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Τετάρτη, 13 Αυγούστου 2008

In Cyprus, Warm Words Conceal Dark Intentions

by John Torode

Don't be misled by the notional amicability between North and South, says John Torode. Many Cypriots believe that Turkey is determined to annex the North, with our tacit approval


Something is stirring on Aphrodite's Isle. For the first time since Turkey seized Northern Cyprus in 1974, thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, forcibly segregated for decades, are in amicable daily contact across the great divide. The new president of Cyprus and his unrecognised Turkish-Cypriot opposite number met recently, and actually agreed to start formal peace talks in September. So why are senior politicians on both sides privately warning that a new disaster, as dangerous as the original invasion and partition, is now a real possibility?

Recently I sought clues on bullet-scarred Ledra Street, in old Nicosia. This the place which half a century ago colonial Brits called Murder Mile. Greek Cypriot sixth-former boys on their way home from school allegedly shot British troops in the back here, then unsportingly slipped the guns to schoolgirls and trainee priests who would hide them in their inviolable underwear. Post-independence in 1960, it was the venue for periodic inter-communal violence. Then came professional fighting in 1974 as mainland Turkish troops partitioned Cyprus, supposedly to create a temporary safe haven for the vulnerable Turkish Cypriot minority. Next the 'Green Line' went up, closing Ledra Street, dividing both town and island. Until this April, central Ledra Street was pretty much deserted — a place of wrecked and abandoned buildings and rusting, burned-out cars. Tourists, hacks and do-gooding dignitaries came to gawk at armed UN patrols, and at the two communities' barbed wire barricades, machine-gun posts, watchtowers and sandbag emplacements, complete with provocative Turkish and Greek flags.

Now the battered buildings are discreetly shielded by smart blue curtaining, hymning the joys of EU redevelopment money. The wall has been breached (but certainly not pulled down) and checkpoints inserted. Locals cross in thousands — Turkish Cypriots to work in the prosperous Greek south, and Greek Cypriots to gaze longingly at abandoned homes, to shop, or just have a Turkish coffee and a chat with long-lost neighbours. Ledra Street is abuzz with smart new coffee shops, cafés and boutiques.
Even so, the British Foreign Office, the US State Department and assorted Eurocrats and UN bagmen insist that much more is required, of Greek Cypriots. If they do not progress from informal fraternising to agreement on the details of a 'bicommunal, bi-zonal federation', in pretty short order, we global do-gooders might well take our bat and ball — and our moneybags — and go home.

The implied threat is that Greek Cyprus will be presented as the obstructive guilty party in any breakdown. In which case Turkey — desperately unstable and unpredictable, as events this week have demonstrated — might feel encouraged to take a gamble and formally annex the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Certainly there is a sense of private pessimism and fear in both communities which challenges the upbeat public rhetoric used by the new president of Cyprus Demetris Christofias when he paid his first official visit to Gordon Brown earlier this month, as well as the relaxed way Greek and Turkish Cypriots are intermingling.

Since 9/11, the (increasingly anxious and utterly unrealistic) aim of Britain and America has been to lever Turkey into the EU, so anchoring her to the West and immunising her against Islamofascism. But that can't happen while Turkey still occupies a great hunk of Cyprus, a member of the EU. Hence the determination to force through a solution acceptable to Turkey — or to place the blame for continued failure on the intransigence of their Greek Cypriot victims.

The last Western attempt to impose a settlement failed in 2004. The pro-Turkish Annan plan, drawn up in secret by assorted Western diplomats was — on a take-it or leave-it basis — put to referenda in both communities. The Greek Cypriots, led by the then President Tassos Papadopoulos chose to leave it. So the Foreign Office, the EU and the Americans devoted themselves to bullying Papadopoulos and undermining his administration. In January the Greek Cypriot community voted Papadopoulos, a pro-Western, mildly right-of-centre commercial lawyer, out of office, replacing him with Christofias, a communist party apparatchik — to great rejoicing in London, Brussels and Washington. (Don't ask — Cyprus is a logic-free zone.)

At which point the global great and good graciously returned to the people of Cyprus 'ownership of the peace process'. So it is that in the past three months official, cross-community working parties have been discussing, inter alia, a new constitution, the right of return (or not) for hundreds of thousands of displaced people of both races, the restoration (or not) of abandoned property, and the fate of more than 100,000 backward, aggressively nationalistic and devoutly Islamic Turkish settlers. They were shipped in from the mainland and given citizenship to tilt the demographic balance in Turkey's favour, and to keep the more secular and democratically-minded Turkish Cypriots in their place. (There are already more Turks than Turkish Cypriots living in the North, and, boy, do the Turkish Cypriots hate it.)

I recently spent a few days talking to key players. None asked to go off the record and all held astonishingly similar views. Among them was Papadopoulos. He is convinced that Turkey no longer wants a negotiated settlement, and has lost interest in the idea of the bi-zonal, bicommunal federal solution — the declared goal of all parties for 30 years. He says the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mehmet Ali Talat, 'takes his dictation from Turkey'. Now you could, wrongly in my view, dismiss Papadopoulos's comments as sniping by a rejected president. But George Iacovou, a former foreign secretary and the new President's man in charge of negotiations, expresses similar doubts and fears. Talet is 'Ankara's man' and he suspects that Ankara 'lacks the will to settle'. He fears that the West — which sees Christofias as 'malleable' — is setting the stage for Turkey to 'look good' when and if the talks break down.

Then I took myself across the Ledra Street checkpoint, to Mr Talet's unrecognised mini-state. There I bounced these worries off Ali Erel, the nearest thing the North has to a leader of the opposition. (If it were not for the swamping votes of the settlers he could well have been president by now.) He too insists that Turkey no longer wants a negotiated settlement; it is simply playing for time, hoping to avoid blame if the peace talks collapse. Then, astonishingly, Ali Erel predicts, tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots will flee their 'safe haven' to resettle in the more liberal, prosperous — and now more genuinely Cypriot — Greek area from which many of them fled in 1974.

More sensational still, he feels that Turkey would secretly welcome such an exodus, although it would 'put an end to the pretence that the Turkish armed forces are here us to protect us, because those they claim to protect are escaping from them'. It is a bizarre suggestion, but it makes a mad sort of sense if you believe, as, apparently a growing number of worldly-wise Cypriots do, that Turkey really is bent on annexing the North, and that — as happened in 1974 — a hypocritical West would shed precious few tears.

From the Spectator