Cypriot elections vital

NICOSIA (Reuters) – Turkish Cypriots are anxiously awaiting the outcome of an election this month in the Greek-Cypriot south that could cement partition of the Mediterranean island they share and wreck Turkey’s ties with Europe. President Tassos Papadopoulos, who led Greek Cypriots into rejection of a UN-backed Cyprus reunification plan in 2004, is seeking re-election in the February 17 poll but a strong challenge from two rivals is likely to force a second round on February 24. Victory for the hawkish Papadopoulos, who enjoys a small lead in opinion polls, would dash Turkish-Cypriot hopes of a swift end to their international isolation and hobble Turkey’s efforts to revive its stalled European Union entry bid. «The Greek-Cypriot elections are very important for us… We don’t have much time, our peoples are becoming more estranged by the day,» Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat told Reuters at his residence in Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital. Talat, whose community supported the 2004 UN peace plan, declined to comment on the candidates contesting the Greek-Cypriot presidency, but said a fresh peace drive was essential. «The status quo is not sustainable or fair because… we are isolated. This election is really the last chance (for change).» A Western diplomat based in Greek Nicosia said it was vital that all parties committed after the elections to a new UN-led peace process or face «a drift toward permanent partition. We cannot allow this problem to fester… Cypriot voters perhaps don’t realize how stark the options are,» he said. His warning echoed a recent study by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected Brussels-based think tank. «(An unmanaged slide to partition) would be profoundly damaging to Turkey’s convergence with Europe, Greek-Cypriot prosperity, stability in the east Mediterranean and EU unity,» the ICG report said. Leaving northern Cyprus in a legal and diplomatic limbo would undermine the fight against money laundering, human and drug trafficking and other international crime, it said. The Cyprus dispute is already hampering closer cooperation between the EU and NATO in conflict zones from Kosovo to Afghanistan. Turkey is a NATO member but Cyprus is not. This week, in a blow to EU unity, the Greek-Cypriot government prevented the 27-nation bloc from forging a common position on Kosovo’s independence. Cyprus fears Kosovo would create a precedent for recognition of the breakaway north, despite EU assurances that Kosovo is a unique case. Brushing aside suggestions Kosovo might be a model for the north, Talat said Turkish Cypriots still favor reunification along the lines of past UN peace plans, involving a loose federal government and wide autonomy for the two communities. «Realistically, we can solve this problem in less than one year. There is already a huge body of work on what needs to be done… It is possible with good will and good faith,» he said. With a settlement, Turkish Cypriots would finally enjoy the full benefits of EU membership, while Greek Cypriots would regain land and property in the north and win access to nearby Turkey’s booming economy and its market of 70-odd million consumers. But seasoned Cyprus observers are not optimistic. They say intercommunal contacts have fallen since the Greek Cypriots rejected the 2004 peace plan. Trade is static. Cooperation on issues ranging from crime-fighting to conservation founders on the Greek side’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Turkish side. «The two sides have become more entrenched. There are big psychological barriers,» said Hasan Kutlu Ince, head of the Turkish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce. The Greek Cypriots’ blocking of EU efforts to end a trade embargo against the breakaway state has eroded Turkish-Cypriot support for the EU. Greek Cypriots fear that allowing the north to trade freely with the EU could lead to de facto recognition of the enclave. Some say northern Cyprus’s isolation is already starting to crack. Last week, to Greek-Cypriot fury, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder led a delegation of German businessmen to northern Cyprus. Talat has held talks – unthinkable a few years ago – with EU foreign ministers and US secretaries of state. «I do not see how the two communities, with all the hang-ups they have about their relationship, can ever agree to come back together in one state to run their affairs,» said Ayla Gurel, an analyst at the International Peace Research Institute Oslo. «(Another Papadopoulos win) might lead the international community to think the previously unthinkable – partition.» UN weary of divided island NICOSIA (AFP) – The United Nations warned yesterday that it would not keep its forces forever on divided Cyprus if both sides avoid any meaningful engagement to undo decades of inertia. A peacekeeping force (UNFICYP) has been maintained on the island ever since ethnic unrest first broke out in 1963-64. And since Turkey invaded and seized the northern third after Greek-Cypriot putschists tried to unite the island with Greece in 1974, UNFICYP has patrolled a 180-kilometer (112-mile) ceasefire line. It is one of the longest-serving missions in UN history but there is a growing indication that patience is growing thin. «We are often asked, ‘How much longer will the international community wait for a settlement?’ What more can UNFICYP do after 44 years here?» said chief of mission Michael Moller at a parade ceremony at the UN compound in Nicosia. «The time has come for serious negotiation. The window of opportunity we have this year will not remain forever,» he added. With Cypriot presidential elections coming up on February 17 there has been much talk of a fresh UN initiative to revive stalled peace talks frozen since Greek Cypriots rejected a UN reunification plan in 2004. But Moller dismissed any suggestion that the UN was ready to get its fingers burnt in unilateral efforts to bring Greek and Turkish Cypriots closer together. «It has been clear for some time now, that rather than launching a new initiative on its own, the UN will support good-faith efforts on the part of both sides.» But the UN official questioned whether there was the «necessary political will» among the island’s leaders to «sit down and negotiate seriously to find a solution, for the greater good.»