- The Washington Times - Friday, April 17, 2009

CYPRUS IN THE BALANCE

Turkish-Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat is worried about an expected opposition victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, just as his government is on the threshold of an agreement to reunite Cyprus after 35 years of bitter ethnic division.

“I’m worried to an extent,” Mr. Talat told editors and reporters from The Washington Times on Thursday, referring to the opposition Party of National Unity, which has promised to support negotiations.

Public opinion polls give the nationalists a double-digit lead over Mr. Talat’s Republican Turkish Party, but the opposition has ignored the issue of the reunification of Cyprus in the campaign, Mr. Talat said. The latest poll has the nationalists at 44.5 percent and the republicans at 25.1 percent.

“They say they will support the president, provided that the president will cooperate with them,” said Mr. Talat, referring to himself, the elected president of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

“By their words, they say this,” Mr. Talat said. “But their deeds could be a problem.”

In the campaign, nationalists have mainly run against republicans by accusing them of failing to fulfill promises to improve living standards.

On the reunification questions, nationalists favor a strongly autonomous Turkish-Cypriot administration and a weak confederation with a Greek-Cypriot one. Currently, the TRNC has diplomatic recognition only from Turkey, while the Greek-Cypriot government of President Dimitris Christofias is internationally recognized as the government of the entire island.

Mr. Talat and Mr. Christofias are negotiating for a solution that calls for a strong central government, representing both ethnic communities with a rotating presidency that would be filled by a Greek-Cypriot and then a Turkish-Cypriot.

Mr. Christofias also is concerned about a nationalist victory, especially if a nationalist wins next year’s presidential election. The nationalists hold 16 seats in the 50-member legislature, while the republicans hold 25.

“If we can’t work things out with this man, who is a progressive,” Mr. Christofias told reporters in Cyprus on Monday, referring to Mr. Talat, “then I don’t know if we could ever work things out.”

Mr. Talat hopes to have a negotiated settlement by November so that he can present it to voters in a referendum by January. However, parliament must authorize the referendum, so opposition control of the legislature might become a key political obstacle.

Regardless of his concern over the election, Mr. Talat said he is “optimistic” about the goal of reaching a settlement with Mr. Christofias. The two sides have agreed on the principle of a rotating presidency, although they still disagree on how long each ethnic leader would serve because ethnic Greeks make up 80 percent of the population and ethnic Turks 20 percent.

They also have reached a breakthrough on the question of Turkish immigrants who settled in northern Cyprus and, in many cases, married Turkish-Cypriots and now have children. Mr. Talat said Mr. Christofias has agreed to accept 50,000 as citizens of a reunited Cyprus.

They have yet to agree on other issues, such as property compensation for Greeks who fled from their homes in Turkish areas and Turks who fled from Greek areas during ethnic violence in the 1960s and 1970s. The island has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops landed in the north after a military government in Greece instigated a coup to annex Cyprus.

“We have to finish this,” Mr. Talat said of the negotiations. “There is a great opportunity.”

Mr. Talat met Wednesday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who expressed support for the negotiations. Earlier this month, she met with Cypriot Foreign Minister Markos Kyprianou, who is due to meet with her again in Washington on Monday.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washington times.com.

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