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FINANCIAL TIMES-World Reports / Cyprus, OCTOBER 9, 2002
2002-10-09 23:36:13

Northern Cyprus: Ankara's intentions are still a mystery
By Metin Munir
Published: October 9 2002
Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has been around longer than any Turkish leader. Mr Denktash, 78, has lived with 36 Turkish governments and witnessed three military coups on the mainland. Although he has had his ups and downs, his relations with Ankara in recent years have been excellent. He is particularly friendly with Bulent Ecevit, the 77-year-old prime minister, who sent the Turkish army to Cyprus in 1974 after a short-lived coup backed by the military junta in Athens sought to merge the island with Greece.

Mr Denktash's relations with the politically powerful Turkish army are also very good. Since the war, the Turkish general staff has posted some of its best officers to the island.

Because of this, Mr Denktash always has allies among the top generals. He also commands great respect in the political leadership and is very popular with the Turkish public.

"He is a politician whom Turkey loves," said Ilter Turkmen, a former Turkish foreign minister.

Mr Denktash has often been accused by his adversaries of being intransigent. He is held responsible for the slow pace of the UN sponsored talks where no significant progress has been made. His unique standing with Turkey gives Mr Denktash awesome power but it is wrong to think that he is running Turkey's Cyprus policy or that he has been given a free hand in the current peace process.

"Mr Denktash can make things easy or difficult," says a Turkish diplomat who does not want to be identified. "But he cannot dictate policy. In the past, Turkey has made him do things he did not want to do. We still have this ability."

A western diplomat agrees: "Almost every Turkish politician and general believes that when the time comes, Turkey will call the shots. They will take into account what Denktash wants - but what Turkey wants will happen in the end."

What Turkey wants is a mystery. The general consensus among diplomats is that Ankara does not know exactly where it wants the talks to lead. There is no homogeneity of views among the coalition partners.

On the one extreme is Mesut Yilmaz, the deputy prime minister responsible for Turkey's EU candidacy, who is keen for a settlement.

At the other extreme are Mr Ecevit, who believes the status quo is the settlement, and Devlet Bahceli, another deputy prime minister, and chairman of the ultra rightwing Nationalist Action party.

"There has been very little guidance from Ankara," said a British diplomat. "Even when the (three party Ecevit) coalition functioned well, Denktash was not given clear directives. The Turkish Government has not been able to answer the question 'What are we to do about Cyprus?'. This has not happened because the answer is too difficult."

There is no consensus among the top generals either. The army will not relinquish its ability to defend militarily the Turkish Cypriots if the need arises. But whether maintaining a sizeable garrison on the island after a settlement is enough will depend, in part, on whether they receive clearer signals from the politicians.

The United Nations is waiting for greater clarity to emerge from the Turkish election scheduled for November 3 before taking the ultimate step of proposing a draft settlement to both sides.

Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik, a former Turkish minister in charge of EU affairs says he finds it difficult to be optimistic because Turkey has no clear-cut strategy.

"Turkey now conducts its Cyprus policy through Denktash," he says. "But Cyprus is not Denktash's problem and it is not a problem that can be solved through proxies. This problem can be solved satisfactorily only between Turkey and Greece, with the two island communities sitting next to them."

Mr Irtemcelik says it is unfair to blame Mr Denktash for the lack of progress in the talks. "If you position him as a goalkeeper, he will act like a goalkeeper," he says. "He will do his best to prevent the other side from scoring. He is doing this very well."

Mr Denktash does not hide the fact that he is an unwilling negotiator who does not want the Greeks and Turks to live under the same state.

"He wants to go down in history as the man who saved the Turks from Greek ethnic cleansing. Whether this is done within the framework of a settlement is not an issue for him," said the western diplomat. "But if Turkey wants Denktash to do something, he will do it."

He lacks trust in both the Greeks and his own people. People close to him report that the he believes the Turkish Cypriot community has lost its fighting spirit and would willingly sell out to the economically powerful Greeks.

It is because of this that he favours immigration from the mainland, which, if unchecked, could reduce the Turkish Cypriots to a minority in less than a decade. Of the estimated 200,000 people living in the north, 45 per cent are believed to be of mainland origin.

When Turkish Cypriots complained that the locals were leaving the island and being replaced by Anatolians, Mr Denktash was said to have retorted: "One Mehmet goes, another Mehmet comes. What's the difference?"

Probably Mr Denktash's greatest weakness is that in nearly half a century of active politics, he has not shown the least interest in economic affairs. This must be partly because Ankara has always been ready with the cheque book. However, Turkey itself is going through its worst economic crisis and cannot afford to be as generous as it used to be. Cypriot civil servants used to be paid four times more than mainland ones.

The Turkish Cypriot economy, which is, to a large extent, integrated with and dependent on the Turkish economy, is in shambles. Per capita income in the north is about $3,000 compared with nearly $15,000 in the south. Inflation and unemployment are high.

In order to sort out the mess, Turkey forced the local government to adopt stringent economic measures that reduced the standard of living and caused widespread discontent.

Before the economic crisis, the majority of Turkish Cypriots were content to live under Turkish rule. Now most of them want to join the EU along with the Greek Cypriots.

This has caused Mr Denktash and anti-settlement parties to lose electoral support. In the last municipal elections, the pro-settlement Republican Turkish party CTP made big gains, winning by a large margin in all three of the major towns. But it is the result of the elections on the Turkish mainland that is now being awaited by all parties in the dispute to determine whether a settlement can be achieved before the EU is forced to decide at its mid-December summit in Copenhagen whether to accept Cyprus as a member.

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