- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — An era ends today for a scenic strip of land along the northern coast of Cyprus, when Rauf Denktash steps down after more than 40 years as leader of the beleaguered Turkish Cypriots.

A presidential election today is expected to name Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat as president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), an isolated mini-state dependent on Turkey for survival.

One of the seven presidential candidates in a population of 200,000, Mr. Talat describes himself as a pragmatic politician who favors dialogue with the Greek-Cypriot majority south of the Attila line, which divides Cyprus into two different worlds.

As head of the Republican Turkish Party (CTP), Mr. Talat is credited with persuading the Turkish-Cypriot electorate to approve, in last year’s referendum, a United Nations proposal to unite the east Mediterranean island. The project was massively turned down by the Greek Cypriots, whose president, Tassos Papadopoulos, accused U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan of favoring the Turkish side.

Opinion polls predict at least 60 percent of the vote for Mr. Talat. Among the other presidential hopefuls is former Prime Minister Dervis Eroglu, head of the National Unity Party and a critic of the U.N. plan approved by 65 percent of Turkish-Cypriot voters.

The political scene in Northern Cyprus has been unquestionably dominated by Mr. Denktash. Now 81 years old, he thinks the Greek side will never consider Turkish Cypriots as equals and will always try to dominate — if not eliminate — them.

In one of his last messages, Mr. Denktash pleaded for full independence for the Turkish Cypriots and cautioned against “a confused settlement that does not guarantee our sovereignty, our independence and will only bring about strife and new pains.”

Under his leadership, on Nov. 15, 1983, the 40-member Turkish-Cypriot parliament declared independence of the TRNC.

With an area of 1,200 square miles and protected by some 30,000 Turkish troops since their 1974 landing, the TRNC has little industry but large agricultural areas. Its erratic economy is dwarfed by that of the Greek side, where the per-capita income of $16,000 is three times that of the Turkish Cypriots.

Because of the warm climate, the picturesque coastline and medieval castles perching on the mountains, it has considerable tourism potential, hampered by an international ban on direct air travel to the TRNC.

The area is yet to emerge from the political and economic isolation insisted on by the Greek Cypriots, who now also have the advantage of EU membership, from which the TRNC was excluded.

Mr. Talat said he would continue to benefit from “the experience and knowledge” of Mr. Denktash, although the two differ on many issues.

Mr. Denktash’s legacy includes fear and suspicion of Greek intentions and the conviction that the two sides of the dispute are incapable of overcoming their ethnic, linguistic and religious barriers.

In several interviews granted to this reporter over the years, the charismatic and witty leader insisted that “there has never been a Cypriot nation, just Turks and Greeks living in Cyprus.”

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