THE prospects of Cyprus's reunification and of Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union have both taken a severe blow with the victory of Dervish Eroglu in presidential elections in the Turkish-controlled north of the island on Sunday April 18th.
Mr Eroglu, a nationalist hardliner who opposes reunification with the Greek part of the island, took 50.4% of the vote, while the incumbent, Mehmet Ali Talat, trailed with 42.8%. Mr Eroglu has vowed to continue UN-brokered negotiations with Demetris Christofias, who controls the internationally recognised Greek-Cypriot government. But unlike the doveish Mr Talat, who during his four years in office pursued a solution based on a loose federation of autonomous states, Mr Eroglu talks about a confederation of independent states, something the Greek Cypriots say they will never accept.
Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkey invaded the Mediterranean island following a Greek-backed coup, leading to the creation of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The republic is recognised only by Turkey, and relies on fat subsidies from Ankara. But its existence stands in the way of Turkey's desire to accede to European Union membership.
Turkey cannot join the EU without a deal on Cyprus because the Greek-Cypriot Republic, an EU member since 2004, has a veto. Eight of Ankara's negotiating “chapters” with the EU have been frozen since 2006 because Turkey refuses to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot ships and planes. Turkey says it will not yield until the EU honours its promise to end travel and trade restrictions on Turkish Cypriots.
That promise was made to reward Turkish Cypriots for voting in favour of a UN-sponsored plan for reunification in April 2004. The plan, favoured by Turkey's ruling AK party, would have seen a sharp reduction in the 40,000 Turkish troops on the island. But the Greek Cypriots voted against it. Nevertheless, a week after the vote, Cyprus joined the EU, as a divided island. “The EU violated its own principles by rewarding the Greek Cypriots with membership,” Abdullah Gul, the Turkish president, complained recently.
Turkey has continued to push for a solution. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, quietly lobbied for Mr Talat throughout the election campaign. His efforts were not enough to overcome Turkish-Cypriot fatigue with Mr Talat's efforts to secure a peace deal, but Mr Erdogan has nonetheless declared that he wants to see a solution by the end of this year.
“Mr Eroglu’s game plan is to maintain the status quo with the hope of eventual independence,” says Cengiz Aktar, a Turkish analyst. This would doom Turkey’s EU chances. Yet this scenario is apparently backed by Turkey’s pro-secular and nationalist opposition parties. With parliamentary elections due in Turkey next year, the government is unlikely to risk nationalist ire by caving into EU demands.
Mr Erdogan is now expected to call for Greek intervention during an official visit to Athens on May 12th. He may float the idea of an international conference on Cyprus that would bring to the table both Cypriot sides, the UN, Greece and Turkey.
But a continued territorial dispute between Turkey and Greece over the Aegean Sea may make it difficult for the two to find common ground. Dogfights between Turkish and Greek fighter jets have escalated in recent months. And some powerful European interests are in no hurry to see a deal. France and Germany, who insist that Turkey should be accorded a “privileged partnership” with the EU in lieu of full membership, are only too happy to hide behind Cyprus.