Urgency and frustration grow in Ankara

A clutch of Turkey’s senior diplomats flew to Ankara last month for a weekend of talks behind the closed doors of the foreign ministry. The topic: Cyprus.

In the 35 years since Turkish troops occupied the north of the island, the deadlock has defied successive attempts at UN mediation and become the biggest obstacle to Turkey’s European Union membership bid – even though the Turkish community, and not the Greek one, voted for reunification in a 2004 referendum.

Now, the Greek Cypriot government says Turkey is trying to impose false deadlines on negotiations – but the sense of urgency in Ankara is real.

By April, Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish Cypriot leader, must have something to show for 18 months of talks to frame a bizonal, bicommunal federation, if he is to win re-election against a hardline opponent with very different views on the island’s future.

Yet although Mr Talat and Demetris Christofias, his Greek Cypriot counterpart and friend, meet more often, they have made little progress.

“We’ll continue making every effort to find a solution. And we’ll never give in to the demands of those who try to impose deadlock,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish prime minister, told his ruling party congress last month.

He has every reason to be sincere. The Cyprus stalemate is poisoning relations with the EU, whose leaders meet in December to assess Turkey’s membership bid given its refusal to open its ports to Greek Cypriot traffic.

Moreover, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in a recent report, Mr Erdogan’s Justice & Development (AK) party “wants a solution because it views the hardliners on Cyprus as a bastion of their domestic opponents in the old nationalist establishment”.

Ankara is urging EU governments at December’s meeting not to impose sanctions that could upset talks at a delicate stage, a western diplomat says. The warning is likely to be effective: no country wants to be blamed for talks failing.

Turkey has also been heartened by the election as Greek prime minister of George Papandreou, who helped forge a new era in Greek-Turkish relations on the groundswell of sympathy that followed earthquakes in both countries in 1999.

But some question whether Ankara is doing everything it can to facilitate a deal or doing its utmost to avoid blame if talks again come to nothing.

The ICG noted that Turkish politicians, compared with 2004, were both less engaged and, subtly, taking a harder line on some issues of property, territory and security.

“Compared with 2004, Turkey is following a different strategy. They have confidence in Talat and so have left the negotiations to him,” says Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who heads the think-tank Edam. “Ankara will not do anything… until things have reached a stage where a deal is a real possibility, and I don’t think we’re there.”

With time running short, one possibility is to press for a framework agreement that would at least give Mr Talat something to offer voters in April’s elections, and leave details to be hammered out afterwards. This is “increasingly looking like the best option”, a western diplomat says.

The alternatives include a new quest to formalise the position of northern Cyprus, at present recognised as a state only by Ankara. Turkish ministers are not yet spelling out contingency plans, but they are dropping hints in a tone of rising frustration.

“No one should expect the Turkish side to be tolerant if we encounter deadlock despite all our efforts for a solution. No one should come to us with new demands,” Mr Erdogan told his party faithful. He also, pointedly, enumerated the countries that accept northern Cypriot passports or host the territory’s offices and representatives.

Such sabre-rattling hides the fact that the Turkish government will have less control of the situation than it would like if Dervis Eroglou, the natural heir of Rauf Denktash who for decades opposed reunification, ousts Mr Talat at the next election.

Ankara holds the purse-strings to the northern Cypriot economy. But Mr Erdogan also has to contend with a strong nationalist lobby at home, already provoked by government plans for Kurdish reform and rapprochement with Armenia. To those audiences, he is clear on one point: “The Turkish Cypriots are an integral part of the Turkish nation.”

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