Rauf Denktash ‘relieved’ at retirement

NICOSIA – Rauf Denktash, the pugnacious nationalist who has led Turkish Cypriots for three decades, says he will miss nothing about the job when he retires next week. Denktash, 81, bows out of office after polls tomorrow that are expected to elect pro-reunification leader Mehmet Ali Talat as the new «president» of the self-declared Turkish-Cypriot statelet. «I feel relieved,» Denktash told Reuters in an interview yesterday, saying being cast internationally as the chief obstacle to reunification had weighed on him over the years. «(That) was a very heavy burden on me, because the policy I followed was the policy of the people who elected me and… (of) Turkey.» Denktash has long seen himself as standing fast against an unfair world that favors Greek-Cypriot interests while punishing his tiny breakaway state with sanctions and isolation. To many diplomats, this bald, rotund, vivacious man has been the stubborn «Mr No,» blocking attempts to bring Greek and Turkish Cypriots together in a united, federal state. But Turkish-Cypriot public opinion has shifted, culminating 12 months ago in their sweeping referendum approval for a UN reunification plan for the Mediterranean island. Greek-Cypriot voters rejected the plan, and the mantle of intransigence shifted to Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos. The Turkish Cypriot «yes» vote made Denktash something of a lame duck. «He was the politician of the Cold War era,» Talat told Reuters. «His policies were not compatible with the present conditions.» A London-trained barrister, in the 1950s Denktash helped found a Turkish-Cypriot paramilitary group against Greek-Cypriot EOKA guerrillas who fought for independence from Britain. He argues that the Turkish Cypriots were the main victims of the intercommunal bloodshed that plagued Cyprus until it split in 1974, when Turkey invaded after a Greek-Cypriot coup engineered by Athens. He believes the Greek Cypriots still want to drive out any Turkish-speaking presence on the island. «When I was 21, I stood against them,» he told his presidential staff at a leaving party yesterday. «Now I’m 81, and I’m still standing against them.» Critics attack his refusal in 2002 to sign a deal for the outline of a federal state, a move that opened the way for the Greek Cypriots to enter the EU in the name of the whole island.

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