Turkish Cypriots vest hopes in EU

NICOSIA – Decades of international isolation and economic stagnation have left Turkish Cypriots longing for change but officials and observers say that will not make them accept a solution to Cyprus’s division at all costs. Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash are holding intensive talks aimed at resolving a stalemate on the island that has been divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded in response to an Athens-backed Greek-Cypriot coup. The self-declared breakaway state in northern Cyprus is shunned by the international community and recognized only by Ankara. There are no direct flights to it except from Turkey, trade faces numerous obstacles and foreign investors prefer to stay away rather than risk the wrath of Greek Cypriots. «The club of unrecognized states is not a nice place to be,» says Ahmet Aker, undersecretary at the breakaway state’s economy «ministry.» «It brings all the other evils associated with the other members of the club,» he said. As well as economic isolation, Turkish Cypriots deeply resent restrictions in areas such as sports and cultural exchanges. For years Denktash, backed by Ankara which bankrolls the breakaway enclave, has called for an end to the embargo and the issue will be an important element of the current talks. The search for a solution has been given greater urgency by the Republic of Cyprus’s fast-approaching entry into the European Union, something Turkish Cypriots too hanker after. Greek Cypriots are hoping that the prospect of millions of euros of EU aid for Turkish Cypriots if a reunited Cyprus joins the bloc, plus an end to the isolation, will be an incentive for Denktash to compromise in some areas and reach a solution. The per capita income in the Greek south is nearly four times higher than in the Turkish north. But Jonathan Stevenson of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said economic considerations were not the strongest motive at play. «It’s a factor because I think the people of (northern Cyprus) really want greater prosperity and that would certainly be a very major motivation of virtually all the opposition parties,» he said. «I think it’s a standing concern and an ultimate objective even of Denktash to take Turkish Cypriots out of the international doghouse and make economic conditions better.» «But I think Denktash, when it came time for his election, was able to conjure up visions of Greek-Cypriot ethnic cleansing that trumped all of those considerations,» Stevenson said. One of Denktash’s advisers, who declined to be identified, said that while he recognized the economic incentives to finding a solution, that was not the priority. «Everyone realizes the benefits the EU offers, especially economically, but the main issue which concerns us is security and a system of guarantees when taking into consideration what has happened on the island in the past,» he said. Bitter fighting between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities was the defining characteristic of the period leading up to the Turkish invasion and both sides accuse each other of atrocities. Aker said economic growth in recent years had been limited to 2 or 3 percent at most and northern Cyprus was running a large budget deficit. Cash from mainland Turkey allows the north to survive. «This is not because we cannot produce but we cannot sell what we produce,» Aker said. «Therefore the country does not produce enough revenue for its citizens or revenue in the form of taxes for the government. It’s a vicious circle.» Potatoes used to be a major export item for the north with capacity to produce around 20,000 tonnes a year, Aker said. In 1994 the European Court of Justice ruled that commodities exported from the north must be accompanied by a certificate of health from the Greek-Cypriot authorities. «In effect we were stopped from exporting these commodities to Europe,» Aker said. Textiles and citrus fruit exporters face the same problem, having to send their produce through Turkey which raises the cost. Most citrus crops from northern Cyprus are now shipped to Eastern Europe at low prices or sold less profitably for juice. Ali Erel, head of the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, said it was essential that any solution should bring an end to the embargo and help businesses in the north close the gap with the prosperous south of the island. «What we understand from a settlement is of course a political settlement together with membership of the EU,» Erel said. «The basic rule before entering the EU is that we should be able to have an economy that can compete.» Turkey currently subsidizes northern Cyprus, announcing last year it would inject $350 million over three years. The financial support is as important for Turkish Cypriots as the 30,000 Turkish troops stationed on the island.