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Cyprus Future Hangs on Northern Presidential Poll

People in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus are expected to turn out in large numbers to vote in an election this week pitting the ruling pro-solution president against a candidate who wants closer ties with Turkey.

This tiny enclave, known as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, was proclaimed in 1983, yet was not recognized by the United Nations and reluctantly recognized by Turkey

It was born out of a bloody division Cyprus in 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern part of the island, in response to a military coup that was backed by the Greek government.

It boasts a democratically elected parliament, flies its own flag and even issues its own passports.

But its very existence is dependent on Turkey and, now, Ankara has good reason to regret the declaration of independence -- Cyprus has become a thorn to Turkey's European Union ambitions.

Turkish occupation of the territory, backed up by 35,000 troops, is seen as a major stumbling block in their flagging accession negotiations.

The lack of political recognition of Northern Cyprus has also meant that Turkey bankrolls its existence, because it is impossible for northern Cyprus to negotiate loans and assistance from international donors.

The enclave maintains communication channels with the EU, United States and Arab world.

Rauf Denktash, former leader of self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (File)

Rauf Denktash, former leader of self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (File)

The founding father of northern Cyprus, Rauf Denktash, has towed one line -- that Northern Cyprus must remain independent.

He firmly believes that success at the current negotiations would destroy the state and see the collapse of his Turkish Cypriot enclave.

"I brought my people from a colonial community to be the masters of a state and if they cannot keep it and give it up, I still hope they will remember and say, but for stupidity we would have been a separate state today, safe and sound," he said.

Mr. Denktash has been widely vilified as being the reason that so many peace attempts have failed and the status quo remains unchanged.

Former Greek Cypriot President George Vassiliou, recalled his time negotiating for Cyprus peace in a 2005 VOA interview.

"Mr. Denktash has never wanted a solution. He always wanted partition of the island," he said. "Because, when I was president between 1988-1993, I had spent more hours negotiating with Mr. Denktash than anybody else. And I can tell you, the way Mr. Denktash speaks, his approach, his attitude -- is really difficult to understand for a rational person, because he keeps on claiming that he wants to have independence, he wants to have a separate state and so on. And, he does not care at all about what the world says," said Vassiliou.

Mr. Denktash may have been off the political radar for five years, but his legacy is more evident than ever. Northern Cyprus is marked as Turkish territory in every school history book and atlas.

Streets and boulevards are named after the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and there are monuments to Turkish heroes all over this tiny enclave.

For northern Cyprus, the Turkish motherland is a constant theme.

The island's dividing line opened for the first time in 2003, after the easing of border restrictions, which was followed by an attempt at a negotiated solution in 2004. This collapsed when Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of a United Nations settlement plan which was rejected by Greek Cypriot voters.

In April 2005, Mehmet Ali Talat of the center-left Republican Turkish Party won a convincing victory in presidential elections by promising to bring northern Cyprus out from the cold.

But, for all of his efforts, which have seen a marked warming in relations with Greek Cypriots, peace appears to be as elusive as ever.

The talks are now on hold as Mr. Talat prepares for a tough challenge from hardliner Dervis Eroglu.

The tragedy of division has been so huge that smaller tragedies. like unemployment, rising crime and disillusionment with the state, have been lost amidst it all.

It is obvious from a brief look at northern Cyprus, that the country is very poor and the day-to-day woes of the population have been seized upon by Eroglu, who is enjoying massive support.

Analysts say a win for Eroglu, a politician moulded in the Denktash form, would prompt a further attempt to legitimize the breakaway state and try to make it acceptable to the world community.

It is a point Eroglu went to lengths to stress in a VOA interview last year.

"Turkish Cypriots are starting to get fed up with this whole negotiating process and they are losing interest," he said. "People are more bothered about economic problems, their daily life, they do not ask anymore about the talks. If we cannot use this last chance, Turkish Cypriots will start to think only about their own state," Eroglu said.

There is little doubt that an Eroglu win would be a huge blow to the current United Nations peace efforts, but could also eventually lead to the Denktash dream of a permanently partitioned island.