Pressure for Change in Turkish Cyprus

Mehmet Ali Talat is convinced that he will be the next leader of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. His prognosis is based on the dramatic developments that took place on the island recently.

Mehmet Ali Talat is convinced that he will be the next leader of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. His prognosis is based on the dramatic developments that took place on the island recently. Talat, who heads the Republican Turkish Party (CTP), the socialist opposition party, was one of the leaders of what was described as "the largest demonstration ever held" in the northern part of Cyprus. Some 30,000 people gathered 10 days ago in a plaza in the Turkish part of Nicosia and called for the resignation of their leader, Rauf Denktash. The reason: his refusal to discuss a UN peace plan that would have enabled Cyprus to join the European Union as a united island.

If one discounts the tens of thousands of settlers sent by Turkey to the northern part of the island, between a quarter to a third of Turkish Cypriots took part in the demonstration. A "revolution," said the Cyprus Mail. In a conversation with Ha'aretz, Talat preferred to speak of an "uprising." He said Denktash "no longer represents the people. He is cut off from reality." Talat explains that the Turkish Cypriot anger reflects frustration over the recent EU summit in Copenhagen last month: Greek Cyprus was invited to join, and the door was opened to Turkey, but Turkish Cypriots were left behind.

Talat regards acceptance of Kofi Annan's plan - and then joining the EU - as the last chance for the Turkish Cypriot community to break through its international isolation, put an end to its economic strangulation (Turkish Cyprus has a GDP per capita of $4,000 compared to $13,000 in Greek Cyprus), and an end to "the last wall in Europe."

The first tremors of the earthquake started by Talat and his colleagues were felt last weekend in Ankara. The elected Islamic leader, Tayyip Erdogan, smashed a long-standing tradition when he disassociated himself from Denktash and his policies: "I do not support the policies in Cyprus for the last 30-40 years. It is not Dentkash's private business," he said in a TV interview in which he emphasized that "it is impossible to ignore 30,000 demonstrators."

Erdogan might not fully accept Annan's plan - a compromise between the Greek demand for a federation with a strong central government, and a Turkish demand for a loose confederation in which each state preserves its full sovereignty. But in his statements he reveals his concern that if there's no agreement soon for a unification of the island, it could threaten EU acceptance of Turkey - the only country in the world that recognizes Turkish Cyprus - into the union. Greek Cyprus, which is slated to join the union in 2004, could raise obstacles, and might even use its veto to prevent Ankara from joining the EU.

Denktash cannot survive without Ankara's support. But the key question remains open. According to some commentators, Erdogan has a green light from the Turkish army. Others believe that Erdogan went to the media only after all his other efforts came to a dead end. He decided to start a public debate only when he reached the conclusion that Denktash still has support from the hawks in the army and the foreign ministry in Ankara.

Talat tends to support the second, more pessimistic theory. However, he isn't throwing up his hands. Combined pressure from below - the grass roots - and from the international community will eventually lead to pressure from above - the Ankara establishment - and from there to the fall of Denktash and new elections.

The EU, it turns out, gambled and won. Up until the last minute, Denktash did not believe that Europe would add "half an island" to its ranks, that it would take the risk of adding only the Greek side of the island while it borders "occupied territory," and it would ignore Turkey's threats to annex the northern part of the island in response to Greek Cyprus joining the EU. But the EU refused to blink. As a result, nearly 30 years after Cyprus was divided, its title as "the graveyard for international diplomacy" may be bestowed somewhere else.