The North Cyprus election's wide reverberations

ATHENS, Greece — It’s an election for the presidency of a country whose existence most of the world doesn’t even recognize. Yet the results of Sunday’s poll in the Turkish-controlled third of Cyprus will reverberate widely, and threaten to derail fragile efforts to reunite the divided island as well as Turkey’s bid to enter the European Union.

Voters in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — recognized only by Turkey — look set to elect their hardline prime minister, Dervis Eroglu, as the enclave’s next president in a move many observers fear could scupper tentative hopes for a peace deal. Cyprus has been ethnically divided since 1974 when Turkey invaded the island after an Athens-backed coup.

The president in Northern Cyprus also serves as the Turkish Cypriots’ chief negotiator in the peace talks. But Eroglu supports a two-state federation rather than the bi-zonal, bi-communal state currently under discussion.

Mehmet Ali Talat, northern Turkey’s current president, has warned that talks would collapse if Eroglu were elected. But in an interview published Saturday with Today’s Zaman, an English-language newspaper in Turkey, Eroglu said he would continue peace talks and blamed Greek Cypriots for their failure so far.

“Claims that I do not favor a solution are nothing but election campaign claims,” he said. “Mr. Talat is said to be pro-settlement, and what has this changed? Has anything changed? No. The uncompromising side is the Greek Cypriots.”

But analysts say that with Eroglu at the helm, success at the negotiating table is unlikely.

“In the end, Turkish diplomacy will not allow the Turkish Cypriots to create problems,” said Erol Kaymak, a professor of International Relations at Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus. “But on the other hand, if Eroglu is a very unwilling negotiator it seems very unlikely we’ll see a settlement.”

Only 164,000 people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s elections. But the frozen conflict in Cyprus, an island just over half the size of Connecticut, has proven to be one of Europe’s thorniest diplomatic issues.

Although millions of visitors come each year to sun themselves on the Mediterranean island’s beaches, blue-helmeted United Nations peacekeepers still patrol the cease-fire line between the two sides. Since 2003, people have been able to pass freely between the two sides through a number of checkpoints, but 36 years after the island’s division, there is still deep bitterness on both sides. Many fear that as time passes, reunification becomes more rather than less difficult. Younger Cypriots have no memory of a time when Cyprus was whole.

The tangled Cyprus issue has defeated repeated international attempts for a solution, most recently in 2004 when Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N.-backed peace deal, known as the Annan Plan after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, that would have reunited the island and ushered it, undivided, into the EU.

Despite the plan’s failure, the island was admitted. But in practice, the benefits of membership only extend to Greek Cypriots who have used their membership in the union to freeze Turkey’s progress toward EU ascension.

Few see much prospect for that to change without a resolution to the Cyprus issue. The election of Eroglu, analysts say, undermines hopes for peace on the island, but also threatens the fate of Turkey’s 75 million people.

“Without a deal that means everybody loses,” said Hugh Pope, director of the International Crisis Group’s Turkey and Cyprus program. “Turkey loses its EU process. That’s bad for Turkey and it’s bad for Europe.”

Many saw a brief window for peace in February 2008, when Greek Cypriots voted to oust President Tassos Papadapoulos, who had led the campaign against the Annan plan, and elected in his stead the Communist Dimitris Christofias.

Christofias and Talat are both from left wing-parties, had a pre-existing friendship, and had campaigned on the idea of reunification. They immediately launched a new round of peace talks. But after 19 months of intensive peace talks between the two men, cynicism is growing on both sides of the island’s divide.

“What’s happened is that Talat has found himself isolated, supported by the internationals, but with Turkish Cypriots who are disillusioned,” said Kaymak. “We saw deadlines come and go, and in the end, we don’t have a blue print. What we have are some vague, non-binding commitments on the part of the two leaders.”

Talat and Christofias insist that progress has been made, but the lack of details has left many skeptical. And international efforts to inspire confidence in the process have largely fallen flat. When U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited the island in late January to lend his support to the talks, his stop degenerated into a diplomatic spat over protocol.

“No one is ever going to openly say I’m walking away from the table,” said Pope. “But if this opportunity is not seized now, we do say it may be the last chance.”