CYPRUS: Myth of 'Turkish Cyprus' collapses



Tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots in recent weeks have laid to rest the question of whether the so-called "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" represents their aspirations or is an outside imposition by the military ruling clique in neighbouring Turkey.

According to different reports, between 40,000 and 70,000 Turkish Cypriots took to the streets of the "Turkish" side of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, on January 15, to demand that their leader, Rauf Denktash, sign the United Nations-sponsored Cyprus peace treaty or resign. The demonstration was twice as large as a similar one 10 days earlier.

There are no clear figures for the size of the local Turkish-Cypriot population, but estimates do not exceed 90,000 people. The total ethnic Turkish population in the divided island is double that, the rest being non-Cypriot colonists that Turkey has brought in from the mainland. The votes of these colonists have kept Denktash's right-wing chauvinist regime in power for three decades.

These figures mean that the majority of the original Turkish-Cypriot population took part in the demonstrations. There have been few times or places in history when popular mobilisations have directly involved such a large proportion of a population.

Most revealingly, the demonstrators' slogans included "We don't want to live in a prison", "This country is ours", "We don't want to be slaves, we are the new generation" and, for the first time, some banners denounced the Turkish armed forces as an "army of occupation".

Turkish troops are supposedly there to "protect the Turkish Cypriots". However, the Turkish Cypriots' actions suggest they no longer want such "protection". Indeed, the troops' presence may tell us why there have been few demonstrations to date: with 35,000 troops among a local population of 90,000, it represents far and away the largest occupation force per head of population in the world.

A number of trade unions, including teachers' and civil servants' unions, went on strike to join the rally. It was also joined by university students and staff. Shops closed for several hours. Police with riot shields lined the Berlin Wall-type border that divides Nicosia to prevent people from trying to cross to the enforced "Greek" side, indicating that the authorities feared the local Turkish Cypriots may attempt to destroy this emblem of apartheid.


Cyprus has been forcibly divided since 1974, when the Turkish army invaded the island in response to a military coup carried out by right-wing, chauvinist Greek Cypriots. The coup was organised by the military dictatorship ruling Greece at the time, which aimed to annex the island. Turkey claimed to be defending the Turkish Cypriots from Greek-chauvinist forces. However, the Cypriot junta was overthrown within six days and the next day the dictatorship in Athens itself collapsed. But instead of withdrawing, Turkey occupied 37% of Cyprus and drove 200,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes.

As 60,000 Turkish Cypriots had fled towards the Turkish troops during the coup, the internationally recognised Cypriot government became a de facto Greek-Cypriot state. In 1983, Denktash declared the occupied section of Cyprus to be an independent "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", but this "state" has only been recognised by Turkey.

A new UN plan aims to overcome this partition, calling for two component states joined within a united Cypriot federation. As the "Turkish Republic" currently occupies far greater territory than the Turkish percentage of the population, the Turkish component state would be reduced to some 28% of the island to allow the return of a significant number of Greek-Cypriot refugees. The two communities would be constitutionally equal.

Both component states would be allowed to limit the number of members of the other community within their entity. This measure was requested by the Turkish minority for fear of being swamped by the far larger numbers of Greek Cypriots, who account for some 700,000 people.

No plan is perfect, but after three decades of total separation, carrying out this plan may be the only chance of getting a better one in future. This requires that the two communities interact to eliminate the irrational fears left over from the distant past.

The timing of the plan is aimed at facilitating the entry of a united Cyprus into the European Union (EU). If the plan fails, the EU will accept only the Greek-Cypriot part, leading to a major crisis between the EU and Turkey, which also aspires to EU membership.

Under pressure

Regardless of the great powers' motives — which have done nothing to solve the Cyprus problem for decades because they had no incentive — the Turkish Cypriots clearly think that the UN plan for a united Cyprus and EU entry are in their interests. They see it as a means to begin improving their economic position, which has been hampered by the Turkish occupation. For example, per capita income in the Turkish-held north of the island is less than a quarter that in the south.

The Denktash regime is also under pressure from the new "post-Islamist" Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in Turkey. On January 5, AKP chairperson Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave open support to Turkish-Cypriot demonstrators and denounced the entire policy framework of every Turkish government to date, declaring that "nothing positive can be achieved with the kind of policy that has been followed until now".

However, the powerful Turkish military remains opposed to the reunification of Cyprus. Retired rear admiral Kadir Sagdic on January 7 said Turkey might face a "security threat" if it relinquishes control over northern Cyprus.

Denktash is still refusing to budge, stressing that "because at every gathering there are voices calling me to resign, I do not move". This aristocratic attitude stems from his role as a colonial governor under British rule decades ago, followed by his consolidating power through the intervention of the Turkish military. Denktash brutally silenced all leftist or moderate opponents of his chauvinist plan of Taksim, or forced separation of mixed populations, to partition the island.

The myth of "protecting the Turkish Cypriots" did have some legitimacy, however, due not only to the 1974 coup, but also to a history of attacks by Greek-Cypriot right-wing forces on the Turkish minority. The Greek chauvinists had their own plan — Enosis, or union with Greece. Their actions preceded, gave rise to and then competed with and mirrored those of Denktash.

Greek chauvinism

Therefore, those on the Greek-Cypriot anti-nationalist left have long emphasised a rejection of Greek chauvinism in dealing with the issue. The frustrations caused by the long-term continuation of the occupation have led in the last decade to a re-growth of nationalism. When I was last in Cyprus, in 1997, a resurgence of Greek-nationalist paraphernalia and a rising number of Greek flags at Greek-Cypriot demonstrations were obvious. Fortunately, there was one breath of fresh air: UN-organised meetings and concerts involving people from both communities in the "dead zone" separating the two parts of Nicosia.

Polls show the UN plan has more overwhelming support among Turkish Cypriots than among Greek Cypriots. An influential minority among the Greeks denounces the plan — the right-wing Greek-Cypriot newspaper Simerini, for example, carried a front-page headline condemning the "nightmare settlement". Such poison must be completely rejected. The Greek flags — flags of another country just as surely as Turkish flags and Turkish troops belong to another country — should be safely stashed away and only brought out for cultural festivals.

On the other hand, in trying to emphasise our opposition to our "own" nationalism, some left-wing Greek Cypriots bent the stick too far. We quite rightly always wanted to appear "even-handed" and criticise nationalism on both sides, aware of the justified anxiety of many Turkish Cypriots.

However, it was difficult being "even-handed" when balance did not exist. Turkey has thousands of occupation troops in Cyprus; Greece does not. Turkey has brought in tens of thousands of colonists; Greece has not. Turkey controls the northern administration; Greece does not control the south. The north is called an ethnic "Turkish republic", the equivalent of the "Jewish state" of Israel and the "Serb republic" of Bosnia, both based on similar levels of ethnic cleansing; the south is not called a "Greek state" and Turkish Cypriots were theoretically able to return.

Furthermore, now that the Turkish Cypriots have spoken, it is clear that we were perhaps more concerned about their fears and anxieties than they were. It has perhaps long been clear to them that the equivalent of the reactionary chauvinist forces which still rule their side were comprehensively defeated on the Greek side with the popular overthrow of both Greek and Cypriot juntas in 1974. They do not so much need our understanding as our unqualified support, without any taint of Greek triumphalism, in their struggle against the occupation of their country.

From Green Left Weekly, January 29, 2003.
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