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Turkey: New Leadership Faces Difficulties In Addressing Cyprus Issue

Rival leaders last week resumed talks aimed at ending nearly three decades of territorial and ethnic division on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. The European Union hopes both sides will come to an agreement before the island is admitted as a new member. But in Turkey, which is the main sponsor of Northern Cyprus, the new, pro-EU political leadership finds it difficult to impose change on an issue that is still referred to as a "national cause." Prague, 22 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As Cyprus's Turkish and Greek leaders engage in intensive talks aimed at clearing the way for the possible admission of a reunited island into the European Union, all eyes are turned on Ankara, which, by many accounts, remains a major power broker in the area.

Ankara invaded Cyprus's northernmost third in 1974 in response to a coup staged by the military junta then in power in Athens. It is the only foreign capital that recognizes the 20-year-old Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. For the past three decades, Turkey has been injecting vast financial and human resources into the area, sending some 100,000 Anatolian settlers and up to 40,000 soldiers.

Ignoring calls from the international community for a withdrawal of its troops and reunification of the island, Turkey's political and military establishment has for many decades remained united in defending what was commonly described as a "national cause."

But that widespread consensus on the Cyprus question no longer seems in season.

Leaders of the new ruling party, the Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has signaled that they want to revise Turkey's traditional stance on the island.

Debate over reforms needed to qualify for entry into the EU began under the previous coalition cabinet of then-Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. But until the AKP's landslide victory in early legislative polls last November, Turkish decision makers had carefully avoided publicly challenging Ankara's traditional stance on Cyprus.

On 5 January, AKP Chairman Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened a potential Pandora's box, saying the time had come to find a solution to the division of Cyprus. He also criticized what he described as the "status quo policy" pursued by Turkey's successive cabinets over the past 29 years.

Voters brought the AKP into power with hopes that the untested party would stem Turkey's worst economic crisis since the end of World War II and bolster its chances of joining the EU.

Although Ankara applied for membership in the bloc in 1987, it was granted candidate status only in 1999. Citing primarily human rights concerns, Brussels has so far refused to give Turkey a date for formal entry negotiations. At the 12-13 December enlargement summit in Copenhagen, however, the EU pledged to review Turkey's application in late 2004 with an eye to opening accession talks the following year.

Gabriel von Toggenburg is a researcher at the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy. He told RFE/RL that entry into the EU has become such a burning issue for Turkey's new leaders that they seem ready to give ground on the Cyprus question. "The political climate surrounding [this] question has definitely changed [in Turkey]. The Turkish side quite clearly [understands] that there is not much [room] for political maneuvers at the moment. Also, [the Turks] know quite well that if Cyprus becomes a member [of the EU], it will not be very convenient for them to have a new member state that could potentially block Turkey's own accession [bid] in two years' time," von Toggenburg said.

In Copenhagen last month, the EU invited Cyprus and nine other European countries to join its ranks in 2004, threatening to leave Northern Cyprus out of EU jurisdiction if no reunification deal is reached soon. Such a move would equate to admitting only the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus, which applied for membership in 1990 on behalf of the whole island.

Brussels backs a peace plan drafted by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan that neither Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides nor his Turkish Cypriot counterpart Rauf Denktash managed to endorse prior to the Copenhagen summit.

Annan is now expecting both leaders to agree on his blueprint by 28 February, a deadline he says should leave them enough time to prepare for separate referenda on the island's EU accession. The UN chief has also suggested Cypriot voters go to the polls on 30 March to ensure that a reunited island signs its EU accession treaty in mid-April.

Denktash is facing increasing pressure from his own constituency to strike a peace deal with Clerides as soon as possible.

Fueled by widespread discontent over economic hardship, residents of Northern Cyprus have staged several pro-EU demonstrations in recent days. On 14 January, some 50,000 protesters took to the streets of Lefkosa, as the Turkish-held part of the divided Cypriot capital is known, calling upon Denktash to agree to the UN draft or resign. For the first time in three decades, some demonstrators also denounced the Turkish "occupation" of the island's north.

The Turkish military has refrained from denouncing these protests. But the influential "pashas," as army generals are commonly called in Turkey, have criticized the UN blueprint as challenging national security and threatening the lives of the 85,000 Cyprus-born Turks that have remained on the island despite declining economic standards there.

Resistance from the military, the state bureaucracy and most Turkish mainstream political parties has prompted AKP leaders to adjust their rhetoric on Cyprus.

In sharp contrast with Erdogan's earlier statement, parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc on 15 January denied Ankara had revised its approach to the Cyprus problem. While stating that Annan's blueprint should serve as a basis for inter-Cypriot talks, Arinc also reiterated Turkey's traditional stance that any peace plan should preserve the sovereignty of Northern Cyprus.

These remarks followed an 18 December foreign-policy meeting held in Ankara during which President Ahmet Necdet Sezer and army Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok reportedly criticized the newly installed AKP government for being too soft on Cyprus.

Natalie Tocci is a research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. An expert on Turkey-EU relations, she said the contradictory signals emanating from Ankara are further evidence of a heated debate that started among Turkish decision makers even before the AKP came to power. "What is happening is not anything dramatically new. What I think is happening, to simplify things, is that the pro-Europeans are slightly gaining the upper hand. I think it was a debate that, basically, really began -- I would probably say -- in February or March [of] last year, when the first problems in the old government started within the coalition. And they carried on throughout the summer. The elections and AK[P]'s [victory] were the culmination of that process. It is still an ongoing debate," Tocci said.

Yet, Tocci cautioned against the temptation of seeing the debate as pitting Turkey's new, pro-Europe civilian leadership against its traditionalist military establishment. She said neither group has a united stance on the Cyprus issue.

However, she agreed with von Toggenburg that there is a direct link between Turkey's domestic debate on Cyprus and the views its new leaders hold on the EU. "What is interesting about [the] AK[P] is that for the first time they acknowledge explicitly the linkage between EU-Turkey relations and the Cyprus conflict, which is something the previous governments had always denied existed. [The] AK[P] says: 'Whether we like it or not, this is the reality. And given that this is the reality and that we do want to further our own accession process, then we need to get going on Cyprus, basically.' Whether that will actually lead to a settlement remains an open question, both because I do not think it is necessarily true to say that those views have won the day in Turkey -- I think they are gaining the upper hand, but I wouldn't say that they have necessarily won -- and also, secondly, because it takes two to tango," Tocci said.

Stressing that the Greek Cypriot side has its own "red line" it is not willing to cross during peace talks, Tocci said it would be a mistake to assume that Turkey's attitude is the only obstacle to a Cyprus settlement.

Both Clerides and Denktash have expressed reservations about the UN peace plan, though the Turkish Cypriot leader is said to have the strongest objections.

Annan's blueprint has not been officially published, but press reports say it proposes that Cyprus become a unified, two-community federation with some common institutions and a 10-month rotating presidency.

In addition, the UN also reportedly calls for a downsizing of armed forces and for territorial adjustments that would leave Turkish Cypriots with 28.5 percent of the island, down from the current 36 percent.

Annan's proposals also envisage the return of nearly half of the 160,000 Greek Cypriots who fled Northern Cyprus in 1974, a provision Denktash adamantly opposes, saying it would drive tens of thousands Turkish Cypriots out of their homes.

Denktash, who insists that any peace deal should secure equal rights for both communities, has threatened to call an early referendum on the UN draft and hinted that he could step down as negotiator in the instance of a 'yes' vote.

Since the AKP came to power, Turkish media have begun to criticize Denktash for refusing to strike a peace deal. These unprecedented attacks have sparked rumors that Ankara may sooner or later withdraw its support from its Cypriot protege.

Regional experts, however, do not see any immediate danger for Denktash.

Mevlut Katik, a London-based analyst who specializes in Turkish affairs, said the 78-year-old Denktash, who has held four successive terms as the head of Northern Cyprus, remains quite popular among the Turkish public, making it unlikely that Turkey's new leaders will cross the Rubicon and abandon him anytime soon. Rather, Katik said, Denktash may soon be challenged at home. "I don't think Denktash will be left alone. That would have repercussions in Turkey, on Turkish political parties, including [the] AK[P]. Any party [that would] try to dump Denktash could face a [backlash] from the Turkish public opinion. But public opinion's support [for Denktash] within his own self-declared state is diminishing quickly, and that is his main problem," Katik said.

Following last week's Lefkosa protests, Prime Minister Abdullah Gul called upon Turkish Cypriots to remain united behind their leader. "These are very important days, and we need to preserve our unity," Gul said 17 January after talks with the prime minister of Northern Cyprus, Dervis Eroglu.

But fears of domestic political backlash are not the sole explanation for Ankara's apparent reluctance to disown Denktash.

Tocci said Turkish decision makers, and, to some degree, Northern Cyprus's opposition leaders, might also have pragmatic reasons for not wishing to see the veteran politician leave now. "If there wasn't Denktash, who else in Northern Cyprus would have the necessary standing to sign a [peace] agreement?" she argued.

Be that as it may, the coming weeks will prove a crucial test of the ability of the AKP's leaders to rally both Denktash and Turkey's entrenched nationalist state bureaucracy to their view on the Cyprus question.