NICOSIA (Reuters) - Turkey said on Sunday it wanted to tackle the problem of Cyprus’ ethnic division within eight months after nationalist Dervis Eroglu won the presidency in northern Cyprus, which relies on Ankara for its existence.
Eroglu, a staunch backer of Turkish Cypriot independence, swept to victory in a vote which diplomats and analysts said could slow efforts to reunify the Mediterranean island and set back Turkey’s hopes to join the European Union.
Unofficial final results showed Eroglu winning 50.38 percent of the vote with incumbent leader Mehmet Ali Talat garnering 42.85 percent of the vote.
Turkey, the only country to recognize northern Cyprus as a state, exerts enormous influence on the Turkish Cypriots — it supports their economy with an estimated $700 million annual bill and maintains 30,000 troops there.
Speaking after results showed Eroglu with a comfortable lead, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara wanted a solution to the Cyprus issue — a main obstacle to his country’s hopes of joining the EU — by the end of 2010.
“Turkish Cypriots must continue the talks which is something Eroglu also believes in. It is our aim to find a solution by the end of the year,” Erdogan, who has shown more interest in a Cyprus settlement than his predecessors, told Turkey’s NTV.
Turkey had supported Talat, who led talks since 2008 with Greek Cypriots to reunite the island as a sovereign state with autonomy for the two zones but with an effective central administration.
Eroglu is seeking broad autonomy for Turkish Cypriots in reunification talks with Greek Cypriots, a position the Greek Cypriots object to. Greek Cypriots represent Cyprus in the European Union and have said they will block Turkey’s entry until the island is reunited.
In a victory speech to supporters, Eroglu, who is also the prime minister of northern Cyprus, said: “Talks will continue because I want peace more than those who say that I don’t.”
The Greek Cypriot side called Eroglu’s victory a “negative development.”
“What is important now is to get to the fundamentals of this development, how we will handle matters, what our tactics will be, so that we are able to implement the aims of a solution,” said Stefanos Stefanou, spokesman for Cyprus’s internationally recognized government.
Diplomats and analysts had said an Eroglu victory could slow the pace of U.N.-backed reunification talks with Greek Cypriots on the island, divided along ethnic lines since a Turkish invasion in 1974 triggered by a brief Greek-inspired coup.
“Nobody is going to walk away from the table but this makes reunification a steep and uphill push,” said Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus director for the International Crisis Group, adding Turkey will need now to take a higher profile.
“It is a big challenge to Turkey. The EU should try to persuade Turkey it can still do this. Turkey and the Greek Cypriots need to find now a way to get around the table and find a solution that is acceptable to all. Everybody will have to think again and find a way forward.”
Greece is the closest ally of the Greek Cypriots.
European Union Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said after the vote that the EU was “fully committed to an early solution to the Cyprus issue.”
“The Commission will continue to support the leaders in their efforts toward reaching a comprehensive settlement in the near future,” he said.
The Greek Cypriots, who do not recognize the breakaway enclave, have said they will stop Turkey joining the EU as long as the island remains divided.
Eroglu has taken positions that are not acceptable to Greek Cypriots. He wants more independence for each community in any peace settlement and has also ruled out any Greek Cypriot return to land now held by Turks.
The conflict not only hampers Turkey’s bid to join the EU, but also complicates decision-making on defense issues between the EU and NATO, of which Turkey is a member.
Parts of Turkey’s EU talks are frozen because of Cyprus.
Attempts to solve the conflict failed in 2004, just before the island joined the EU, when Turkish Cypriots accepted a U.N. peace blueprint but Greek Cypriots rejected it.
Additional reporting by Michele Kambas; Writing by Ibon Villelabeitia; Editing by Dominic EVans