BBC Home > BBC News > Europe

Support ebbs for pro-unity Turkish Cypriot leader

17 April 10 14:52 GMT

By Tabitha Morgan
BBC News, Nicosia

If body language is an indicator, then Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of breakaway northern Cyprus for the past five years, knows he faces an uphill challenge.

When his campaign bus arrived in the centre of the coastal town of Kyrenia on Tuesday night, he looked weary as he stood up, put on his jacket and prepared to meet his waiting supporters.

The signs do not look good for him. Opinion polls suggest that Mr Talat's main rival, Prime Minister Dervis Eroglu, is likely to win when Turkish Cypriots go the polls on Sunday.

That is not to say that Mr Talat's supporters are throwing in the towel. Far from it. "There was a fantastic grass-roots revolution when he came to power," said Emine, a university student, "and we want to keep that revolution alive until Cyprus is reunited".

The problem is, as the Kyrenia election rally showed, the revolutionary spirit is fading. The turnout was poor, the applause lacklustre.

The broad support from all sectors and classes of society that Mr Talat once attracted was missing.

So what has gone wrong? Mr Talat came to power promising change after years of stagnation under the leadership of the veteran nationalist Rauf Denktash.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops invaded in response to a military coup backed by the junta ruling Greece at the time. The breakaway north is not recognised internationally.

Mr Talat committed himself to forging closer ties with Europe and reuniting Cyprus. He failed on both counts.

To be fair, circumstances conspired against him. The European Union promised to ease trade restrictions after Turkish Cypriots voted in a referendum in 2004 to accept a UN plan to reunite Cyprus - a plan that Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected.

But the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member, blocked the easing of the embargo on the north.

Settlers from mainland

At the same time, reunification talks dragged on, meeting the same old obstacles that have prevented progress in previous rounds of negotiations.

Nevertheless, many Turkish Cypriots believe Mr Talat has let down the community, becoming aloof and dictatorial.

"The pro-solution people are punishing Talat," says civil society activist Ali Erel. "Basically, he lost contact with them, with civil society in the streets. He cut them out and said he didn't need them any more - he alone would deliver."

Also working against Mr Talat was the demographic trend.

An increasing proportion of the population of northern Cyprus consists of mainland Turks who have settled on the island.

The settlers oppose reunification because any deal, at Greek Cypriot insistence, would involve the deportation of many of them.

Those opposing unification along the lines that Mr Talat has been pursuing have found an ally in Mr Eroglu.

'Never merged'

His vision of a solution to the Cyprus problem is based on the creation of a confederation, with separate and loosely-linked Greek and Turkish Cypriot states.

His supporters, like former foreign minister Vedat Celik, say this is the only realistic answer: "We cannot accept a unified state or the Greek claim that we are all Cypriots as one people," he says. "These two communities have never merged, there are no inter-marriages."

The view of Mr Celik and others is that most Cypriots - Greek as well as Turkish - are happy with the current state of affairs: a divided island where the two communities live peacefully apart.

If that is the case, then why all the international fuss about Cyprus? The answer is that the island's fate is directly linked to Turkey's aspiration to join the EU.

In the view of Nicosia-based analyst Hubert Faustman, if Mr Eroglu comes to power and reunification talks fail, then Europe will blame Turkey - the real power in northern Cyprus.

The result would be a significant increase in "pressure on Ankara to deliver on its commitments to the EU - in particular to open up its ports and airports to the Republic of Cyprus. It could mean a stalemate in Turkey's EU negotiations."

Aside from Turkey's fate, Sunday's election in northern Cyprus could force Cypriots, too, to start facing harsh truths.

"If reunification talks fail," a European diplomat said, "then at some point in the future the international community could decide to walk away, on the grounds that there is no evidence that the two communities really want to make the compromises needed to live together."

Share this

Related BBC sites

*