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The Washington Monitor

By John Sitilides1 <>, Executive Director, The Western Policy Center

Contact: Maro Verrios 916-383-7000
Washington, D.C.
Friday, April 10, 1998

After Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton's Special Envoy for Cyprus, bade farewell to Nicosia upon completing an early April visit, heads were shaking, nerves were contracting, and policy makers in various capitals were resigning themselves to yet another prolonged wait for tangible progress in the search for a solution to the Cyprus question.

The renowned diplomat had finally returned to Cyprus, with State Department Special Coordinator for Cyprus Thomas Miller in tow, with much anticipation and great expectation. After all, the "big push of 1996" was put off by the Imia crisis, and the "big push of 1997" was cast aside by State Department opposition to measures to enhance the self-defense of Cyprus. Now, it seemed, the "big push of 1998" was finally underway. And just as quickly as it arrived, it was apparently gone.

Holbrooke's April 4 press conference, held in Cyprus' buffer zone, was revealing in certain aspects, yet largely routine in appropriately withholding details of the talks with Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash.

Holbrooke triggered considerable speculation in the course of his remarks, such as when he implied that the Greek Cypriot delegation negotiating accession to the European Union did not represent the "bizonal, bicommunal federation" which the State Department prefers to see as the negotiator during these talks. Holbrooke has never shied away from the notion that the Cyprus delegation represent both communities, leaving open the option of a joint Greek-Turkish Cypriot team to help deliver Cyprus into the EU.

Holbrooke did establish certain negotiating parameters in his remarks, emphasizing that the U.S. does not recognize the self-styled Turkish Cypriot regime and strongly suggesting that it would not do so in the future. He also stated that Washington would not accept a partition of Cyprus, and that freedom of movement among Cypriots throughout the republic was essential. Diplomatic sources indicated, however, that Washington had expressed its strong belief that the EU's decision to welcome Cyprus as a member is generating more problems than opportunities in the quest for a solution to the division of the island.

The press conference concluded with Holbrooke's promise to return to Cyprus in May, leaving many scrambling to decipher the outcome of this initial phase of a renewed State Department initiative.

Clearly, the pressure is on Nicosia to grant Rauf Denktash some measure of political recognition beyond his current status as "leader," though well beneath any official bestowal of the title "president" of his regime. And what might Nicosia receive in return?

Enter the complications. Turkey might be persuaded to retract its opposition to Cyprus’ European Union accession … if Greece could be persuaded to stop vetoing the EU customs union aid package to Ankara worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Athens, however, remembers well the aftermath of its last veto release of EU aid to Ankara in late 1995, as a result of U.S. pressure, under the guise of staving off the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey. The sizable EU financial assistance to Turkey at that time was supposed to bring about a Tansu Ciller victory at the polls, the containment of political Islam, and fresh opportunities for renewed Greek-Turkish relations. The actual result: defeat for the secularists, an Islamist victory at the polls, the Turkish challenges at Imia, and the iciest relations between Athens and Ankara in a decade.

But, leaving aside the broad spectrum of bilateral issues raised by Turkey against Greece, Athens might still be asked to do even more than lifting its veto on aid earmarked for Turkey. The blame for the European Union decision in December 1997 to delay the accession talks for Turkey, because of that country's continued international law and human rights violations and its domestic economy problems, was placed on Athens and Bonn. Of course, had Greece begged Germany to proceed with Turkey’s application, Bonn would still have adamantly rejected any imminent Turkish accession for many of its own reasons.

Athens may be asked, therefore, to allow Turkey to receive enormous aid from the European Union, despite Turkey's persistent sovereignty challenges and military pressures against Greece. Greece may also be asked to lobby a decidedly reluctant European Union to excuse Turkey's self-inflicted hurdles and proceed with its accession. In return, Turkey would give the nod to Cyprus' accession, encourage Denktash to accept recognition at a level below that of President Clerides, roll back its challenges to Greek sovereignty, and commit itself to ending military overflights above Cyprus.

Therein lies a key problem of omission. The Turkish occupation of Cyprus remains, at least for the near term, unaddressed – an imbalance of forces somehow tolerable to Washington. U.S. attempts to prevent the deployment of Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles in Cyprus and the expanded Russian influence that Washington believes the deployment would bring are the uppermost and immediate objectives of the talks overseen by Holbrooke. Cyprus, therefore, would once again be left relatively defenseless, at the mercy of Turkish military superiority.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought to impress upon Greek Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos, when he visited Washington in late March, the urgency of the S-300 issue and the merits of a moratorium on all overflights - Turkish and Greek - over the republic. Though quite workable in theory, the moratorium fails as a solution to both confidence building and preventing the missile deployment in an overriding swoop - one party can end its participation without sanction. Cost-free violations of any moratorium virtually guarantee its demise, the only question being who violates the agreement first to obtain maximum advantage. In fact, Turkey's own pronouncements in May 1997 that it would not overfly Cyprus were repeatedly broken from nearly the first day, and for months to follow - too little if any criticism and no sanction.

So Pangalos responded with an equal, and apparently deliberate, non-starter: if the U.S. agrees to help establish an international force, perhaps under NATO auspices, to enforce a moratorium under threat of military sanction - in effect transforming the skies above Cyprus into a no-fly zone similar to that in northern Iraq - then Greece and Cyprus might give the proposal serious consideration. The prospect of NATO forces shooting Turkish fighter jets out of the sky was inconceivable, and Pangalos knew it. Instead, his offer magnified the very weakness of the moratorium proposal and accentuated the need for Cyprus to help assure its own self-defense utilizing S-300s or, if Washington would end its de facto arms embargo of Nicosia, Patriot missiles.

The complexities of any solution to the Cyprus problem seem boundless, to be sure. Nearly as difficult to untangle are the inner workings of the minds of Richard Holbrooke, Thomas Miller, and the State Department policy planners attempting to construct the framework for success in Cyprus.

The Defense Department's own vital concerns over strategically-situated Cyprus, such as utilizing its British bases to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Middle East countries and the eastern Mediterranean region, and to transport enormous resupply cargoes from Western Europe to southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf region, might theoretically push the solution process forward. However, the Pentagon’s perception that Ankara helps to further U.S. geopolitical security interests, from Iran and Iraq to Russia and the Caspian Sea, continues to take clear precedence.

If Holbrooke and his team return to Cyprus in May, and their efforts do continue, eyes will stay riveted, senses especially alert, and minds racing to keep pace – because right now there is no other game in the town of Nicosia.

1[The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]