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Media Watch 2003

16 September 2003
Source: Guardian
Author: Helena Smith
Comment: The following article appeared in the Guardian of London on 16 September 2003
Cyprus bids for unity – again

Nicosia dispatch

Elections in northern Cyprus and the lure of EU membership offer hope for unity, reports Helena Smith

A small man with a pencil moustache will be whisked around Athens today and tomorrow, knocking on the doors of the Greek prime minister, president and other leading politicians.

It will, say aides, be the biggest mission Cyprus President Tassos Papadopoulos has ever undertaken as Nicosia and Athens set out, for perhaps the last time, to coordinate a joint strategy for the island's reunification.

More mediators, diplomats and UN secretary-generals have tried - and failed - to solve the Cyprus problem than practically any other international dispute. But, finally, the auguries are looking better.

After almost three decades of dashed hopes in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion, itself prompted by a Greek Cypriot coup organised by the military junta then ruling Greece, the divided eastern Mediterranean isle is now bracing for EU membership next May.

As he makes his rounds, President Papadopoulos will be acutely aware that the prospect of membership has injected an unprecedented dynamism into the search for a solution.

After years of international isolation and worsening economic depredation, the lure of accession to the wealthy bloc has, it seems, made Turkish Cypriots in the north of the island more determined than ever to reunite with their Greek Cypriot compatriots in the south.

The vast majority, according to polls, now want a solution based on the peace plan presented last year by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan.

It is a desire that - contrary to the staunch isolationist policies still advocated by Rauf Denktash, the veteran Turkish Cypriot leader - is dominating an already heated election campaign in the pariah northern state.

With polls predicting victory for the pro-solution parties in December's crucial parliamentary vote, President Papadopoulos also knows that the political landscape in the breakaway enclave could soon change.

This month the three main Turkish Cypriot opposition parties signed a pact. Their aim: a united Cyprus based on the UN blueprint which foresees reunification of the island in a loose, Swiss-style federation of two component states.

"It is very hard for me to escape the conclusion that if they [opposition] were indeed to be successful in the elections, there would be a far greater chance of recommencing negotiations on the Annan plan and getting a settlement before May 1 [2004]," the US state department's coordinator for Cyprus, Thomas Weston, said last week.

Hunger for a solution has been highlighted by Mr Denktash's decision to lift the decades-old travel ban across the UN-patrolled "dead zone" dividing the two communities.

The self-proclaimed president - who ended the restrictions after 70,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets in protest against his refusal to continue peace talks - had long maintained that the island's Greeks and Turks could never live together because of their mutual loathing.

But in the five months since the barricades came down, the exchange of populations across the ceasefire line has been remarkably incident-free.

"It has proved that all this talk of hate between the two sides is simply a load of rubbish," said one diplomat. Most Turkish Cypriots say they regard the forthcoming elections as an unofficial referendum on a settlement.

If they emerge with a parliamentary majority, opposition parties have pledged to loosen Mr Denktash's grip on power by immediately appointing a new chief negotiator to replace him in UN-brokered talks.

"These elections will be critical," says Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the opposition Republican Turkish party in his scruffy headquarters in north Nicosia.

"We see them as a turning point. By appointing a new negotiator we will be able to change the ambience and hopefully reach a solution. The Turkish Cypriots want to get rid of their isolation, they want to join the world through the EU. What the crossings have shown is that Cyprus is not like Bosnia or the Palestinian-Israeli problem ... both sides are reconciled already."

Mr Talat is not taking any chances. Although the poll is three months away he and other opposition politicians have already begun campaigning for votes in villages across the rump state.

Key to the outcome of the poll will be how settlers cast their ballots.

Mainland Turks brought into northern Cyprus as part of Mr Denktash's colonisation drive are now estimated to number some 100,000 - almost on a par with Turkish Cypriots.

But all the signs are that they, too, have begun to switch their traditional allegiance from Mr Denktash to the opposition in the realisation that a settlement will also benefit them.

"Denktash is trying to establish a sultanate through the exploitation of the settler vote," says Nuri Cevikel, chairman of one association representing settlers. "But these elections will be a turning point in Turkish Cypriots' history."

Ultimately, the future of Cyprus still rests with Turkey, the only country to recognise the mini-state in the 20 years since it declared independence.

During a visit to Nicosia last week the Greek foreign minister, George Papandreou, made clear that Ankara's own EU accession bid remained directly linked to a solution on the island.

"Turkey's stance on Cyprus is being watched by us, the EU and the entire international community," he said after holding preparatory talks with President Papadopoulos in advance of his hotly anticipated trip to Athens."