Talking Turkey: Unexpected Overtures Raise Hopes That 2002 Finally May Be "Year of Cyprus"

By Gorvett, Jon | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Talking Turkey: Unexpected Overtures Raise Hopes That 2002 Finally May Be "Year of Cyprus"


Gorvett, Jon, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.

In the deserted compound of Nicosia International Airport on a grey, windswept winter's day, the leaders of the Turkish and Greek communities on the island of Cyprus met early in the new year.

The object of their Jan. 11 talks was a grim one: to discuss identifying mass graves around the island that are believed to contain some 1,480 Greek Cypriots missing since Turkey's 1974 military intervention, and some 803 Turkish Cypriots missing since pogroms against the Turkish Cypriot community began in 1963.

The "disappeared"--one of the major issues dividing the two parts of Cyprus--are a still-open wound in the Greek Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus to the south. There, in the decades since Turkish troops first stormed ashore in the north, nationalist politicians and groups often have used their emotive power to block chances of reconciliation with the internationally unrecognized Turkish Cypriot-dominated Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

The two leaders who met at the airport under U.N. auspices--Glafkos Clerides of the Republic and Rauf Denktash of the TRNC--discussed the issue for 45 minutes. Although this was not the first time they had done so in the past 27 years, if many observers in Turkey are correct it may turn out to be one of the more significant occasions. The end of 2001 saw some frantic activity on the island and in Turkey that have led many to believe that 2002 most definitely will be the "year of Cyprus."

The first signs of a significant change in the Turkish/Turkish Cypriot position came in November, with the broadcast on the CNN Turk station of a series of TV programs by the respected Turkish journalist Mehmet Ali Birand. These contained interviews with groups of Turkish and Greek Cypriot youth, during which a remarkable convergence of opinion emerged. Both sets of young people--who had been born since the 1974 war and therefore had no direct experience of each other, as the frontier between the Republic and the TRNC has been closed de facto since then--expressed strong desires for "a solution," for something that would enable them both to lead normal lives. Surprisingly, this was then taken up in two more interviews by Birand--this time with Clerides and Denktash themselves.

Perhaps the most surprising participation of all was on the Turkish Cypriot side. Denktash had been following a position for over a year of refusing to take part in any kind of talks with Clerides--direct or proximity--before the TRNC was accorded "equal status" in the negotiations. His argument was that, because only the Republic had international recognition, talks on the island's future always were weighted against the Turkish Cypriots.

Such a recognition of equality, however, would be to grant the TRNC a status that many Greek Cypriots believe Denktash has wanted for decades, that of an independent country--in other words, legitimizing partition. They argue that Denktash is simply the representative of a minority group on the island and should receive no extra status beyond that, making the Cyprus problem an internal matter for the Republic.

The two positions had been at an impasse for months, with the clock ticking on the Republic's EU membership process and Turkish threats--repeated by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in November--that any move to integrate the Republic with the EU would be met by Ankara "integrating" the TRNC with Turkey--even to the point of annexation.

Then, an abrupt change. Following his interview with Birand, Denktash wrote an open letter to Clerides calling for a face-to-face meeting. The Greek Cypriot leader's first response was to reject the offer. After some frantic maneuvering in Athens, Ankara and both sides of the divided island capital of Nicosia, however, he agreed, provided that U.N. special Cyprus representative Alvero de Soto also was in attendance. Denktash agreed, and the three met Dec. …

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