EU Fears Turkey Clash May Mask Cyprus Friction BRUSSELS

(Reuters)–European Union diplomats voiced concern on Friday that the Turkish president’s refusal to let the leader of the ruling party become prime minister might reflect friction with the powerful military establishment over an early peace deal on Cyprus.

President Ahmet Necdet Sezer–a staunch secularist–vetoed constitutional amendmen’s on Thursday to lift a parliamentary ban on Tayyip Erdogan–head of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)–preventing him from leading the government.

Erdogan–who has spearheaded Turkey’s drive to win a date for starting EU accession talks and favors an early peace deal on Cyprus–was barred from standing for office because he received a jail sentence in 1999 for Islamist sedition.

He denies his AKP has Islamist views. The AKP vowed on Friday to use its parliamentary majority to over-ride the veto.

"This standoff could reflect serious differences between the military and the president–on the one hand–and Erdogan and his party on the other–over Cyprus," a senior EU diplomat said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for an accord by February 28 to reunite Cyprus after the two sides failed to agree at last week’s Copenhagen EU summit. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash is widely seen as a key obstacle to a deal.

"Erdogan and his advisers are very eager to move on Cyprus as soon as possible and eager to put quite lot of pressure on Denktash. The fact that this is not the line that some hardliners might subscribe to at this point could be reflected by this decision by the president," the EU diplomat said.

NOT NECESSARILY SETBACK

However–other EU officials played down the dispute–saying it was neither a major crisis nor necessarily a setback for Turkey’s drive to meet EU standards of democracy and human rights.

"This is not a major political crisis in Turkey and we would not draw conclusions on whether the move is in contradiction with the Copenhagen criteria," said one EU diplomat.

Those criteria set standards on democracy–human rights–and the rule of law which every EU candidate must meet before it can open accession talks. EU leaders agreed last week to review in December 2004 whether Turkey has met the standards.

Cristina Gallach–spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana–said the EU had taken a strategic decision on rapprochement with Turkey and hoped the constitutional issue would not affect that process.

"We expect developmen’s regarding Cyprus very soon–as the secretary-general of the United Nations has said–therefore we hope and expect this (political) situation will not affect the resolution of this major issue very soon," she told Reuters.

EU officials said Sezer had acted entirely constitutionally by refusing to approve amendmen’s which appeared to be tailored to the political ambitions of one man.

"This proves that the system works. Sezer is a strong defender of democracy and the constitutional order. We trust him," one EU government official told Reuters.

The amendmen’s have the full backing of Turkey’s secularist opposition Republican People’s Party–which has said it would vote in favor of the changes again when they go through parliament a second time.

Another senior EU source said it was strange to have the respected leader of a party democratically elected to rule a country not allowed to take office. The EU has treated Erdogan as de facto leader of Turkey since the election.

"It is not good to have somebody as a real leader not able to exercise power…And Erdogan is a real leader–a strong man. This is not good news," the source said.

The amendmen’s that Sezer vetoed would have let Erdogan stand in a by-election early next year. Erdogan’s right-hand man–Abdullah Gul–is now prime minister but is expected to step down if his boss enters parliament.

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