Denktash in no rush

NICOSIA – Despite a looming EU deadline, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash said yesterday that he is in no rush to negotiate for the unity of this divided island and dismissed assertions that his hardline position in talks could undermine Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. In an interview in his office just a few kilometers from the cement barrels that cut across the split city of Nicosia, Denktash called for Turkey, which maintains troops on the island, to guarantee the north’s security «forever» and said he will go down in history as the man who did «not allow Cyprus to become a Greek island.» Turkish Cypriots go to the polls on Sunday for crucial parliamentary elections in which they will be asked to choose between parties that support Denktash’s hard line and parties that back quick negotiations according to a UN plan. The vote comes against a May deadline after which the European Union will admit Cyprus as a member, either as a divided or reunified island. If the island enters divided, EU laws and benefits will only apply in the Greek-Cypriot south. The 40,000 troops that Turkey has in the north will technically be occupying EU soil, which could harm Turkey’s bid to join the bloc. EU members are also demanding that Turkey, which subsidizes the northern economy, help solve the division of the island before Turkey can become a member. That pressure will come at a time when Turkey, NATO’s only Muslim member, is playing an increasingly critical role in the war on terrorism. Turkey has peacekeepers in Afghanistan, volunteered peacekeepers for Iraq and was recently targeted by suicide bombers who killed 61 in Istanbul. Washington has strongly pushed for closer ties between Turkey and Europe. Denktash brushed aside concerns that his hard line could jeopardize Turkey’s EU bid and said that UN-backed talks for reunification would lead to domination by the wealthier and larger Greek-Cypriot south. «Turkey is not going to be received as a member for 10 to 15 years, they tell Turkey,» he said. «So why pressure Turkey to let go of Cyprus?» «All this hurry, ‘Finish it by date so-and-so otherwise the next day will be calamity’ hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future,» said Denktash, who has led the Turkish-Cypriot community since the 1960s. Denktash also said he wanted «effective Turkish guarantees» for Cyprus’s security. «We need it forever,» he said. Polls show the electorate deeply divided, with two pro-EU parties and two other pro-Denktash parties splitting most of the vote and none having an outright majority. There are also three smaller parties and a coalition seems a near certainty. The three opposition parties have joined forces and pledged to remove Denktash as chief negotiator in peace talks with Greek Cypriots. Denktash is president of the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state and is not up for re-election until 2005. Just a few miles away from Denktash’s presidential palace, white barrels filled with cement form the border between southern Cyprus and Denktash’s self-declared state, which is only recognized by Turkey. Bullet holes mar the facade of a nearby apartment building, evidence of the fighting that led to the division of the island. «Greek Cypriots do not become less of a danger to us by entering the EU,» Denktash said. «They become more of a danger to us because they will try to get the support of the EU in order, as they say it, to cleanse the north of the enemy.» After the elections, Denktash will have the power to appoint a party leader to form the next government but stressed that he does not plan to appoint the opposition unless they win a strong majority. «If they have a sweeping majority, constitutionally I have to give it to them,» Denktash said. But he added: «I have to give it to a leader who can compose a government. I am saying that there is no chance that (the opposition) will win the elections in a major way. They will again be an opposition in the Parliament.»