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Cyprus: UN Looks To Cut Gordian Knot Before Island Joins EU

At an enlargement summit held in mid-December in Copenhagen, the European Union extended an invitation to the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus to join its ranks in 2004, facing the risk of turning candidate member Turkey into an occupying power. Brussels and Ankara have little time left to cut the Gordian knot that is Cyprus. Leaders of the island's Turkish-held north, whom critics both at home and in Turkey accuse of intransigence, are also under increasing pressure to find a solution.

Prague, 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The issue of Cyprus is one of the major obstacles on the road toward Turkey joining the European Union.

An EU enlargement summit held on 12-13 December in Copenhagen extended an invitation to the divided Mediterranean island and to nine other European countries to join the 15-member bloc in May 2004. Yet the clock is ticking for Brussels, which would like to see membership of a reunited island.

Cyprus has been territorially divided between Turkish and Greek communities since 1974, when Ankara, responding to an abortive coup backed by the military junta then in power in Athens, invaded the island's northeastern third.

Following years of domestic unrest, the island's partition culminated in 1983 in the creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or TRNC, which is recognized only by Ankara.

Turkey, which has been funding the Turkish Cypriot leadership for the past 20 years, has maintained an estimated 35,000 troops and 100,000 settlers on the island.

Twelve years ago, the Greek administration of Southern Cyprus -- which the international community considers the island's sole legitimate body -- nevertheless applied for membership in the EU on behalf of both territorial entities.

UN-sponsored reunification talks have so far failed to reach any breakthrough.

Concerned by the prospect of Turkey eventually occupying part of an EU member, the UN has urged the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides to settle their dispute by 28 February.

On 11 November, the UN presented a blueprint that proposes that the island be turned into a single-state, bicommunal federation with some common institutions and a rotating presidency. The UN also calls for the return to the Turkish-controlled area of some Greek Cypriot refugees.

TRNC leaders, in turn, insist that Cyprus enter the European bloc as a confederation of two sovereign states. Only this, they say, will preserve the rights of the island's Turkic-speaking minority.

The sides failed to endorse the UN draft ahead of the Copenhagen summit as international mediators had initially hoped. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have traded accusations over the failure, and TRNC President Rauf Denktash blamed Brussels for allegedly pressuring his side into a hasty deal.

Denktash, speaking to reporters in Ankara after the EU enlargement summit refused to set an early date for entry talks with Turkey, said any deal on Cyprus should not be implemented before Turkey joins the bloc. The summit offered to review Ankara's candidacy in late 2004 with an eye to opening formal accession negotiations the following year.

Criticizing the EU for extending an invitation to the island's Greek administration before entering talks with Ankara, Denktash accused Brussels of seeking to build a "Christian fortress" in the Eastern Mediterranean: "I believe the European Union's interest is to delay Turkey's accession, to have Cyprus, to take possession of Cyprus and to build something like a Christian fortress around Turkey."

Hopes that the new, moderate Islamic Turkish cabinet that came out of last month's legislative polls would prove more flexible on the Cyprus issue than its predecessors suffered an apparent blow on 18 December when Ankara issued a statement describing as "unacceptable" Brussels' plans to admit the divided island as a member in two years' time.

"There is no single state, government, or parliament that is authorized to represent the whole island," the statement reads, adding that Brussels "has no right to infringe international agreements and make unilateral decisions on the future of Cyprus."

This strongly worded declaration was made shortly before Turkey's top cabinet and military leaders convened at the Cankaya presidential palace in Ankara to discuss foreign policy issues. Denktash, who is convalescing in Turkey from heart surgery, was also present.

In comments made after the meeting, Turkish presidential spokesman Tacan Ildem said Ankara fully supported the confederation plan proposed by the Turkish Cypriot leadership.

"Turkey believes a solution to the Cyprus issue should be based on a new partnership which respects the security and sovereign equality of the Turkish Cypriots, the strategic interests of both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and the balance between [Turkey and Greece]."

In an apparent attempt at cutting short mounting criticism aimed at Denktash, the presidential spokesman also said Ankara's support to the TRNC leader would remain unchallenged: "From now on, we expect the Greek Cypriot authorities to hold a well-intentioned and constructive stance in future talks. As it has done in the past, Turkey will on all issues support the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the people of Northern Cyprus under the leadership of Mr. Rauf Denktash."

Sustaining Ildem's remarks, Turkish media reported that President Ahmet Necdet Sezer told participants to the Cankaya meeting that Ankara would not deviate from its traditional Cyprus stance and that reports to the contrary were sheer speculation aimed at misleading public opinions in Turkey and Northern Cyprus. Sezer was also quoted as saying that Ankara was committed to finding a political solution to the 28-year-old dispute and considered the UN blueprint a "basis for future negotiations."

Whether comments aired at the presidential palace were aimed at pressing Brussels to give an early date for EU accession talks or at strengthening Denktash's position in future Cyprus peace talks is unclear. Turkish media have said that inter-Cypriot negotiations are expected to resume within days.

Speaking to reporters in Ankara on 19 December, Denktash pledged to discuss the UN draft until the 28 February deadline is reached in order to obtain changes that would secure equal rights for both the Turkish and Greek communities: "We will demonstrate our goodwill and continue negotiating until the end of February."

Denktash is coming under growing pressure at home to reach a compromise with the Greek Cypriot side.

Demonstrations have been staged over the past few days in Lefkosa -- as the Turkish part of the island's divided capital, Nicosia, is known -- calling upon Denktash to endorse the UN draft or resign.

Economic hardship has driven an estimated 30,000 Turkish Cypriots from the island since 1974 and the per-capita income in the Turkish-held part of Cyprus is roughly a quarter of that in the south. The majority of the 85,000 Cyprus-born Turks remaining on the island see accession to the EU as a way to alleviate their troubles.

Opposition leaders in Northern Cyprus have blamed Denktash -- who skipped the EU Copenhagen summit, officially on health grounds -- for failing to get a united island into the bloc.

In Turkey itself, the decades-long consensus on the Cyprus issue seems no longer in season. Addressing fellow party members in Parliament on 17 December, the leader of Turkey's ruling Adalet ve Kalkinma (Justice and Development) party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, cautioned against dragging Cyprus talks out.

Since the end of the Copenhagen summit, Turkey's mainstream newspapers have been openly criticizing Denktash for his intransigence.

Turkey's new leadership is counting on Greece, which will take over the rotating EU Presidency on 1 January, to lobby its EU membership bid in Brussels.

Athens, in turn, sees the bloc's decision to give Ankara a clearer prospect for future entry talks as a possible incentive toward a compromise on Cyprus. The Greek leadership also hopes a Cyprus settlement would help unlock its dispute with Ankara over territorial rights on the Aegean Sea.

The EU has given Greece and Turkey a late 2004 deadline to settle their dispute through compromise or face the risk of seeing the case brought before an international court.

In comments printed on 19 December in the Istanbul-based "Milliyet" daily, columnist Mehmet Ali Birand said the ball is now in Turkey's court, as well as in that of Greece. Meeting the 28 February deadline is equally important for both sides, Birand wrote, because "in the absence of a solution on Cyprus, everybody will lose."