Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Freedom's march arrives in Cyprus

It took the death of Yasser Arafat to clear one of the biggest obstacles on the road to peace in the Middle East.

The Palestinian dictator never wanted to see an end to hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis. That’s what kept him in power all those years. As long as he could blame Israel, he never had to answer for the suffering he brought on his own people.

Something similar is happening on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. A thug by the name of Rauf Denktash has been the president of the phony Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus since it declared its independence from the rest of the island in 1983. The "Turkish Republic" is recognized by one other nation — Turkey, which has 35,000 troops occupying parts of Cyprus.

Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a failed coup orchestrated by Greece attempted to unite the island with Greece. Although the elected government of Cyprus was restored, Turkey seized the opportunity to invade the island to "protect the Turkish minority." That has led to the illegal 31-year occupation of a sovereign nation. Turkey has ignored dozens of United Nations resolutions calling for withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island, a former British colony that gained its independence in 1960.

Denktash, who rivals Fidel Castro in the Aging Dictators Hall of Shame, is 81 and has lost his grip on power in occupied Cyprus. The election of 53-year-old Mehmet Ali Talat over the weekend as president of the "Turkish Republic" has brought renewed hope that the Cyprus issue can be resolved peacefully.

As Denktash got older and more inflexible in his refusal to work toward reunification of the Cyprus, the world passed him by. The European Union was formed. If you’re not part of the EU, you’re out in the cold. That’s what the Turkish residents of occupied Cyprus figured out. Talat campaigned on a platform of renewing peace talks with the majority Greek Cypriots in the southern two-thirds of the island, withdrawal of Turkish troops and possible reunification of the island, which would allow Turkish Cypriots to participate in the European Union.

That brought him 56 percent of the vote in weekend balloting, much of the support from young people who weren’t alive when Denktash took power and who don’t care to reopen 30-year-old wounds. Denktash’s hand-picked successor, Dervis Eroglu, who wanted to maintain the status quo, received just 23 percent of the vote.

What young people living in occupied Cyprus see is a lack of opportunity in the police state that Denktash has ruled over. They see a prosperous Cyprus to the south and want to share in the booming tourism and trade industries.

Cyprus, at least the internationally recognized Democratic southern part of the island, joined the EU last year. The Turkish Cypriots in the north are not part of the EU and rely on the charity of mainland Turkey to keep their economy going, much like the old Soviet Union system that has kept basket-case economies such as Cuba, alive. Many Cubans living on the island or in exile in Florida, are certain that Cubans will overthrow its Communists oppressors the day Fidel Castro rolls his last cigar.

Greek Cypriots welcomed the change in regimes in the occupied north. The "Cyprus government expresses the hope that the Turkish Cypriot leadership around Mr. Talat will ... contribute ... to the achievement of a just and viable settlement the soonest possible," according to a statement by Cypriot government spokesman reported by The Associated Press.

Talat quickly extended an olive branch to the south.

"I am also calling on the Greek Cypriot leaders that I am extending my hand for peace and this hand will be there until it is held," Talat was quoted by the Associated Press. "I sincerely believe that one day this hand will be held."

There are many hurdles ahead, not the least of which is fair compensation for the 200,000 Greek Cypriots driven from their homes and ancestral lands by the Turkish army in 1974. Although many Greek Cypriots rebuilt their lives in the southern half of the island, some of them may want to return to their homes. The problem is that their homes are now occupied by Turkish Cypriots or by tens of thousands of "colonists" sent by Turkey from the mainland to distort the population of Cyprus.

But for the first time in three decades, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Just as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, it’s amazing what a little Democracy will do in a part of the world where people have been denied fundamental rights to freedom for so long.

E-mail Tony Phyrillas at

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