NEWS

Opening of the Green Line to the south could seal Cyprus’s fate by the new year

KYRENIA – Greek Cypriots flood into Turkish northern Cyprus for the first time since war rent the island asunder three decades ago. Turks greet them with smiles and tea in homes they once fled in panic. A sense of dreamlike incredulity lingers here even a week after northern Cyprus opened up to visits by Greek Cypriots and allowed its own people to cross the «Green Line» to the south. Cafes on Kyrenia’s picturesque harbor are abuzz with long-absent Greek voices, while roads teem with Greek cars and high-powered motorbikes. The human drama unfolding here may, by the New Year, settle the fate of hardline Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and of Turkey’s dreams of European Union membership, which are linked to a settlement on Cyprus. The open border may unleash forces that undermine Denktash at elections in December, forcing a resumption of talks on a peace plan, which the United Nations says collapsed in March because of him. Denktash says he opened the border to build trust between the two communities. But his critics see it as a move to defuse anger and protests over his rejection of the UN plan and postpone any serious settlement. «Things are moving quickly and no one knows what will happen tomorrow,» says Turkish-Cypriot opposition leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who sees Cyprus as a key battlefield in a broader power struggle between Turkey’s hardliners and pro-EU reformers. Cyprus’s ethnic Greeks and Turks have been divided since 1974. Denktash’s critics say his position is shored up by the powerful Turkish army, with 30,000 troops posted here, and a new Justice and Development Party (AK) government in Ankara ready for a deal but too timid to bite the bullet. «Cyprus is one of those ‘national issues’ that, when you touch on it, the accusation of treason is never far away,» Talat said. The AK, already under attack from the secularist army for its Islamist roots, can ill afford the label of traitor. Whatever his motives, Denktash has unleashed political and economic forces that may be hard now to rein in. «It would be difficult to fill the hole gouged in the wall of Nicosia,» says Mustafa Akinci of the Communal Liberation Party. If Cyprus is not reunited before the Greek Cypriots join the EU next May, Turkey’s own bid for membership could be in peril. But Denktash is in no hurry. The EU, he says, seeks only to force a pro-Greek solution on him and has no intention of admitting Turkey. «Settlement by May? I don’t see it,» says Denktash. «I hope the EU will reconsider the injustices it has perpetrated against us and come to us to find out how to remedy them.» All honeymoons must end Ali Erel, head of the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, says the open borders cannot be a substitute for a full settlement on the basis of the UN plan – a blueprint providing for two largely autonomous Greek and Turkish zones, but allowing thousands of Greeks to return gradually to the north under strict controls. Talat, head of the left-wing Republican People’s Party, views the border move as Denktash’s last stand. «We want to overthrow Denktash; by democratic means, of course. And we can.» Talat, Akinci and Erel say they hope for a huge «pro-settlement» vote in December parliamentary polls. An anti-Denktash majority in the house could displace him as negotiator and reopen talks with Greek Cypriots. Talat says that sidelining Denktash could win the backing of the AK in Ankara, which is keen on EU membership many see as vital to Turkey’s future. At that stage, just months before the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot government enters the EU, the north may face harsher terms. Many Greek Cypriots considered the UN plan too generous and would balk at reviving it. Denktash says he is convinced Greek-Cypriot leaders nurture dreams of union with Greece to form a hostile Greek advance post only 40 miles from the Turkish coast. «So this friendship now, this honeymoon season, is very good,» he says, reflecting on the 100,000 Greek Cypriots who rushed across the border to a warm welcome in the first week. «But one should not be mistaken that it is there to stay forever, because the political reasons for conflict still exist,» Denktash continued. He warns that conflict could start again if Greeks are resettled in large numbers and says Turks must control any resettlement. «What happens when they come asking, ‘Can I have my house back, my fig tree back?’?» He brushes off suggestions that things have changed, recalling that Turkish Cypriots thought the same way before violence erupted after the collapse of a power-sharing arrangement agreed on independence from Britain in 1960. Akinci disagrees. «There are fanatics on both sides,» he says. «But what we’ve been seeing is that both communities are more mature.» He fears the fate that awaits northern Cyprus if there is no settlement in a year. Growing numbers of Turkish Cypriots may move south to work while others, claiming EU passports, will join a long-running exodus to Western Europe. «The obvious result will be that (more) Turks from Anatolia will move in and settle here, consolidating the division.» About half the north’s 200,000 people are mainland Turks settled largely after partition. They are generally less sympathetic to the cause of reunification. There are also key economic considerations for Turkish Cypriots, whose state-controlled economy, crippled by international sanctions and subsidized by Turkey, will have to open to a strong Greek Cyprus. In the short term a bonanza of Greek-Cypriot pounds could pour into northern restaurants, shops and hotels. «But without a full settlement, we won’t get the investment we need to adapt,» Erel says. «The situation now is not stable.»