UN cool to Turkey's Cyprus agenda

As he prepared to meet UN chief Kofi Annan in Switzerland on Saturday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had reason to be confident.

Just a day earlier he had persuaded his sceptical generals to endorse the resumption of talks on the UN plan to reunite Cyprus, divided for 30 years.

Crucial to Turkey's hopes of getting a date for European Union accession this December, a solution has never seemed more likely.

In the event, Mr Annan gave only a lukewarm response to Mr Erdogan's request to restart negotiations. The reason? Doubts about the depth of Turkey's real desire for a solution on Cyprus.

Until now, Turkey's powerful military has never supported Mr Erdogan's proposals to reunite Cyprus' Greek and Turkish communities under one loose, federal roof. That they have now is thanks largely to the determination of his pro-European government and heavy international pressure.

But the statement released after Friday's summit in Ankara raises questions as to where the Turkish establishment really stands. Clearly the result of a compromise between government and military, it confirms Turkey's intention to support talks to find 'a solution based on the island's realities and taking the Annan Plan as a reference'.

Turkey's generals are known to have reservations about proposals to reduce the number of Turkish troops in the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus from 30,000 to 6,000.

They also baulk at plans to return parts of the island to the Greek Cypriots. The statement's allusion to 'the island's realities' appears to refer to such concerns.

Speaking on Saturday, Cyprus' Foreign Minister, George Iacovou, had another bone to pick. Using the Annan Plan as 'a 'reference point' is very vague and doesn't mean much', he said. 'If [the Turks] wanted to give it some credence they would call it a basis for negotiations.'

Known to have been angered when the Turkish Cypriots' negotiator, Rauf Denktash, abandoned earlier negotiations, Mr Annan has made it clear that the broad lines of his plan should remain untouched.

Mr Erdogan's best hope now appears to lie with Washington, where he is due to meet US President George W. Bush this week. The two countries' military alliance was damaged by Turkey's refusal to allow US troops to use Turkey as a springboard into Iraq.

But Ankara has made amends by allowing the Pentagon to airlift up to 100,000 soldiers into Iraq from a base in south-east Anatolia.

The most serious obstacle facing supporters of a solution in Ankara could turn out to be public opinion within Turkey.

A recent poll in liberal daily Radikal showed that less than 20 per cent of respondents believed the Annan Plan should be the basis of negotiations.

'The Erdogan administration has revolutionised Turkey's Cyprus policy,' said Radikal's Cyprus expert Erdal Guven. 'But it should have done more to prepare the public.'