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Cyprus: Annan Concludes Peace-Fostering Mission With Few Results

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan ended a series of talks today aimed at speeding up the reconciliation process between Cyprus's Greek and Turkish communities to avert the prospect of a divided island joining the European Union. The negotiations saw no breakthrough, but the two sides vowed to continue seeking a solution to their decades-long dispute. Despite the resumption of talks five months ago, Turkish and Greek Cypriots continue to accuse each other of intransigence. But analysts believe no compromise will be possible unless Turkey, the main power broker on the island, agrees to soften its stance.

Prague, 16 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week paid a landmark visit to Cyprus aimed at bolstering reunification talks on the divided Mediterranean island before the European Union takes further steps toward its enlargement.

From 14-16 May, Annan -- the first UN secretary-general to set foot on the island since Kurt Waldheim in 1979 -- held separate and joint talks with the leaders of the island's Greek and Turkish communities in a bid to persuade them to end their 28-year dispute.

Upon his arrival on 14 May, Annan said he was concerned by the "slow progress" of the reunification talks and urged both sides to compromise in order to show "decisive progress" on the issue in the future.

Two days before his Cyprus visit, the UN secretary-general told a Greek newspaper he expected "no miracle" to emerge from his visit, whose purpose he said was merely to "bring a message of hope" to the island. The partition of Cyprus is a looming problem for the European Union, which is to decide by December at the latest which countries it will invite to join its first wave of enlargement in 2004.

Cyprus is among the 10 front-runners for entry into the bloc, along with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

The island has been effectively divided along ethnic lines since 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern third of Cyprus. The invasion came in response to a short-lived coup, backed by Greece's military junta, aimed at ousting Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios from power after a decade of domestic disturbances.

In 1983, Turkey presided over the creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or TRNC, after the failure of intercommunal talks aimed at restoring peace on the island. Unlike the predominantly ethnic Greek Republic of Cyprus in the south, the TRNC is recognized only by Ankara. Turkey, which has been funding the breakaway northern republic for the past 20 years, has maintained an estimated 35,000 troops and 100,000 settlers there.

Southern Cyprus applied for EU membership in 1990 on behalf of the entire island, amid protests from Turkey and the TRNC.

Both Ankara and Lefkosa -- the Turkish-controlled part of the island's partitioned capital, known internationally as Nicosia -- insist that Cyprus join the 15-member bloc as a confederation of two loosely linked sovereign states. Only this, they say, will preserve the rights of the island's Turkic-speaking minority.

This option is rejected by Greek Cypriots, who see it as a de facto recognition of the self-proclaimed TRNC. By contrast, the Nicosia government insists that the island join the EU as a single-state, bi-communal federation -- a proposal backed by the UN Security Council. Nicosia also demands the departure of all Turkish troops and settlers.

A Cyprus settlement is also important for Turkey, which hopes to join the EU by 2007. Although Ankara applied to join the bloc 15 years ago, it was granted candidate status only in 1999.

The EU wants Turkey to show substantial progress on human rights and implement a series of political and economic reforms before deciding on a date for the beginning of accession talks. Another of the bloc's prerequisites is an agreement on an outline of a power-sharing accord in Cyprus.

Addressing a conference to mark Europe Day in Ankara on 9 May, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz -- who oversees relations with the EU in Turkey's coalition government -- said time was running out for his country and that further delay in meeting European demands could exhaust Brussels's patience. Without naming names, Yilmaz also criticized those in Turkey who were holding up democratic reforms needed to start accession talks.

"We still face meaningless resistance and blind stubbornness to what we, as [party] leaders, have pledged to accomplish regarding the EU [membership] criteria. In fact, admission into the EU is our best chance to breathe air into Turkey, and we face the danger of missing this opportunity," Yilmaz said.

Yilmaz and Turkey's business community -- notably the influential Turkish Association of Industrialists and Businessmen, or TUSIAD -- have been pressing for a compromise on Cyprus to facilitate Ankara's admission into the EU. But they face fierce resistance among Turkey's nationalist circles and powerful military, which oppose any decision they believe would harm the country's national interests.

Addressing a congress of his Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli recently reiterated his objections to possible concessions on Cyprus.

"In our opinion, the most healthy, the most durable solution for Cyprus lies definitely in the form of two separate communities, two separate states. And when these two separate states attain full EU membership, Turkey should also attain full EU membership," Bahceli said.

Turkey's military, which wields considerable influence on domestic politics, has repeatedly threatened to annex Northern Cyprus if the island joins the European bloc in its currently divided form. Such threats have prompted concerns in Brussels and in EU member Greece.

Galvanized by Ankara's support, TRNC President Rauf Denktash has warned against the EU admitting Cyprus prior to a settlement, saying such a move could lead to a renewal of intercommunal clashes.

Many, both in Turkey and abroad, see Denktash and his Turkish-uniformed protectors as the main obstacle to a peaceful solution to the island's partition, though Turkey's EU proponents, such as Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, sometimes indulge in acid criticisms of Brussels, the UN, or the Greek Cypriots.

Earlier this month, Annan issued a statement urging both sides in the Cyprus dispute -- "particularly the Turkish one" -- to cooperate fully with UN efforts to reach a settlement.

In a rare criticism of Denktash, Yilmaz last week called upon the Northern Cypriot leader to show more flexibility and be "more forthcoming." But in an interview this week with Turkey's NTV private television channel, Greek Cypriot government spokesman Michalis Papapetrou said the "key" to the problem should be sought in Ankara.

In Brussels, many share this assessment.

Eberhard Rhein is a senior adviser at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre, or EPC. In a recent interview with RFE/RL, he said much depends on Ankara's attitude toward its Northern Cypriot proteges.

"The big, big issue to be resolved -- and I think only Turkey can resolve this -- is to get Denktash to take a less confrontational stance. For the time being, it really looks as if Denktash does not give an inch but, on the other hand, the Europeans [say] that this is a part of [the Turks'] negotiation techniques, that they never give in until the very last minute. But in this case, it may be too late and [the Turks] underestimate the time element. They simply miscalculate because they do not understand that there is a mechanic that has to be unlocked. And once you unlock the mechanic in terms of Southern Cyprus joining in, the other [side] cannot join in any longer," Rhein said.

Denktash has met almost 30 times with his Greek Cypriot counterpart Glafcos Clerides since UN-sponsored intercommunal talks resumed last December after four years of interruption. Although the two leaders have pledged to reach a foundation of an agreement by June, no breakthrough has been forthcoming.

In an interview with Reuters, Denktash said today he had told Annan that a June deadline was no longer realistic. His remarks echoed comments made by Greek Cypriot Papapetrou, who told NTV yesterday that it would take a "miracle" to reach an agreement within the next few weeks.

Nonetheless, the UN secretary-general today said that, although he does not expect an agreement to be signed by the end of next month, both sides should be able to resolve their core differences in the coming weeks. He made his remarks to reporters before leaving Nicosia.

"I still believe we can make substantial progress by the end of June, despite the doubts on the part of Mr. Denktash. And I would urge him and everyone concerned to really focus on the core issues so we can move forward," Annan said.

Both sides have blamed each other for the flagging of the talks. Earlier this month, Denktash also accused the EU -- worried by Greece's threats to veto the entire enlargement process if Cyprus is not admitted soon -- of hampering peace talks by hinting that the island might join in regardless of whether a solution is found to its partition.

Turkey, too, has come under criticism from Brussels for its apparent insistence on linking the Cyprus issue to progress regarding its own EU membership bid.

Gerard Groc is a Turkey expert at the French-based Research Institute on the Arab and Muslim Worlds, or IREMAM. He told our correspondent that he sees the Cyprus issue as a major test for Turkey's political future.

"Either [Turkey] accepts that its domestic political agenda become more and more permeable to external influences -- and then, I think, a compromise on Cyprus will be possible -- or the [Turkish] state remains in the hands of hard-liners -- the army, the nationalists -- and then there will be no compromise," Groc said.

In Groc's opinion, if Turkey really wants to become a major political and economic player in the world arena, it has no other option than to yield ground on the Cyprus issue. Otherwise, Groc says, "Ankara will have to write off all hopes of international support."