Cyprus is biggest barrier to Turkey’s hopes to join EU

ANKARA – Turkey’s ruling party has championed bold political and human rights reforms in a bid to win a date for European Union entry talks, but remains strangely silent on the issue that most threatens its EU hopes – Cyprus. With the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot half of the divided island poised to join the EU in May, Turkey should be actively trying to coax Rauf Denktash’s breakaway Turkish-Cypriot enclave toward a settlement, diplomats and experts say. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government is heavily focused on repairing strained ties with the United States over Iraq and seems to have put Cyprus on the backburner, they add. Earlier this year, Denktash drew international criticism for rejecting a UN-brokered peace plan widely seen as providing the best basis for resolving the island’s 30-year division. Denktash opposed the territorial concessions the plan envisaged. Since then talks have stalled and Turkey, which backs Denktash’s statelet with subsidies and guards it with 30,000 troops, has not pressed him to revive the UN plan. «Cyprus can only be solved if there is urgent fresh thinking in Ankara. If there is a solution, the initiative has to come from Ankara,» said a senior European diplomat in the Turkish capital. «The UN plan… cannot be accepted by the Turkish Cypriots but the government should come up with proposals for improving the plan, proposals which would put the Greek Cypriots on the defensive and show Turkey is serious about peace.» Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos has also pinned blame on Turkey, saying most Turkish Cypriots wanted a deal. A second EU diplomat said many in Turkey saw Cyprus as a bargaining chip and wanted to extract from Brussels a firm guarantee of entry talks before making any concessions. «The EU cannot do that. Turkey must first meet the criteria on human rights and political freedoms,» he said. EU membership criteria also include good relations with one’s neighbors – a condition Turkey does not meet, he added. Even without a settlement, Cyprus will join the EU next May along with nine other, mostly ex-communist, countries but EU laws and regulations will only apply in the Greek part. Cyprus, probably backed by Greece, might then veto any EU decision to open entry talks with Ankara, arguing Turkish troops were illegally occupying its territory. The EU is due to review Turkey’s progress in December 2004. The stakes are high for Ankara. «Either Turkey helps solve the Cyprus problem and eventually joins the EU, or it maintains its occupation, illegal under international law, turns away from the EU and looks to other regional alliances,» the senior diplomat said. Turkey says it wants a negotiated settlement in Cyprus but insists Turkish Cypriots must be the equal partners of Greek Cypriots. Recalling the inter-ethnic conflict preceding its 1974 invasion, Turkish conservatives back Denktash’s preference for a two-state model to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots. Turkey says it is naive to think Greek and Turkish Cypriots will suddenly start to love each other inside the EU. But many experts say that for strategic reasons, Turkey’s powerful military wants to keep the status quo on Cyprus, located just 70 kilometers (40 miles) from its Mediterranean coast. «The army will never agree to give up Cyprus. It sees a Greek-dominated Cyprus as a direct threat to Turkey’s strategic interests in the region, a knife aimed at its underbelly,» said one Turkish commentator, who asked not to be named. He said a planned oil pipeline from the Azeri capital of Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, not far north of the island, further increased Cyprus’s strategic value. Never mind that Greece and Turkey are NATO allies or that Turkey, once inside the EU, would be part of a common market with its ancient nemesis. «Paranoia drives Turkey’s Cyprus policy,» said Dogu Ergil, a professor of politics at Ankara University. He said that even if Erdogan wanted to cut a deal on Cyprus he faced resistance from Turkey’s so-called «deep state» – the military, the intelligence services and much of the bureaucracy. «For the moment, the government appears unwilling to pay the price of (such a) confrontation,» Ergil said. The staunchly secularist «deep state» views Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AK) with suspicion and distaste because of its Islamist roots. The AK denies wanting to «Islamize» Turkey and describes itself as moderate conservative, but has to take the «deep state’s» distrust into account when devising policy. Ergil said the main hope for those in the AK who favor a speedy Cyprus settlement was victory for Denktash’s opponents in a December parliamentary election. Turkish-Cypriot opposition parties have vowed to sideline Denktash – whose job is not up for grabs in December – and negotiate on the basis of the UN plan in a bid to secure a settlement before Cyprus joins the EU. However, Denktash – who has dominated Turkish-Cypriot politics for decades and has influential friends in Ankara – is unlikely to go quietly.