Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back: The Problems of a Divided Cyprus Will Not Go Away despite a Groundswell of Public Opinion, Especially in the North, That the 29-Year Breech Must Now Be Healed. (Cyprus)

Article excerpt

Harold Wilson once remarked that a week is a long time in politics. These days, on Cyprus's political scene, a week can seems like an eternity.

As voters in the south headed off to the polls to elect a new president--replacing Glafcos Clerides with Tassos Papadopoulos--speculation continued about whether Greek and Turkish Cypriots will be able to agree to resolve the 29-year division of the island. And still, despite the personal intervention of the UN's Secretary General Kofi Annan who travelled to Nicosia in late February there is no, obvious answer.

In late January, hopes were running high that a settlement was imminent, as pressure built on a reluctant Rauf Denktash, leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, to sign the peace plan presented by Kofi Annan. Large-scale demonstrations in northern Nicosia--one comprising some 70,000 people, or more than one third of the north's population according to a local Reuters journalist--led many to assume that his time-honoured policy of endless but unyielding negotiation was unsustainable. The fact that Washington and the European Union were pushing Turkey towards a solution--with Brussels indicating that Ankara's Cyprus policy would be a key factor in determining its suitability for eventual accession to the EU--also seemed to suggest that Denktash's procrastination could not be continued. Indeed, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's ruling AKP leader, went public with his belief that Denktash's personalisation of the Cyprus issue was unsustainable, many observers started writing the latter's political obituary.

Yet a few weeks later, things look as if they are back to square one. Denktash's public appearances, far from suggesting a man under pressure instead confirm that this veteran figure feels very much back in control of events again. In interviews with the Turkish media the 79 year-old internationally unrecognised president of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" suggested that if Ankara wanted him to step aside he would do so, but he saw absolutely no signs that this was the case.

"The military and key elements within the Ankara establishment seem to have closed ranks behind Denktash once again," says James Ker-Lindsay, head of the Nicosia-based Civilitas consultancy. Pointing to recent statements from four leading figures within the Turkish military, he says there are growing signs that it is prepared to tough it out with Erdogan and his apparent desire to ease Denktash out and sign the Annan peace plan. Using phrases such as "blood has been spilled for Cyprus" and "we cannot sell out Cyprus for EU membership," the Army is making clear its growing hostility to the plan.

The ongoing showdown between the US and Iraq has also benefited Denktash. Erdogan--and Turkey's military--may not see eye to eye over Cyprus but they are united in agreeing that the issue cannot distract them from a possible threat to the country's eastern borders by a belligerent Baghdad. Extraordinary scenes, when Turkey asked NATO to invoke Article Four in the face of French, German and Belgian hostility to the notion, completely preoccupied Erdogan--who is still struggling to find a parliamentary seat so he can formally assume the premiership from Abdullah Gul.

"Denktash appears to have grown even more stubborn in recent days, bolstered by his growing support in Ankara," believes Lindsay, who says even senior members of the AKP seem to have swung behind him.

With time running out for a solution, Denktash's opponents in the north believe he is deliberately holding out for the impossible--recognition of the 1974 invasion as a legitimate act and of the "TRNC" as a de jure legal state, not to mention Turkish membership of the EU. The hope is either that the status quo will be maintained or that north Cyprus will be absorbed fully into Turkey. With the Turkish military maintaining that the territory is strategically vital and should not be conceded without some major concession from the south or the EU, even those who have always protested their optimism about an eventual decision are starting to believe continued deadlock is the only possible outcome--at least whilst Denktash remains. …