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Denktash's Last Chance?

In order to show good marks, Turkey has to demonstrate that it is trying to settle problems with Greece and Cyprus. For the exasperated Turks, the road to the EU now runs through Yunanistan

By John Psaropoulos, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

Greece won a triple triumph at the EU summit in Copenhagen. It succeeded in inducting Cyprus whole into the European Union, exposed the Turkish-Cypriot leadership as reluctant to reach a compromise on the island, and furthered its friendship with Turkey by supporting that country's desire for EU accession talks before 2005.

Turkey did not see Copenhagen as a success, even though the EU promised to weigh up Turkey's reform process at the end of 2004 with a view to starting accession talks "without delay". It is not a date, but certainly a rendezvous. With plenty of preparation and the right outfit, there is a chance the EU could even find Turkey slightly attractive.

There are two strategic reasons why Turkey had fought for a definite start date before 2005. By May 2004, Cyprus will be a full EU member and could veto Turkey's accession if Turkey continues to dig in its heels in Cyprus. December 2004 is also the deadline put forward by the EU for Greece and Turkey to resolve their territorial differences. In order to show good marks, Turkey has to demonstrate that it is trying to settle problems with Greece and Cyprus. For the exasperated Turks, The road to the EU now runs through Yunanistan.

The Turks had tried to reverse this polarity. Let us in, they said, and we will cooperate on Cyprus and the Aegean. Perhaps they had no choice but to try, but it sent the wrong signal to Europeans - Turkey, backed by America, was being pushy.

The Greeks and Turks do not rise and fall only on their own merits, of course. Two greater, and opposite, forces are at play. Europe is in a borderline recession, faces waves of illegal immigrants and now has to hunt for Islamic terrorist cells. The prospect of 65 million Turks looking for jobs on the continent, and of border controls being abolished from Aberdeen to the Iraqi border, are naturally alarming to Europeans.

In Turkey's favour is Bush's war on terror and his coming war against Iraq. Turkey stands up as a sole example of a Muslim democracy. It is the indispensable ally on this side of Iraq. An EU date, Bush argued, would offer moral support and strengthen Turkey's Western orientation. Ultimately, these arguments failed in a Europe bristling with anti-Americanism and still unconvinced that the war in Iraq has anything to do with international security. European leaders joked about the number of telephone calls the White House had honoured them with.

The next few weeks will show whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (or AK) can keep the initiative after Copenhagen. AK may have won a landslide election, but several things keep it in the shadow of the army and civil service.

Erdogan hopes the public prosecutor, traditionally a staunch secularist, will lift a ban on his holding office early next year. He also hopes his party will overcome a court case to outlaw it. And while Erdogan came to power on internal issues, he finds that his first challenges are in foreign affairs - EU accession, Cyprus and a war in Iraq - where he needs to come up to speed with existing policy.

The struggle between old and new is palpable. On December 17, foreign minister Yasar Yakis said the EU could one day accuse Turkey of having an occupation army on its soil. He meant the 30-000-odd troops in northern Cyprus. The following day his ministry issued a statement saying precisely the opposite - that Turkey does not recognise the accession of Cyprus into the EU. That was probably the result of a get-together organised by President Necdet Sezer, attended by Yakis, Prime Minister Gul, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and the chief of the general staff, Hilmi Ozkok.

If not a new government, two new pressures might nudge Turkish foreign policy out of its scored orbit: the need to show goodwill to the EU, and the fact that Turkish-Cypriots are increasingly restive.

Denktash's power base has, for some years, been undermined by a bad economy in northern Cyprus and growing enthusiasm for the EU. Thousands of Turkish-Cypriots have already applied for Republic of Cyprus passports in order not to miss out on EU prosperity. A Eurobarometer poll conducted in northern Cyprus last September showed that more than 80% of Turkish-Cypriots were in favour of joining the EU and would vote that way in a referendum. Denktash's stonewalling increasingly runs against the grain of his public opinion. Turkish-Cypriots have been demonstrating against him since Copenhagen.

The trend was confirmed just hours after the end of the Copenhagen summit. In poll by Kappa Research, published in the Sunday edition of To Vima, Denk tash's approval was higher in Istanbul (50.7%) than in his own Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (28.6%). That suggests that Turkish interests are parting ways with Turkish Cypriot ones, and Denktash is on the wrong side.

The Cypriot government is about to announce that it is giving 200 million euros' worth of EU money to the north - a sort of engagement gift to show that the groom is no longer the abusive bully of the 1950s. In fact, Cypriot foreign Minister Yiannakis Kassoulides officially apologised for that behaviour, too. There is the real possibility that Turkish-Cypriots, many of whom already work in the Republic of Cyprus during the day, will renounce their citizenship in droves.

Even the soft-spoken George Papandreou has upped his rhetoric against Denktash. In a Reuters interview he said every side, even Turkey, is willing to negotiate, except Denktash, "who to every solution tried to find a non-solution, or really a separation."

If Denktash survives a heart condition, it is questionable how long he will survive politically. The EU and the UN are pressuring Cypriots to come to terms by February 28. After a round of changes made to the UN plan, Greek-Cypriots are more or less ready to sign. They were prepared to do so in Copenhagen. February may be Denktash's last chance.

(Posted 23 January 2003. Reproduced with permission.)

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