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Turkey's Move to End Cyprus Division Raises Hopes


Diplomats attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, are expressing cautious optimism over an unprecedented move by Turkey aimed at ending the 30-year-old division of Cyprus. The key issue now is whether veteran Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash will go along with Ankara's new line.

In a major step toward a possible Cyprus peace settlement, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to re-launch talks between the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus that fell apart in March of last year.

Mr. Erdogan told reporters in Davos that, if the Greek Cypriots agree, Turkey would be willing to let Mr. Annan bridge any final gaps in the U.N. blueprint for reuniting the island.

The issue has taken on urgency since Cyprus is set to join the European Union on May 1. But as things stand now, only the internationally recognized Greek-Cypriot part of the island will benefit from E.U. membership, while the Turkish-Cypriot mini-state that is recognized only by Ankara will be left out.

Mr. Erdogan secured a landmark agreement from Turkey's powerful military and security establishment, which has long had serious doubts about the U.N. reunification plan, on the need to resolve the division of Cyprus. If the island can be reunified, Turkish Cypriots will also be able to become part of the European Union.

Any deal on Cyprus would also boost Turkey's own 40-year-old bid to join Europe's elite club.

Mehmet Ali Birand, a leading Turkish commentator who traveled with Mr. Erdogan to Davos, says the May 1 deadline prompted the prime minister to decide to resolve the Cyprus issue.

"The Turks have realized that time is really pressing, that something should be done," he said. "And the government took in hand to change the policy as far as Cyprus is concerned and convinced everybody. The government convinced the military, the president, and they have a completely new approach to the Cyprus problem. And [Erdogan] said -quoting him - said that it has to be solved by the first of May."

A Western diplomat in Davos says Turkey realizes that it will be in a difficult position with the Greek Cypriots in the European Union because they, as representatives of Cyprus, could eventually veto Turkey's membership in the bloc.

Initial reaction from the Greek Cypriots to the Turkish move was skeptical, with Cypriot Foreign Minister George Iacovou dismissing it as a tactical maneuver. He said Turkey is trying to avoid being blamed for the deadlock on resolving the island's division.

But Turkish Economy Minister Ali Babacan says his government has challenged the Greek Cypriots to re-engage in the peace process, if Mr. Annan agrees to re-launch the talks.

"We are putting a strong will behind a resolution," said Mr. Babacan. "And we and northern Cyprus will not be the ones who will walk away from the negotiating table. We will be the ones who will sit there and try to resolve."

Diplomats say Mr. Erdogan's task now is to get Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash behind his plan during talks in Ankara. Mr. Denktash's recalcitrance has been widely blamed for the failure of the U.N.-sponsored negotiations last year. Diplomats say that, if Mr. Denktash does not sign on, Turkey's bid to begin accession talks with the European Union later this year will be severely jeopardized.