Bitter lemons, from Cyprus!

In 1957 when the inter-communal conflict in Cyprus began, Lawrence Durrell thought the island looked like a "bitter lemon." It probably still does, for related but different reasons.

And Sunday’s vote in the "trouble island’s" Turkish section has a message: Don’t expect the lemons to get any sweeter any time soon. The Turkish Cypriots chose to wave goodbye to their clear choice of a party back in 2005, the pro-reunification Republican Turkish Party, or CTP. An easier conclusion could be to blame the CTP’s removal from power on economic mismanagement. Partly yes, but economy hardly explains the whole picture.

Before the CTP came to power the average financial assistance packages with a tag reading "with love from Ankara" stood at $220 million annually. During the CTP’s rule the goodies from the older brother averaged $360 million a year, and in 2008 reached $420 million. In the meantime, the Turkish Cypriot per capita income rose from $9,600 in 2002 to $14,500 in 2007. The hope for reunification in the early times of the CTP rule, both in presidential and government terms, created a property boom which the Turkish Cypriots enjoyed to the full. As the hopes for a solution faded the property boom turned into a punishing shrink, further adding to the disillusionment from the lack of a historic hand shake. All that happened when there was an urgent need to reform the government finances, but Prime Minister Ferdi Sabit Soyer remained too reluctant to get the Turkish Cypriots eat any ’bitter lemons’ tagged as reforms. When he started, it was already too late. The CTP began to be perceived as ’any other political party’ in this tiny statelet, and there were good reasons for that. Generous pay hikes for government employees, loans to friendly businessmen, corruption allegations and all kinds of inefficient public investment enough to cause delirium for any sensible economist. Now the public finances are worse than messy.

Could the elder brother not have helped to make things a little bit easier? Ankara is increasingly wary of sponsoring one of the world’s worst-managed economies. If its size had not been small, the Turkish treasury too could have gone bankrupt along with that of the ’baby homeland.’ But there is another reason for meanness in Ankara: Deputy Prime Minister, Cemil Çiçek, who handles financial assistance for the ’baby homeland,’ is a nationalist-conservative and does not like ’infidels’ like President Mehmet Ali Talat and Prime Minister Soyer. Mssrs Talat and Soyer just happen to be ’too leftist to really care about any holiness.’ Where do we stand now? The votes "lent" to the CTP have now been taken back. Sunday’s vote tells us that reunification is no longer a top priority for a majority of the Turkish Cypriots. There is of course the possibility that some Turkish Cypriots could have voted in the expectation that a "right wing" party can have easier access to more cash from the Mainland, but their percentage is probably negligibly small. Another question is whether an all too hostile Derviş Eroğlu, the winner of the election, can cohabit with President Talat? Yes, he can. Mr Eroğlu is a pragmatist above all and he will be immediately "briefed" by Ankara and (Turkish) Nicosia that he has to do so. A lot on the international sphere will depend on who will be named the foreign minister. Let’s hope the new minister will be someone who can peacefully work with Mr Talat.

One danger is whether Mr Eroğlu will pursue "clientelist" policies and further damage the reunification process and his government’s public finances; or be sensible, turn into someone other than his former self and unexpectedly feature a political and economical reformist his mini state badly needs. The latter possibility is, sadly, more remote than the first. Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriots can draw any conclusion they wish to. But with Mr Eroğlu in power, the tactic of slowing down the reunification negotiations and waiting for the EU deadline for (and pressure on) Turkey is now even a worse option. That can no longer pay off, and has the risk of further radicalizing the Turkish Cypriots whom they claim they hope one day to live together in peace and share a common state.

It is not a secret that the EU’s presumed "autumn leverage" on Turkey is no longer there, up or working. Add to that a tiny nation who has been pushed further away from the idea of neighboring their neighbors again under a common roof, it would not be wrong to suggest that we are being further and further pushed away from reunification. As for Mr Eroğlu’s two-state solutionÉ He may not be too vocal about that. Neither can he change his mindset in a fortnight. But now there are greater chances for the erection of the Mosque of Nicosia which the Mainland government has been too keen on, but less chances for a solution. Lemons from Cyprus will have to remain bitter until a better harvest..
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