- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2003

NICOSIA — Surprised by a surge in voter support for joining the European Union, Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash said yesterday he was open to forming a new government in northern Cyprus.

Turkish Cypriots on Sunday elected a 50-member parliament, evenly split between opponents and supporters of negotiations with the Greek Cypriots to enter the European Union jointly.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praised the result, saying that Turkish Cypriots had “expressed their desire for a comprehensive Cyprus settlement that will enable them to join the EU next May 1.”

Mr. Boucher said Ambassador Thomas Weston, the department’s point man on Cyprus, left yesterday for a six-day trip to Athens, Nicosia and Ankara, hoping to use the momentum of the vote to build support for the U.N. settlement plan.

But the vote also confirmed a deep rift in the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the part of the island recognized only by Turkey. It did not affect the role of veteran leader Mr. Denktash as TRNC president, who for the past 29 years has been the main figure in failed negotiations with the Greek Cypriot government.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said yesterday he hoped the two halves of the island could come together to enter the EU in May 2004, but added he would not try to revive U.N.-backed reunification talks without “solid reason to believe” that such negotiations would succeed.

Mr. Denktash told the Associated Press that he would speak to party leaders and “give them time to consult each other and come and tell me when they have the majority to take on a government.”

“Constitutionally, if they can’t form a government within two months, we have to go to new elections,” he said.

Initial assessments indicated a period of crisis in the ministate of 200,000 inhabitants with new elections probably in three months.

Mehmet Ali Talat, head of the Republican Turkish Party which obtained 35 percent of the vote, said he had a mandate to negotiate with the Greek side. But the decision is in the hands of Mr. Denktash, who can appoint a new prime minister.

The vote was a major test of the 29-year policy of resisting cooperation with the Greek Cypriot majority in the south of the island. It confirmed a deadlock, which has plagued the island for years.

Turkey has backed Mr. Denktash, who believes that joining the Greek side in its entry into the EU would end “the flag, the religion and the existence of Turkish Cypriots.”

The Greek Cypriot government said the election results signaled to Ankara and Mr. Denktash that they must make a U-turn in policy, Agence France-Presse reported.

“I hope [Sundays] vote leads to a new state of affairs which would allow the Turkish side to change its policy, so that we can proceed with talks as quickly as possible,” said Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos.

Ankara’s support for Mr. Denktash is regarded by some as jeopardizing Turkey’s own EU candidacy. The EU has been pressing Turkey to help solve the long-standing Cyprus dilemma by urging acceptance of a plan drafted by Mr. Annan.

The plan, already rejected by Mr. Denktash, calls for a confederation of two Cypriot entities to be represented internationally as one country.

David R. Sands contributed to this piece in Washington.

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