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Dissent Grows Against Turkish Cypriot Leader Denktash - 2003-10-24

Turkish Cypriots are growing increasingly disenchanted with the leadership of President Rauf Denktash and, after 17 years of his rule, are taking their defiance to the streets. Their latest grievance is the government's decision to speed up the naturalization of incoming mainland Turks, which many here see as Mr. Denktash's way of bolstering the number of supporters for his hardline policies. Thousands of angry Turkish Cypriots demonstrated in Nicosia recently against their government, shutting down stores and offices. Such open challenge to government policies is rare in the isolated northern part of the divided island, and to many political observers, it is a sign of waning support for their leader, Rauf Denktash.

The trigger for the noisy protest was the government's decision to grant citizenship to thousands of Turkish settlers just ahead of the parliamentary election in December. The protest organizers said issuing mass citizenships is illegal and is designed to raise the number of voters who will support the government in the December elections.

The government has denied expedited naturalization is against the law, but the son of the Turkish Cypriot leader, Deputy Prime Minister Serdar Denktash, admits it was a political mistake.

"We had applications waiting for the last two years and recently, about four or five months ago, the confirmation of these applications was speeded up by the government, which was a mistake," he admitted. "The recent speeding was quite wrong and I should say this was due to the coming elections.

"The number of people that actually received citizenship in the last two months is around 700," he continued. "Altogether there were 2,500 applications approved but only 750 of these have taken citizenship. The rest remains."

Cyprus has been divided along ethnic lines since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern part to put down a brief Greek Cypriot coup staged by the military junta then governing Greece. The Turkish Cypriot north, separated by a U.N. patrolled Green Line from the Greek Cypriot south, has never gained international recognition.

The United Nations has tried for years to bring the two sides together, but has never found a reunification formula acceptable to Mr. Denktash. The latest U.N. peace deal collapsed in March, and that's when opposition to the president's hard-line policies broke out into the open.

The failure of the plan has serious economic and political consequences for the Turkish side of Cyprus, because, without reunification, only the Greek part of Cyprus will join the European Union in 2004.

Oya Gurel, who represents the pro-unification Initiative for Peace and Democracy, says the people of Northern Cyprus are desperate for change.

"Most people want change; really we want change," said Ms. Gurel. "We really want a solution, we really want to go and be a member of the E.U. in May 2004. And we really want to have our real identity, because the Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus have been left without any identity for 30 years.

"What our organization intends is, if pro-solution parties win the election, the first thing we are going to do is take Denktash from the negotiations and assign a new group or new people for the negotiations to make the solution come true," she added. "There can't be any message to give to Denktash, because he knows what he wants and what he wants is to rule in his little kingdom he created."

Mr. Denktash still enjoys popular support among many Turkish Cypriots who see his leadership as strong and decisive. But Angelina De Fazio, a columnist with the northern Cyprus newspaper, "Cyprus Today," says the leader's popularity is slipping.

"I will acknowledge there is division and it's getting worse all the time," said Angelina De Fazio. "It's the younger generation; they grew up without memories under Greek suppression so they don't understand why he [Mr. Denktash] is standing hard and firm. They've been dazzled by this flag waving of the EU membership and to do that they have to have a solution first. They don't appreciate that this president, [whom] I consider the father of north Cyprus, held this country together for 29 years."

For the first time in 17 years, Mr. Denktash faces organized opposition. Fifteen trade unions and minority parties have joined in a movement called "This Nation is Ours," to revive the U.N. plan and reunite Cyprus before the Greek Cypriot south joins the EU next May.

Across the green line, which divides the two communities, the Greek Cypriots are optimistic that there will be a change of administration in the north after the election. Michael Hajimicheal, of the Cyprus Inter-College, one of Nicosia's largest universities, says the current mood in the north points to a change of leadership.

"I think the Greek Cypriots are optimistic that there will be a regime change, because there needs to be a change," he said. "There are very few countries in the world that have had the same leadership for 30-40 years.

"The vast majority of Turkish Cypriots are totally against Denktash, and he is trying any means to satisfy his end, which is to remain in power," commented Mr. Hajimicheal. "He is shipping people in from Turkey to vote for him; that is totally undemocratic in a society which is joining the EU. Turkish Cypriots should be part of that process."

Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos said he sees no chance of the divided island reuniting while Rauf Denktash remains in power in the Turkish part of Cyprus.