x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Turkey's eye is on Cyprus peace

The fate of peace talks on Cyprus is almost as important to Turkey as it is to Cypriots themselves.

ISTANBUL // As Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, urged Greek and Turkish leaders in Cyprus to push for a peaceful solution to the conflict on the divided Mediterranean island yesterday, government officials in Ankara were watching carefully. After all, the fate of peace talks on Cyprus is almost as important to Turkey as it is to Cypriots themselves.

"A solution is possible and within reach," despite all the difficulties faced by both Greeks and Turks on the island, Mr Ban told Cypriots after his arrival on the island late on Sunday. "The future is in your hands." Dimitris Christofias, the Greek Cypriot president, has been conducting unification talks under UN supervision with Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, since 2008. Although Mr Talat said last week important progress had been made on the thorny question of sharing power between the Greek majority and the Turkish minority on the island, there has been no deal so far, and many difficult issues, such as property and security, still have to be tackled.

"We are trying to get this thing solved within this year," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said in a television interview last weekend. He also said that his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, called him last week to ask whether Turkey was willing to undertake a joint effort to solve the Cyprus question. Mr Erdogan said Turkey was ready to talk "without preconditions". For the Turkish government, the Cyprus problem represents big political opportunities as well as huge risks.

An agreement on the island would remove one of the biggest hurdles for Turkey's EU membership bid, which is currently blocked because Ankara refuses to recognise the Greek Cypriot republic, an EU member. A solution would also give a boost to Turkey's ambition to become a regional superpower with "zero problems" in its relations with its neighbours. At the same time, any Turkish government must be careful to avoid the impression among its own voters that it is selling out national interests for the sake of a solution.

Cyprus has been split into a Greek and a Turkish sector since 1974, when Turkish troops landed in the north of the island in response to a coup by Greek nationalists in Nicosia. Nine years later, the Turkish part in the island's north declared itself independent, but the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or KKTC, is recognised only by Ankara. Mr Erdogan's position is that the Turkish side has proven its sincerity by agreeing to a UN reunification plan in 2004.

That plan was supported by Turkish Cypriot voters in a referendum, but rejected by Greek Cypriots in a separate poll. Shortly after the failure of the plan, Cyprus became a member of the EU, but membership is restricted to the Greek section because of the separation of the island. Turkey says the EU has not kept its promise to ease the isolation of the Turkish sector. Observers raised doubts about the ability of Mr Ban to get the Greek and the Turkish sides to make the serious concessions needed for a breakthrough.

Both sides have been eager to underline their willingness to carry on with negotiations, but that show of support for the peace process has not translated into tangible progress on the ground. "Most of the energy is being spent on efforts to prevent their own side from appearing to be the spoiler," said one western diplomat in Ankara. Mr Ban's visit was also seen as an effort to boost the position of Mr Talat, who faces a difficult election in three months.

Turkey has backed Mr Talat in his talks with Mr Christofias, and the Turkish Cypriot leader is a frequent guest in Ankara where he talks strategy with Turkish leaders. With polls showing that Mr Talat may be replaced by Dervis Eroglu, a more nationalist politician, in elections for KKTC leader on April 18, Ankara has redoubled its efforts to get a solution as soon as possible. "Time is working against the settlement," Mr Talat told Mr Ban during a lunchtime meeting yesterday. "Therefore we need an urgent solution."

While Mr Talat is a supporter of reunification, Mr Eroglu says he will not be sorry if the division of the island becomes final. Officially declaring his candidacy last week, Mr Eroglu referred to a recent statement by Mr Talat who said he cried when the KKTC was proclaimed in 1983. "I am not the candidate who cried when the KKTC was proclaimed, but the candidate who applauded," Mr Eroglu said. An election victory by Mr Eroglu would complicate things for Turkey, because Ankara has succeeded, with the help of Mr Talat, in ending the perception in the international community that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side were set against a unification of the island, Semih Idiz, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, wrote yesterday.

As a consequence, the Turkish government has stressed that it wants a solution as soon as possible. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister and architect of the "zero problems" vision, has said the current talks offered a "golden opportunity" to reach a solution for Cyprus. tseibert@thenational.ae