- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

WASHINGTON, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Were the stakes not so high, it might be possible to admire the grim resistance to a Cyprus peace deal being mounted by one stubborn old man. Rauf Denktash, the 79-year-old leader of the Turkish-Cypriot half of the divided island, is holding firm against a settlement that Turkey, the United Nations, the European Union, and most of his people seem to want.

Despite massed demonstrations by up to half his population against his resistance to an agreement that could get them into the prosperity club of the European Union, Denktash sticks to his ancient guns. The settlement devised by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan would mean "the non-existence" of the Turkish-Cypriot community, Denktash says.

Few would mourn the passing of the ridiculous puppet state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that Denktash has ruled since it was brought into being by the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. It is recognized only by Turkey, and the new Turkish government of the AKP (Justice and Development Party) has made no secret of its readiness to back the U.N. peace deal, an eminently fair proposal that seeks to create a state of two autonomous regions, modeled on the Swiss canton system.

The TRNC has been a disaster for its own people, who have fled the place in droves for Britain, Germany, Turkey and elsewhere — and earlier efforts to move impoverished peasants from Turkish Anatolia into Northern Cyprus have been stalled for years. There is little to attract them. While Greek Cyprus has enjoyed an economic miracle over the last three decades that makes it one of the richest of the new EU member states, the TRNC has languished in isolation and poverty.

The U.N. deal has a deadline to it — Feb. 28. This is reckoned to give just enough time for a referendum before Cyprus (or at least its southern half) formally joins the EU at a ceremony in Athens in April.

But with the legal training he received as a British barrister and the obstructive skills honed in 50 years of politics — and the self-obsessed dedication that has led to 10 volumes of memoirs so far — Denktash is straining every nerve to stop it. Or at least to buy time to delay it, which may be all that he needs to do.

The sad truth is that time is on his side. If the deadlines are not met, the focus of the international community, the pressure of the EU and the new Turkish government and the attention of the essential Americans, is likely to dwindle away. Turkish-Cypriots will find their ways across the Green Line of the border and the monstrous fence that divides the city of Nicosia, and take up Cypriot (which in effect means Greek-Cypriot) citizenship, get that magic EU passport and abandon their stagnant homeland.

Alvaro de Soto, the United Nation's special envoy on Cyprus who has brokered the talks between Denktash and his elderly Greek-Cypriot counterpart President Glafkos Clerides, has warned that next month's deadline could be the last chance for a solution. "The secretary-general in the last two or three years has devoted more effort and resources on Cyprus than ever before because we saw an opportunity," de Soto said. "It is not clear that this opportunity will remain."

Denktash has a multi-track strategy, each aimed at a different audience. First, he continues face-to-face negotiations with Clerides on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, buying time with objections while protesting to the United Nations that he is continuing to talk. Second, he seeks to buy time with new talk of a separate referendum among his own Turkish-Cypriots — leaving open the crucial question of whether settlers from Turkey, or even the 30,000 Turkish soldiers on garrison duty, will be entitled to vote. This is aimed at Turkey's nationalists and generals, who have been his mainstay since 1974.

Finally his constant objections, his resignation threats, his reminders of the Greek-Cypriot coup that provoked the 1974 Turkish invasion, and of the communal strife that preceded it on the island, are all aimed at stirring up the Greek Cypriot community to reject the U.N. deal. This could work. There are ugly memories on both sides, and Denktash himself will never forget the four years he was banned from his home island by an unpleasant Greek-Cypriot regime.

Denktash has an inviting target. Glafkos Clerides faces re-election on Feb. 16, and is currently trailing in opinion polls against the Communist-backed Tassos Papadopoulos, a stern critic of the U.N. deal. The Clerides vote is being split because he is also challenged by the personal ambitions of one of his own ministers, Attorney General Alekos Markides. It would be an extraordinary irony if the dreadful old Denktash were to destroy the tantalizingly close prospect of peace by provoking the Greek-Cypriot voters themselves to sabotage it.

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