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Clerides and Denktash: Old men in a hurry?

NICOSIA (Reuters) – They will clasp hands warmly and pat each other on the back. One of them might get out his tiny pocket camera and start snapping away as the other beams on benevolently. Nobody watching these exchanges between President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash would come away with the impression that they are bitter rivals. But their history says otherwise. Both their careers have been built around the ethnic divisions which briefly turned Cyprus into a battleground of the Mediterranean in the 1970s. They continue as sparring partners today on an uneasily partitioned island that represents a significant source of tension between NATO allies Greece and Turkey. Having dawdled for decades, Clerides and Denktash may now be two old men in a hurry to cement their places in history by achieving a settlement. With their first formal face-to-face negotiations for more than four years starting tomorrow, they are having what is widely seen as one last crack at solving the Cyprus problem. The seemingly intractable stalemate has had the same staying power as the two wily negotiators themselves. A flurry of meetings in the past month have rekindled hopes that the estranged Greeks and Turks of Cyprus can sort their conflict out before the European Union takes in a divided island in 2004, possibly complicating its own enlargement plans in the process. Mediators hope that the personal rapport between the two, which has been admittedly on and off over the years, can do the trick. «There is definitely something there. There is a long history of distrust and mistrust on Cyprus, but I think they trust each other up to a point,» said a long-time observer of Cyprus affairs. Deep differences Denktash, 77, and Clerides, 82, have been taking snipes at one another for more than half a century, long before Cyprus was divided in 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern third of the island after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Each professes to know the other only too well. «I know their souls,» Denktash has said of his Greek-Cypriot rivals. «I know their souls inside out.» «Nobody knows Denktash as well as I do,» says Clerides. «I know how he thinks, he reacts.» As well they should. Scions of long-established Nicosia families of lawyers, they first crossed swords across a British colonial court in 1950. Clerides defended Greek Cypriots from the gallows for fighting colonial rule; Denktash was a crown prosecutor. It is not any easier now they represent ethnic communities divided by years of bloodshed and mistrust. Denktash represents a breakaway state recognized only by Ankara, Clerides the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. Neither is willing to give anything up easily. «Denktash is trying to sell me raki in a whisky bottle,» Clerides said once. Rotund and affable, both leaders have an incisive wit and sense of humor. Political correctness has not caught up with them and their love of blue jokes has left many a diplomat tongue-tied. Onlookers say the two of them are formidable negotiators, with not much of a life outside the machinations of the Cyprus problem. «They have both got an incredible grasp of detail. You won’t be able to bullshit either of them,» said one diplomat. Clerides, who has stated he will not stand for re-election in 2003, is generally regarded in diplomatic circles as a man determined to work out a settlement before he goes. «Denktash is more of a conundrum. He will defend Turkish-Cypriot interests. He’s a winner, a political survivor. Like Clerides, he has the ability to sell a settlement to the people,» said one European diplomat. Grudging respect Their relationship is the subject of myths ranging from their having played truant together from Nicosia’s upper-crust English School to being in-laws, having married two sisters.Neither is true. Denktash, said to have grown up with a Greek-Cypriot nanny, was a teacher before joining the law profession. He helped form TMT, a Turkish-Cypriot paramilitary group opposed to union with Greece supported by the EOKA Greek-Cypriot guerrillas. He was arrested by Greek-Cypriot authorities in 1968. It was Clerides who mediated to secure his release and Clerides, it is said, who ensured the protection of Denktash’s family in the early troubled days of the Cyprus Republic. Hard-bitten politicians they may be, but they have shared the happier and sadder moments of life. Clerides sent Denktash a piece of wedding cake when his only daughter married. Denktash rang to offer condolences at the death of Clerides’s brother. «During the time we were colleagues we became good friends and had a healthy respect for each other,» Clerides reminisced during an interview with Reuters last year. «But when we sit in the chairs opposite each other we represent the interests of our respective communities and we don’t allow our personal relationship to get involved.»