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Cyprus: Embattled Turkish Cypriot Leader Resumes Talks With Greek Counterpart

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

United Nations-sponsored talks resumed today in Cyprus as the leader of this partitioned Mediterranean island's ethnic Turkish community faces growing pressure to endorse an international peace plan aimed at ending more than 28 years of ethnic division.

Prague, 15 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Rauf Denktash, the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), met today behind closed doors with Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides in the UN-controlled buffer zone that separates the Turkish and Greek zones of the island's divided capital Nicosia, or Lefkosa as it is called in Turkish. The UN special envoy to the island, Peruvian diplomat Alvaro de Soto, also attended the talks, which lasted about three hours.

A UN statement issued at the end of the meeting said both sides reiterated their commitment to find a solution to the Cyprus dispute and agreed to meet again on 17 January. No other details were immediately available.

The two Cypriot leaders had not met since 11 November, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan produced a draft proposal pushing for an early settlement. Following objections from both sides, the UN blueprint has been revised to allow a resumption of peace talks. Both Denktash and Clerides have accepted Annan's draft as a basis for discussion, but the Turkish Cypriot leader is said to have greater reservations about it.

Cyprus is among 10 countries that are expected to join the European Union next year. At an enlargement summit last month (13-14 December) in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, the 15-member bloc threatened to admit only the Greek Cypriot side in May 2004 if no peaceful solution to the territorial dispute is reached.

In fact, Brussels would rather see the whole island join. A decision to admit Cyprus in the absence of a settlement would result in Turkey illegally occupying part of an EU member state.

Ankara, which is the only foreign capital that recognizes the TRNC, has some 35,000 soldiers garrisoned on the island's northeastern third. Troops have been stationed there since 1974, when Turkey intervened militarily in reaction to an abortive coup backed by army generals then in power in Greece.

Despite the territorial division, the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot administration applied for EU membership in 1990 on behalf of the whole island.

The UN has urged both Cypriot sides to settle their dispute by 28 February of this year to ensure that a united island signs the EU accession treaty in April. The UN has also suggested that once its blueprint is approved by both sides, separate referendums on EU accession for each community be held on 30 March.

Speaking to reporters on 13 January, de Soto issued a veiled ultimatum to the island's rival leaders, saying they should endorse the UN revised blueprint or face the consequences of prolonging the island's division. "The choice is between this plan and no agreement at all," he said, adding that some slight changes could be made to the UN draft if the two sides were ready to give something in return.

The UN blueprint proposes that Cyprus become a single-state, two-community federation with some common institutions and a rotating presidency. It also calls for a downsizing of armed forces, territorial handovers by Turkish Cypriots, and the return to the northern part of the island of some Greek refugees who fled the area in 1974.

In an interview with Reuters Television, Denktash -- who insists that Cyprus enter the EU as a confederation of two sovereign states -- yesterday said he saw little hope of meeting the 28 February deadline set by the UN. "I am very sorry to say that [there is] not much [of a chance] if we are not given more time. The time is too short and with all the goodwill on earth the handicaps of this plan cannot be done away with in such short a time. We need time. We need more time," he said.

Meanwhile, Denktash is facing growing pressure at home to endorse the UN peace proposals. Yesterday, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets of Lefkosa (Nicosia) to demand an end to the division of the island, calling on their leader to strike an agreement with the Greek administration or resign.

There are no reliable statistics for the population of the TRNC, but estimates put it as somewhere around 85,000 local ethnic Turks. In addition to Turkey's armed forces, there are tens of thousands of Turkish settlers on the northern part of the island.

Northern Cypriots generally support entry into the EU because they see it as an opportunity to approach the higher economic standard of their Greek neighbors. The per capita income in the Turkish-held part of the island stands at $4,000 a year, roughly a quarter of that in the south.

Yesterday's demonstrations were the largest ever since the creation of the TRNC in 1983. Also for the first time in nearly three decades, some protesters carried banners denouncing the Turkish armed forces as an "army of occupation."

Denktash yesterday said he would not yield to pressure from the street, saying only parliament was mandated to force him out of office. "I don't think these young people [in the streets] know me. I don't think they know what my past record is. This is understandable. We are a democratic country. Naturally, when the majority asks me to resign through parliament, which has given me a mandate to [negotiate with the Greek Cypriot side], I [will] resign. But because at every gathering there are voices calling me to resign or [God knows what] I do not move," Denktash said.

Northern Cypriot demonstrators yesterday got the backing of both the UN secretary-general and the United States government.

Speaking in New York, Annan said he was pleased to see people taking to the streets to press for a settlement of the Cyprus issue. He also urged Denktash to "listen to the voice of the ordinary people about their desire for peace."

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said his country shared the Northern Cypriot demonstrators' thirst for a peaceful settlement. Boucher did not directly criticize Denktash, but made it clear the U.S. did not share his views on the UN blueprint: "There are very large demonstrations in Cyprus today that show that Turkish Cypriots understand the significant benefits of achieving that kind of comprehensive settlement and achieving it now. Obviously we couldn't agree more. The UN revised settlement plan currently on the table provides a basis for such a settlement, and we believe a settlement in Cyprus can and should be achieved by 28 February. I don't think it will come as a surprise to Mr. Denktash that the United States supports peace and that we support a settlement."

Denktash is also facing growing criticism in Turkey, which has been sponsoring his regime for the past 20 years.

The new Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in Ankara after a landslide victory in the 3 November early legislative elections, has pledged to revise Turkey's traditional policy toward the Cyprus issue -- which is dubbed there as a "national cause." Foreign Ministry spokesman Yusuf Buluc on 8 January said Turkey was working on a "policy revision" in light of the recent UN peace plan.

On 5 January, AKP Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated that Turkey's new ruling party was no longer in favor of the status quo regarding Cyprus and that it was necessary to find a solution to the dispute. "Nothing positive can be achieved with the kind of policy that has been followed [until now]," Turkey's Anadolu news agency quoted him as saying.

Although Erdogan holds no official position in Turkish state structures, he is seen as a man of considerable influence who could become prime minister if he is allowed to run for parliament in planned by-elections later this year. Yet Erdogan and his fellow party members will have to overcome the resistance of the influential Turkish armed forces, which have so far given no sign that they are ready to give up on Cyprus.

Addressing the AKP-dominated parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on behalf of the military, retired Rear Admiral Kadir Sagdic on 7 January reportedly said Turkey might face a security challenge if it relinquishes control over Cyprus.

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