Ankara's move

December 19, 2003

TURKISH CYPRIOTS favoring reunification with the Greek side of the divided Mediterranean island narrowly beat out their nationalist rivals in recent parliamentary elections, but their victory wasn't enough to win them a majority of seats. The import of the vote, however, was clear - Turkish Cypriots no longer want to live as second-class citizens in an economically depressed, internationally isolated enclave masquerading as an independent country. They want a peaceful end to their 40-year fight with their Greek neighbors.

There's no other way to read these election results: The 79-year-old Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf R. Denktash, who has been at the center of this conflict and the failed efforts to peaceably settle it, is finally losing his grip on his fellow islanders. Two opposition parties beat out the pro-Denktash forces. But for a complicated electoral formula, they would have a majority in parliament, rather than a 25-25 split. Had they achieved power, they pledged to replace Mr. Denktash as the chief negotiator in U.N.-sponsored talks. It's a pity. Mr. Denktash's hard line doomed the spring peace initiative proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

With Greek Cyprus preparing to enter the European Union in May, the time is now for renewed peace talks. Turkey, the patron of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, must intercede and make clear to Mr. Denktash that compromises must be reached. Ankara's bid for European Union membership won't advance without settling the Cyprus question, and after May, Greek Cyprus will have a greater say in it.

Cyprus has been divided since the Greek islanders staged a 1974 coup and Turkey invaded the northern sector to protect the ethnic Turkish minority living there. Enmity between the two sides has led to violence in the past, a forced repopulating of the island, a U.N. buffer zone and failed peace talks. Since then, the Greek side has prospered and the Turkish north has struggled. Turkish Cyprus wouldn't survive without the largesse and military protection of Turkey, yet Ankara has resisted efforts to forge a true peace.

New leadership is needed to break this stalemate, and opposition leaders on the Turkish side had hoped to provide it. Instead, they and pro-Denktash forces now will try to form a coalition government. Mr. Denktash is talking about new elections, but that shouldn't dissuade the parties from restarting peace talks. U.S. special envoy Tom Weston is in the region, meeting with the Cypriots and their benefactors, Greece and Turkey. Pro-reunification parties in northern Cyprus should rally their supporters. Ankara should realize it can't continue to use Mr. Denktash as its shield.

Once Greek Cyprus enters the EU, the reason for reunification will become less compelling and Turkish Cypriots will have every reason to retire Mr. Denktash when his term expires in 2005.

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