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Cyprus: Election Results Raise Questions About Reunification Talks

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Voters in southern Cyprus yesterday elected opposition leader Tassos Papadopoulos as their new president. The unexpected outcome of the poll raises new questions about whether a reunification agreement with the Turkish Cypriot leadership can be reached before the island signs an accession treaty with the European Union in two months.

Prague, 17 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Tassos Papadopoulos yesterday became the new president of southern Cyprus, less than two weeks before a deadline set by the United Nations to agree with the rival Turkish Cypriot administration on a plan to reunify the island.

Democratic Party leader Papadopoulos defeated incumbent President Glafcos Clerides by nearly 13 percentage points with 51.5 percent of the vote, making a widely expected runoff unnecessary.

Papadopoulos's victory comes just 10 days before Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the United Nations, visits the island to push for progress on peace talks aimed at ending nearly 29 years of ethnic partition.

Cyprus has been divided between Turkish and Greek communities since July 1974, when neighboring Turkey invaded the northernmost third of the island in response to an aborted coup seeking union with Greece.

At an enlargement summit held last December in Copenhagen, the European Union extended an invitation to Cyprus to join the 15-member bloc in 2004, along with nine other countries.

The UN is pressing the rival communities to endorse a draft peace plan by 28 February, a deadline it says should leave both sides enough time to prepare separate referenda on 30 March, two weeks before Cyprus signs the EU accession treaty.

While saying the UN blueprint should serve as a basis for negotiations, both Clerides and Turkish leader Rauf Denktash have expressed reservations about Annan's proposals.

Clerides's departure after 10 years in power raises the question of whether Papadopoulos will be able to maintain the momentum needed to keep peace negotiations on track.

James Ker-Lindsay is the executive director of Civilitas Research, a think tank based in Nicosia. He told our correspondent that the outcome of yesterday's election could have a serious impact on reunification talks, if only because there is little time left before the UN deadline expires. "[Papadopoulos] is coming at the start of a new week, which is 10 days or so to go until the February 28 deadline. He is coming in with a new team. He's got to get himself acquainted with the [UN draft peace] plan. He's got to work out exactly what his positions are going to be. So on that side, it obviously sort of raises a number of very, very serious questions about the extent to which he can be prepared," Ker-Lindsay said.

Clerides will officially remain in charge of southern Cyprus until his successor is sworn in early next month. A new round of talks between the outgoing president and Denktash, which would have taken place today, was canceled following the results of the election.

Regional analysts generally expect Papadopoulos to adopt a tougher stance in peace talks in order to obtain maximum concessions for the Greek Cypriots. He has persistently rejected charges that he is a hard-liner.

The 69-year-old London-trained lawyer, who enjoys the support of the influential AKEL Communist Party, said that, if elected, he would seek modifications to the UN blueprint. How extensive those modifications are remains unclear.

Martin Henry is the editor in chief of the English-language "Cyprus Weekly" newspaper. He admitted that, although there reportedly is a fundamental difference between Papadopoulos's approach to the Cyprus problem and that of Clerides, it is difficult to say what exactly separates the two men. "[Papadopoulos] is very much against the negotiating position that Glafcos Clerides has taken so far, and he has accused him of making certain concessions which he would not make himself. Now we don't know quite what concessions he is talking about, because we don't know what is going on really in the talks. We don't get an awful lot of input from the talks themselves. Clerides has been accused of giving away too much, although we don't know quite what he is supposed to have given away. It is a little bit difficult to gauge," Henry said.

Papadopoulos is believed to seek changes to Annan's proposed power-sharing arrangements with the Turkish Cypriot side. He also reportedly wants the greatest possible number of Greek refugees to return to the Turkish-held part of the island and the fewest possible Turkish settlers to remain on Cyprus once a settlement is reached.

Turkey has maintained an estimated 35,000 troops on the island's north since the creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983. In addition, Ankara has sent to the area more than 100,000 Anatolian settlers, who now represent the largest population group of the TRNC.

Reports say the UN blueprint calls for territorial adjustments that would leave Turkish Cypriots with 28.5 percent of the island's territory, down from a current 36 percent. The plan is also believed to envisage the return of nearly half of the 160,000 Greek Cypriots who fled Northern Cyprus in 1974, a provision TRNC leaders reject, saying it would drive tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots out of their homes.

With regards to the island's political setup, Annan's blueprint proposes that Cyprus become a single-state, two-community federation with some common institutions and a 10-month rotating presidency.

In his first speech as president-elect, Papadopoulos said he wants to cooperate with TRNC leader Rauf Denktash toward reaching a "just and viable solution" to the island's ethnic division.

The TRNC leadership has cautiously welcomed the outcome of the poll. Mumtaz Soysal, a close aide to Denktash, yesterday conceded the election "might have an impact" of the negotiation process.

Addressing reporters today in Lefkosa -- as the Turkish-held part of Nicosia is known -- Denktash sounded regretful at Clerides's defeat, saying his Greek counterpart had fallen victim to mischievous rumors about concessions he had allegedly made to the Turkish Cypriot side. "There have been no such concessions. Yet this propaganda has reached its goal," Denktash said.

Many observers have described yesterday's vote as a referendum on the UN peace plan, saying voters picked the candidate they believed would best defend southern Cyprus's interests in the peace talks.

However, Ker-Lindsay disagrees with this view, arguing that three out of the four major candidates, including Papadopoulos, had insisted that the UN blueprint serve as a basis for negotiations. He said that one should not underestimate the role that purely domestic issues have played in this election. "It has been very interesting that, to the outside world, it has come very, very strongly as a referendum on the peace plan. But as a matter of fact, I think it is more complicated than that. In fact, they did polls yesterday to ask why people were voting for the candidates that they were, and 30 percent of voters said it was solely about the plan. Fifteen percent said it was about internal issues, and 40 to 45 percent said, 'Well, no, it is a combination of [both] the plan and internal issues.' So there is this element as well about domestic politics. There is quite a lot of disillusionment with the outgoing Clerides government, which has been in power for 10 years," Ker-Lindsay said.

As journalist Henry pointed out, the outcome of yesterday's poll seems to have taken everyone by surprise. "What is going to happen over the next few days is not very clear, because, of course, President Clerides really does not have the mandate to negotiate anymore, and we've got Kofi Annan arriving on the island on February 26 in order to try to get [his draft] signed by February 28, which is the deadline that has been set. But, of course, Mr. Papadopoulos does not take over as president until March 1 officially. So it remains to be seen exactly what is going to happen over the next few days and what the impact [of the election] is going to be in the short term and, more importantly really, in the long term," Henry said.

Ker-Lindsay said Annan will consult next week with both the Greek and Turkish sides on a new, revised version of his blueprint -- the third to date -- which he will present on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Which stance Turkey, the only country that recognizes the TRNC, will adopt toward both this new draft and the new southern Cypriot leadership remains unclear.

The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which came to power in November, has signaled that it may amend Turkey's traditional hard-line policy on Cyprus. Some AKP leaders recently expressed growing frustration at Denktash's uncompromising attitude, prompting speculation that Ankara might sooner or later withdraw its support.

Yet, by reinforcing Turkey's strategic importance in the eyes of the United States, current tensions in the Middle East may indirectly affect the Cyprus negotiations.

Washington is pressing Ankara to authorize the deployment of tens of thousands of troops on its territory with an eye toward opening a second front against Iraq in any possible conflict. But Turkey has been dragging its feet over the U.S. demand, allowing only for the upgrading of military facilities by U.S. engineers.

In return for their support for any military action against Iraq, Turkish leaders are reportedly seeking maximum compensation from the United States. Such compensation could include the U.S. putting pressure on the Greek Cypriot side to make concessions. "With everything that is happening in the Middle East at the moment, Turkey has a very, very strong hand in its dealings with Washington to make sure that any plan that is presented reflects [its] desires and wishes. So it is going to be very, very interesting. On the one hand, we have Turkey, which is pushing for more concessions in the plan and its directions. And now we have Mr. Papadopoulos coming and saying that he is going to fight very hard to get the sort of concessions that he wants for the Greek Cypriots," Ker-Lindsay said.

As for the new plan that Annan is expected to present next week, Ker-Lindsay said that the general view is that "neither party is going to be happy about the changes that have been made, which obviously throws open the question: 'Can there be a solution by February 28?'"