Yet, developments in faraway Ankara and Brussels may eventually determine their fate.

“Of course, the future is a worry now,” says Ismail Ulsever, a Turkish Cypriot businessman from Girne/Kyrenia, “but we are trying to stay hopeful.

"We all want something to be settled. But for this, the Turkish government and the European Union must come to some sort of agreement.”

No government

December’s elections among Turkish Cypriots were fought largely as a referendum on the latest UN proposal to reunite the island, the Annan Plan.

But the ballot failed to deliver a majority to either proponents or opponents of the plan. Instead, the voting produced an evenly split parliament with 25 seats for each side.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas, who is against the plan, then asked the head of the largest group – the pro-Annan Plan, Republican Turkish Party (CTP) - to try to form a new government.

But the CTP leader Mehmet Ali Talat said that he had not been able to make an alliance with the second largest group, the National Unity Party (UBP). He will now try to form a government with the smaller Democrat Party (DP).

Turkey's angle

The political-horse trading has repercussions far beyond the island. First, the future of the Turkish Cypriots is likely to also determine the future of their big brother – neighbouring Turkey.

“Cyprus is a major issue for Turkey,” says the respected Turkish columnist Fehmi Koru. “Any government in Ankara has to take into account that most people here see it as a national cause.”

Rauf Denktash does not support
UN initiative on reunification

This is now tied closely to Turkey’s own prospects for membership of the European Union – another major national cause.

“Anyone who says there is no linkage between Turkey’s EU accession and Cyprus is just wrong,” another famous Turkish columnist, Ferai Tinc, told Aljazeera.net. “Turkey wants a clear message from the EU.”

EU membership carrot

In December 2002, the EU told Turkey it would make a decision on whether the country could be given a start date for membership talks in December 2004.

One of the factors the EU will be weighing in its decision is how far Turkey has gone in bringing about reunification of the island.

Turkish troops occupied about a third of Cyprus in 1974 after an Athens-inspired coup on the island attempted to unite it with mainland Greece, prompting a Turkish military intervention.

The island has been ethnically divided ever since into a mainly Turkish Cypriot north and a mainly Greek Cypriot south.

Putting these often-hostile parts back together again has been the goal of successive UN, US and UK missions ever since.

May deadline

Since the late 1990s though, the Greek Cypriot south – which is still recognized as governing the whole island – has been targeting EU membership.

As a result, whether or not it is united, Cyprus will join the EU on 1 May in the next wave of enlargement. But if the Turkish Cypriot north is still separate, the impoverished region will not receive any of the benefits of EU membership.

Turkish Cyprus unlikely to be 
reunited by May 

“We want a solution based on the Annan plan,” CTP leader Mehmet Ali Talat told Aljazeera.net back before the elections. “Then we can go forward to join the European Union as a united island.”

The CTP had promised to speed up negotiations on the plan, drop Rauf Denktas as the Turkish Cypriot’s negotiator and reunite Cyprus before the May deadline.

Time pressures

But with a deadlocked parliament, and the parties deeply divided on the Annan Plan, this may now be a tall order – although Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan remains confident, in his speeches at least.

“We hope that with joint work the Cyprus problem will cease to be a problem by 1 May,” he told journalists on New Year’s Day, “and the two sides reach a just and lasting settlement they agree on.”

Many agree that the key to progress lies first with Turkey.

“The government in Ankara looks very resolute in also having a solution,” Tinc says, before adding, “in its rhetoric, anyway.”

International pressure on Turkey to force the Turkish Cypriots to agree a deal quickly is also heavy. When Erdogan visits Washington on 28 January, it will likely be a major topic of discussion.

President Bush earlier called 2004 a “window of opportunity” for a Cyprus solution in a pre-Christmas letter to Greek Cypriot Prime Minister Costas Simitis. He added that “now is the time to act”.

However, most analysts see action now before May as unlikely. “I don’t think we are going to see any solution before 1 May,” says Koru. “We’ll see some steps taken, but that’s all.”

Problems in Ankara

For Turkey, making a concession on Cyprus is a major difficulty, for several reasons.

"We all want something to be settled. But for this, the Turkish government and the European Union must come to some sort of agreement”

Ismail Ulsever,
Turkish Cypriot businessman

“The government would like to solve the problem because of the EU dimension,” says Koru. “But the army and other elements of the state are not so eager.”

The military has traditionally stood behind Denktas and opposed any concessions.

Rumours of a division between the Turkish government and the army on the issue were angrily denied by the Turkish General Staff and by the Foreign Ministry in statements on 6 January.

“Claims and comments that appeared in a newspaper,” the Foreign Ministry statement said, referring to media claims of a division, “do not reflect the realities. The Ministry is sad to see that news.”

“Things are changing,” adds Tinc. “The army and other institutions are coming round to the need for a solution and they are trying to come together to develop a common position.”

Negotiating concessions

It seems unlikely that Ankara will want to make concessions on Cyprus without a strong guarantee from the EU that this will translate into a date for membership talks to begin.

“Cyprus is a very difficult issue for Turkey,” says Koru. “Any government here that does something over this will want something in return, to offset the popular, national feeling that Cyprus is our cause. This ‘something’ is, of course, accession to the EU.”

How likely the EU is to give such a clear statement of intent is uncertain – yet most likely, all eyes will be on Brussels when the EU leaders assemble for their mid-year summit.

“If there is a message at the July summit,” suggests Tinc, “this will facilitate the whole process. It’s not that Cyprus has become a bargaining chip – more a negotiating position.”

Time will tell how strong a position this proves to be.