in Cyprus."

Meanwhile, the sight of more than 1,200 UN peacekeepers still serving in divided Cyprus must be sobering for the international community as it undertakes operations in other ethnic flashpoints such as Bosnia and Kosovo. The UN peacekeepers first came to Cyprus in 1964 amid ethnic violence and have been there ever since.

After two and-a-half decades of stalemate, Henry says many Greek Cypriots now hope the international community's experience in the Balkans will somehow provide models for a breakthrough in Cyprus. It seems an ironic, and sad, commentary on the difficulties of solving ethnic conflicts even decades after the shooting has ended.