Eroglu's Victory a Challenge for Cyprus, Turkey and the EU
Eroglu's Victory a Challenge for Cyprus, Turkey and the EU
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Eroglu's Victory a Challenge for Cyprus, Turkey and the EU

At first glance, it is difficult to put a positive spin on hardliner Dervis Eroglu's victory in Turkish Cyprus' presidential elections on April 18. The result certainly challenges the future of negotiations to reunify the 1.1 million inhabitants of the Mediterranean island, 80 percent of whom are Greek Cypriots and 20 percent Turkish Cypriots. Eroglu, who has been prime minister of the self-declared Turkish Republic of North Cyprus for 19 of its 27 years, won just over 50 percent of the votes. President Mehmet Ali Talat, the pro-compromise incumbent whose pledge to solve the Cyprus problem had brought him to power in 2005, trailed with 43 percent.

In a conciliatory speech after the elections, Eroglu promised not to walk away from negotiations with Greek Cypriots that have been ongoing since September 2008, as well as to stick to longstanding U.N. parameters and to "seek a solution based on the realities of the island." Such a solution may be a long time coming, however, as Eroglu wants to re-examine all the issues that Talat and Greek Cypriot President Demetris Christofias have covered in the past two years. He is against some hard-fought, key convergences the two accomplished, such as cross-voting across ethnic lines, and has ruled out allowing Greek Cypriots to reclaim property in the north. Instead of supporting the "single sovereignty" basis for the negotiations, Eroglu is keen on "two sovereign peoples living in separate areas." He has in the past promoted a "velvet divorce," thus fueling worries that his real goal is an internationally recognized, independent Turkish Cypriot state.

Reunification talks are set to resume in May, and will probably go on for some time, at least for appearance's sake, because neither side wants to be blamed for failure. Shortly after Eroglu's win, Turkey's president, prime minister and foreign minister all called for the continuation of the talks from where they left off on March 30, and reiterated the goal of reaching a solution by the end of 2010.

The Turks and Turkish Cypriots want to maintain the "moral advantage" they have enjoyed since the 2004 referendum on the Annan Plan. That reunification plan -- backed by the U.N, EU and U.S. -- won 65 percent support from Turkish Cypriots, but was rejected by 76 percent of Greek Cypriots. Nevertheless, the Greek Cypriot-governed Republic of Cyprus was subsequently admitted into the EU as the sole representative of the island.

Turkish Cypriots' frustrations with the slow pace of the current negotiations and disillusionment with the international community help explain Eroglu's victory. His hawkish stance resonated with voters who resented what they saw as Greek Cypriot condescension. Turks who have been migrating from Turkey over the past decades also mostly backed Eroglu, serving as a reminder to all that the longer it takes to get to a referendum on an eventual settlement, the more of the island's original inhabitants will have been replaced by immigrants with little interest in Cypriot reunification.

The main obstacle in the talks continues to be lack of trust between all the parties involved. Turkish Cypriots have lost faith in the EU and their Greek Cypriot compatriots, in part due to the aftermath of the Annan Plan. Meanwhile, Greek Cypriots have been blocking potentially helpful EU moves to lift Turkish Cypriots' isolation, and have also opposed progress on Turkey's EU accession, out of fears that both seek the ultimate goal of international recognition for a Turkish Cypriot state. For their part, the Turks, seeing no let-up in these hostile moves, do not believe that Christofias is genuinely working toward a settlement.

Changing the dynamics will require increased involvement from international actors. One way to start is a newly revived proposal by the European Commission enabling Turkish Cypriots to trade directly with EU countries, a promise the EU has failed to keep since 2004 due to Greek Cypriot blocking tactics. This would also help Turkey's EU process, which has stalled in part due to Turkey's refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot traffic until the EU implements the direct trade regulation. The Commission's proposal must be approved by the European Parliament and European Council to take effect.

Another vital step is to create a broader framework for negotiations involving Greece, Turkey, and the two Cypriot communities, but perhaps also the U.N., EU, and Britain. This international conference could address sticky external issues, such as the "Security and Guarantees" chapter, but disagreements remain on the format of any such meeting. Turkey, for instance, does not accept Greek Cypriot demands that a representative of the Republic of Cyprus be present, in addition to one from the Greek Cypriot community. Nonetheless, such a meeting is vital to initiate a direct channel of communication between Turkey and the Greek Cypriots, since none currently exists between these two key actors in the dispute.

If, on the other hand, this fourth major round of U.N.-mediated talks breaks down, the possibility of achieving the bi-communal, bi-zonal federation that has served as the basis of negotiations since 1977 will fade away, along with hopes of Turkey's EU membership. If Cyprus' de facto division becomes permanent, the Greek Cypriots will have to live with the presence of Turkish troops on the island, while their chances of reclaiming territory and receiving compensation for lost properties in the north will diminish. Turkish Cypriots will bid farewell to integration with the EU, see their dependence on Turkey increase and be further squeezed out by newly installed Turks. Turkey's already slow EU process will grind to a halt, while the EU's relations with NATO will suffer. And Greece will go on bearing the financial burden of unresolved tensions in the Aegean as its rapprochement with Turkey slows. Indeed, if there is one thing working in favor of a solution, it is that a failure to reach one will produce so many losers.

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