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Turkey: Cypriot Leader Signals Softening Stance On Peace Talks

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash reported progress yesterday after meeting in the Austrian city of Salzburg in their attempt to renew stalled peace talks over Cyprus. Failure to reach an agreement on the partitioned island's future could seriously affect the European Union enlargement process. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports:

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan met yesterday (28 August) with Turkish Cypriot President Rauf Denktash in an effort to revive proximity talks between the two rival sides of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

The meeting took place in Salzburg, where Annan was visiting Austrian officials. Shortly before the talks started, Annan reiterated his commitment to seek a durable solution to the thorny Cyprus issue. But he also made it clear that no breakthrough should be expected soon.

Both sides declined to elaborate on the outcome of the talks. In a statement issued in New York, Annan's spokesman, Fred Eckhard, simply described the meeting as "very good and very useful."

Eckhard also said UN special envoy Alvaro de Soto will travel to the island today for separate consultations with Denktash and his Greek counterpart, Glafcos Clerides.

Bilgin Oke is a political analyst in Denktash's office. Speaking by telephone from Lefkosa, the Turkish part of Cyprus's partitioned capital, Nicosia, Oke told RFE/RL that de Soto's visit could indicate that some progress was achieved in Salzburg:

"Probably, yes. Actually, Mr. Denktash has declared that he was pleased with the [talks] he had with Annan. So this may be a good and positive indication of the content of the meeting. This is my personal view."

The Salzburg meeting was the first attempt to resume stalled reconciliation talks over the divided island since Denktash unexpectedly withdrew last autumn from the UN-sponsored shuttle diplomacy talks.

Cyprus has been territorially divided between Turkish and Greek communities since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island's northeastern third, in response to a coup backed by Greece's military junta that ousted Archbishop Makarios from power. Makarios had been elected Cyprus's first president when the British-ruled island gained independence in 1960.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was created in 1983 after almost a decade of domestic unrest. Unlike southern Cyprus, which is considered by most of the world as the island's only legitimate body, the TRNC is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps between 35,000 and 40,000 troops there.

Both the EU and the UN want a solution to the 27-year-old dispute. But international attempts to help both sides resolve their differences have had little effect so far. Proximity reconciliation talks stalled in November of last year when Denktash said he would no longer participate unless the TRNC was acknowledged as equal to southern Cyprus.

The island's partition is a looming problem for EU expansion plans, as well as a further bone of contention between NATO allies Turkey and Greece, which are also at odds over territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea.

Southern Cyprus applied for EU membership in 1990 on behalf of the whole island, a move that the TRNC and Turkey have strongly opposed. Cyprus is now one of the top six membership candidates, expected to join the EU by 2004. Other front-runners are the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia, and Estonia.

Nathalie Tocci is an expert on Turkey-EU relations at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. In an interview with RFE/RL, Tocci says although there is little doubt that the island will soon be admitted into the EU, further delays in settling the Cyprus issue could affect the enlargement process as a whole:

"It seems clear to me that unless Cyprus is in, no one else is going to be in, because Greece is going to kind of oppose it. So Cyprus is going to be in the first round of enlargement. But obviously, [the Cyprus issue] is going to hugely affect the EU enlargement process in terms of Turkey's own candidacy to the EU. I mean, what is basically going to happen is that we [could end up] with a divided Cyprus coming into the EU and, therefore, with Turkey as a candidate to the EU, illegally occupying part of the European Union. So it would cause incredible strain on Turkey's own accession process."

Turkey stands last among 13 current EU candidates. Although Ankara formally applied for membership in 1987, it was accepted as an official candidate less than two years ago and accession talks have not yet begun.

Earlier this year, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's government approved a national program of political, economic, and legal reforms that it said would pave the way for Turkey's entry into the bloc. Regarding Cyprus, the program says that the issue should be settled on the basis of equality between its two ethnic communities -- in other words, that the partitioned island becomes a two-state confederation.

Ecevit -- who was already prime minister when Turkish troops invaded Cyprus in 1974 -- has repeatedly called for a settlement similar to the "peaceful divorce" that gave birth to the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. By contrast, Greek Cypriots demand that the island be turned into a federation divided into two regions.

Last month (10 July), the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee warned that, should Turkey carry out earlier threats to annex the island's northern part on Cyprus's accession to the EU, it would itself put an end to its EU candidacy.

Turkey-EU analyst Tocci believes that, while supporting Turkish Cypriot demands, Ankara might have urged Denktash to resume proximity reconciliation talks. Denktash is also facing pressure at home. Economic hardship has driven an estimated 30,000 Turkish Cypriots from the island since 1974, and the per capita income in the northern part of the island is roughly a quarter of that in the south. To add to its troubles, the TRNC has been seriously hit by Turkey's ongoing economic crisis.

Northern Cyprus is largely funded by Ankara and shares with Turkey the same national currency, the lira, which has lost 50 percent of its value against the dollar since February.

The vast majority of the 85,000 Cyprus-born Turks remaining on the island see accession to the EU as a way to alleviate their economic hardship. Hundreds of them demonstrated last month in the streets of Lefkosa to protest Denktash's anti-reunification policy, urging their leader to resume talks with the UN.

Still, Tocci believes that although most Cypriot northerners support EU membership, they generally back their president:

"It is certainly true that Turkish Cypriot people are feeling very strongly -- especially now, with the economic crisis in Turkey -- the economic strain of a no-settlement situation. But that does not necessarily mean that they do not support Denktash's position. [Actually,] a large majority does support his negotiating position, this concept of equality [between] the two sides and the primacy of security over economics."

No matter how difficult reconciliation talks remain, this week brought other good news. The day before he met with Annan, Denktash held talks with EU enlargement commissioner Guenter Verheugen in Zurich, Switzerland. Both sides agreed to meet again to discuss establishing a "direct dialogue."