SIRINEVLER, Cyprus – SIRINEVLER, Cyprus (AP) — The leader of the breakaway Turkish Cypriots has warned that talks to reunify ethnically divided Cyprus would collapse if he loses to a hardliner in elections this month.
Mehmet Ali Talat said a failure of the talks would scuttle Turkey's bid to join the European Union, harm relations between Greece and Turkey, fan instability and undermine economic growth in the eastern Mediterranean.
"This will be a disaster not only for Turkish Cypriots, but also for Turkey and for the Turkish-European Union progress. It will be, in total, a big retreat for the Turkish side," Talat told The Associated Press in an interview Friday aboard his campaign bus as it toured remote villages in northern Cyprus.
Talat, who has led this tiny enclave of around 200,000 people since his 2005 election on a pro-peace platform, has been engaged in slow-moving negotiations with President Dimitris Christofias, a Greek Cypriot.
Their aim is to reunify the island under a federal structure composed of two constituent states.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. The island joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south enjoys the benefits.
Only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and maintains 35,000 troops there.
But 19 months of talks without real signs of progress has left Turkish Cypriot voters skeptical about their chances of success and given Talat's rival Dervis Eroglu a steady lead in opinion polls for the April 18 poll.
The 57-year-old Talat said he's confident of a win because of a growing awareness among Turkish Cypriot voters that Eroglu's long-held policy of a two-state peace deal will drive them back into international isolation.
Eroglu's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday night.
But Eroglu told supporters while campaigning on Thurdsay that if elected, he would continue peace talks to achieve an accord protecting the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
"It's impossible for the rightful side to run away from the negotiating table," Eroglu said.
Greek Cypriots reject a two-state accord because it would formalize partition.
Talat said negotiations are now beyond the halfway mark and will move much faster after overcoming difficult power-sharing issues.
He said remaining chapters including property lost during the war and military intervention rights ceded to Greece, Turkey and Britain, are sensitive and difficult to tackle, but that "they will not take too long a time because they're shorter chapters."
He explained that talks have taken so long because the two leaders are negotiating very complex issues from scratch without any points of reference such as the defunct Annan peace plan, named after former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Greek Cypriots rejected that plan while Turkish Cypriots approved it in simultaneous referendums in April 2004.
Any new peace accord will also be put to referendums in both communities. Talat said Greek Cypriots are now reconciled with the idea of sharing power with Turkish Cypriots — what he pointed to as the reason for the Annan plan's failure.
"I think that now Greek Cypriots are aware of the fact that they have to share power with the Turkish Cypriots. There is no other way."
Talat obliquely referred to Turkey's backing of his candidacy, but refrained from overtly saying he has Ankara's support.
"My interpretation is that Turkey supports the pro-solution policies," he said. "My interpretation is that he (Eroglu) is negative to a solution."