Friday, September 25, 2009

President Mehmet Ali Talat: I don't think so


Turkish Cyprus President Mehmet Ali Talat was in Washington at the beginning of this week for a number of meetings before going to New York to meet, among others, with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

A week before Talat’s arrival in the United States, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a member of Parliament and deputy chairman for external affairs for the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, and spokesman of the foreign affairs committee of the Turkish Parliament, published a very serious opinion piece titled "It's now or never in Cyprus" on the ongoing Cyprus debate in the British daily Guardian.

The article attracted some attention with its blunt language about the talks regarding the unification of Cyprus. Kınıklıoğlu, in his opinion piece, first argued that the new negotiation process for the island, initiated by the U.N. in 2008, was fully “blessed” by the AKP leadership. He continued to say that 2009 is going to be a-make-it-or-break-it year for Cyprus.

"It should be clear that the current talks are the last chance for a negotiated settlement on the island. The outcome of the ongoing talks, for example, will have a big impact on how Turkey assesses its relations with the EU. Should the talks fail, the side that behaves in an uncompromising manner will bear full responsibility for dividing the island forever,” he said.

The emphasis on the word “forever” is worth paying attention to. Since Mr. Kınıklıoğlu is an important voice within the Turkey’s ruling party, his opinion piece should be taken as the party’s official stand and naturally this stance bears many ramifications for the current process.

Just prior to this opinion piece published in the British daily, on Sept. 10, Döndü Sarıışık of Hürriyet Daily News reported that the first-ever visit by a high-ranking Turkish diplomat to the self-proclaimed Abkhazia Republic has boosted the breakaway republic's hopes of being recognized by Turkey. Sarıışık's report came the same day Venezuela recognized Abkhazia as the third country in the world, after Russia and Nicaruga.

According to an expert in Washington, D.C., who follows Turkish affairs closely, the AKP leadership is in danger of losing the support of Turkish nationalists in north and central Turkey to the Nationalistic Movement Party, or MHP, because of its Kurdish opening. At the same time, the AKP may also be losing some support in the south and the west to the Republican People’s Party, or CHP, as the last local general elections confirmed.

According to this expert, however, the AKP cannot backtrack on the Kurdish opening at this stage, as it might create a backlash within its own party and voter base. The talks are supported by a majority, as well as by Turkey's liberal wing and the European Union's officials, who closely monitor the current talks. Therefore, facing the possibility of losing support on many fronts while moving closer to general elections in 2011, the AKP may feel inclined to turn to the Cyprus issue to regain the support of Turkish nationalists, a segment that was a significant part of the AKP's winning coalition in the last general elections.

For his part, Talat was unwilling to address a possible scenario involving ending the ongoing talks in his conversations in Washington, as Kınıklıoğlu appeared to suggest in his article. Still, Talat said he did not get such an impression while he was communicating with Turkish officials. In contrast, he added, in recent visits to Ankara he was assured by the highest level of Turkish leaders that Turkey's support for the talks would continue.

Talat also eloquently elaborated that Turkish officials are well aware of the fact that with the Turkish side voting “for” the unification of the Island in the 2004 referendum in Cyprus, in contrast to the “no” vote of the Greek side, Turkey has gained an enormous leverage and momentum in the international arena on many fronts at the same time. Turkey, after its courageous supportive role in that peace process and its consequent push for the unification, elevated its standing in the European Union accession talks and was subsequently granted a full membership candidate status. With its rising profile in the international arena and in the region, Turkey found it easy to lobby for membership of the United Nations Security Council and to then get elected for the seat after many decades, primarily because of its relatively relaxed standing with the consensual approach it has taken before and during the Cyprus referendum.

In short, President Talat does not think Turkey would take the risk to forget everything about unification talks if things went not as well as hoped for in 2009. He thinks, Kınıklıoglu's scenario of “now or never” would cause Turkey to lose too much of the terrain gained in recent years through its positive role in the Cyprus issue. Although he did not say it, one of the areas that would surely be affected adversely is Turkey's relationship with the EU.

However, according to recent news reports regarding Turkey's possible recognition of Abkhazia, other reports suggest that Russia will reciprocate by recognizing Northern Cyprus as a separate and independent country. If that were to happen, Russia would be the first one to recognize it after Turkey. Turkey has been improving its relations with neighbors such as Russia, Iran and Syria and if Kınıklıoğlu's warning about the implications of a deadlock in the ongoing talks is serious then Turkey may well be tempted to use such relationships in charting a radical new course in Cyprus.

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