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Tuesday, 26 March, 2002, 13:42 GMT
Turkish Cypriots seek EU salvation
Famagusta on the island of Cyprus
Turkish Cypriots feel the island's divisions are widening
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By Tabitha Morgan
in Nicosia

For the dwindling Turkish Cypriot population of Cyprus membership of the European Union is not just a matter of tariffs and quotas - it is crucial to their continued existence on the island.

After 27 years of economic and political isolation, Turkish Cypriots are voting with their feet and leaving the island of their birth in large numbers.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (the area of land occupied by the Turkish army since 1974) is recognised only by the Ankara government.

It cannot trade with other countries and its citizens have no passports.

As a result it has no export revenues and its economy is financed entirely by annual injections of cash from Turkey.

Since 1974 Turkish Cypriots have seen their Greek Cypriot compatriots prosper, with the south of the island enjoying a tourist boom while their own economic potential has remained largely undeveloped.

The recent banking crisis in Turkey and the devaluation of the Turkish lira has widened the gap between the two communities.

Some analysts estimate that per capita income in the south is as much as seven times greater than in the north.

Brussels has made it plain that the Republic of Cyprus will be entitled to join Europe without the north if the island is not reunited by 2004.

Growing frustration

As the republic continues its steady progress towards EU accession, there is growing frustration within the Turkish Cypriot business community that EU harmonisation in the south is merely deepening the economic divide between the two communities.

Diplomats have long argued that the prospect of the southern part of the island joining Europe by 2004 would act as a catalyst in the search for a solution.

This in turn, say businessmen, would hinder the implementation of a settlement to the island's longstanding partition.

"The development of the Turkish Cypriot economy prior to a settlement and EU membership is an important and necessary step," says Ekrem Ergil, of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Industry.

"The inhuman and acrimonious embargoes imposed on the Turkish Cypriot people should immediately be lifted."

Diplomats have long argued that the prospect of the southern part of the island joining Europe by 2004 would act as a catalyst in the search for a solution.

The EU has earmarked more than 200 million euros for the development of northern Cyprus - once the island's partition has ended.

The Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders
The island's Turkish and Cypriot leaders are working towards accession
Ambassador Donato Chiarini, head of the European Commission in Cyprus, is optimistic about bringing the economies of the two communities into step.

"Timing is of the essence," he says, " but technically speaking, given the size of northern Cyprus and our experience in the south, it would not be difficult to make a quick harmonisation between north and south."

This sense of urgency is echoed by Ali Erel, of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce - one of the few institutions in northern Cyprus to be recognised internationally.

Urgent solution

He says a solution needs to be found by the end of this year, "otherwise we will be looking at the continued division of the island for a very long period of time - maybe 10 or 20 years."

But it is not just the standard of living that concerns the Turkish Cypriot community.

Tourists enjoy the sun in Larnaca
The south of the island is enjoying a tourist boom
For many the international isolation is harder to bear.

When journalist Hasan Kahvecioglu was invited to address a conference in Mexico City, he first had to apply to the Turkish embassy in Northern Cyprus for a Turkish passport, and then spend a week in Ankara while his visa was processed.

"I am 50 years old, and since 1974 I have had no internationally-recognised passport," he says.

"I can't take part in international events or be a member of international organisations. I want to be a citizen of the world."

But for the moment at least global citizenship is out of the question.

UN peacekeepers on the border
Peacekeepers patrol the border between the Greek and Turkish zones
When travelling around Northern Cyprus and meeting Turkish Cypriots, the overriding impression is of a tiny and isolated community desperate to be reconnected with the rest of the world.

According to public opinion polls, 90% of Turkish Cypriots want to be a part of Europe.

But until that happens there is little to encourage the younger generation of Turkish Cypriots to stay.

Economically underdeveloped, unrecognised by the rest of the world, northern Cyprus has little to offer its brightest and best.

"My son is at university in England," said Canan Azgin, "Why should he come back here? There's nothing for him."

EU membership, the vast majority of Turkish Cypriots believe, is the only way to open up new opportunities and stop emigration.

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