Sea change in Turkish Cyprus

After years of conflict, new popular attitudes – combined with a desire for European Union membership – may finally be about to bring an end to the decades-old division of Cyprus.

Longtime Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas may be on the way out
Longtime Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas may be on the way out

That is the hope among what opinion polls suggest is now a clear majority of the island’s Turkish Cypriots. The irony is that many of them would prefer to continue as part of a state formed jointly with Greek Cypriots than stay separate – or become a de facto province of Turkey.

“There has been a massive change in Turkish Cypriots’ mindsets in recent times,” says Muhmmad Ali Talat, the leader of the main Turkish Cypriot opposition party, the centre-left Republican Turkish Party (CTP). “Everyone is concentrating on the prospects for solving the Cyprus problem, and who can achieve this.”

Talat and other opposition leaders hope that the coming December elections to the Turkish Cypriot parliament will sweep them to power – ousting the administration of long time leader Rauf Denktas.

Divided island

Since 1974, when a coup inspired by the then-military junta in Athens led to an attempt by nationalist Greeks to unite the island with Greece – sparking the Turkish military occupation of the northern third of the island – Cyprus has been divided.

The southern Greek Cypriot-dominated Republic of Cyprus remains the internationally recognized government of the whole island. Meanwhile, in the north, the Turkish Cypriot dominated territory under Turkish military occupation announced it was forming its own state in 1983.

Denktas was the first and only president of this Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). To date, only Turkey has recognized this state, though it does have an observer status with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Since then, a string of UN sponsored efforts to reunite the island have always come to nothing.

New way out

At the end of last year, a new plan, labelled the Annan Plan, after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, was proposed. 

The plan gives the two historically antagonistic communities on the island a great deal of autonomy, while establishing a rotating leadership and a series of checks and balances in the island’s central government. It also guarantees the continued presence of Turkish and Greek troops on the island to give each community security.

Big Brother: Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have to grant Cyprus more autonomy

Big Brother: Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have to grant Cyprus more autonomy

The plan was ignored by Denktas who described it as “a great threat to civilisation”.

“The Annan plan is what Turkish Cypriots have wanted all along,” says Ozdil Nami, the chairman of the Turkish Cypriot Businessmen’s Association. “It’s a balanced idea, for the first time talking about a Turkish Cypriot state within the state of Cyprus.”

This gives the Turkish Cypriots the recognition they had long felt denied – that they are an essential part of the island’s make-up.

“Denktas is out of touch with the Turkish Cypriot people,” says Talat. His party’s polls put opposition to Denktas – and support for the Annan plan – at about 70% of the Turkish Cypriot population.

These figures also reflect what many observers on the island are saying. “Nowadays, everyone supports the plan,” says leading journalist and commentator Husayn Alkan. “Even those who were opposed to it a few months ago are totally in favour now.”

Bridge to Brussels

On 4 September, Talat signed an agreement with two other opposition party leaders that should they win at the December polls, they would ditch Denktas and agree to the Annan plan. They are in a hurry to do so because pressure for change is so great – and because on 1 May 2004, the Republic of Cyprus joins the European Union, with or without them.

Many Turkish Cypriots see this as a train they cannot afford to miss. If a deal can be done, they can enter the EU too, perhaps years ahead of the Turkish mainland, which also has EU aspirations.

Turkey has long been the islanders’ Big Brother, backing Denktas and keeping the TRNC closely in its orbit. Until recently, it had planned to retaliate against Cyprus’ EU entry by annexing the north and turning it into a Turkish province.

With the election last November of the Justice and Development Party government of Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erodgan in Turkey, much has changed.

Erdogan has made it clear that Ankara is now willing to agree to the reunification of the island – provided that this helps Turkey’s own application for EU membership. In turn, the EU has also made Ankara’s help in finding a solution a condition for beginning accession negotiations.

However, back on the island, behind the clamouring for an end to isolation and for the inking of the UN – and then EU agreements – many Turkish Cypriots still have reservations about what reunification might mean in practice.

“There are disadvantages to reunification, but the disadvantages to staying apart are far greater. And so are the dangers”

Ozdil Nami,
chairman of the Turkish Cypriot Businessmen’s Association

Since April this year, the frontier between north and south has been opened to Greek and Turkish Cypriots, who have taken the opportunity in their thousands to visit their long forbidden neighbours. It has also been a chance for some to return to the villages and homes of their birth – which many had not seen since 1974.

“It was a very emotional time,” recalls Alkan. “People were weeping at the sight of their old homes.”

However, as time went on, for some, uneasiness began to emerge.

“The Greek Cypriots look down on us,” says Muhammad Cakici, a hotel owner in Girne, formerly known by its Greek name of Kyrenia. “They see us as second class – as poor people. They are very arrogant.”

Many other Turkish Cypriots have expressed similar reservations. “I get many complaints of this,” confesses Talat. “The Greek Cypriot officials are the real problem. They have to change their attitude too.”

Economic gulf

There are also economic concerns. The Greek Cypriot south is on the verge of EU membership, with average annual incomes five times those of the Turkish Cypriot north. Before 1974, 95% of businesses with more than five employees were Greek Cypriot owned. Since then, few Turkish Cypriot businesses have grown any bigger.

“Wages are much lower in the north,” adds Alkan. “Now, Turkish Cypriots are being employed by Greek Cypriots in the south as cheap labour. They earn less than Greek Cypriots for the same work.”

“Technically speaking,” adds Nami, “we’re not ready at all for EU membership.” The legal framework is not in place, and the TRNC is far from meeting other vital EU criteria on economic and political development.

Despite this, most Turkish Cypriots remain convinced that reunification, via the Annan plan and leading to EU membership, is not only vital, but imminent.

“There are disadvantages to reunification,” says Nami, “but the disadvantages to staying apart are far greater. And so are the dangers.”

Few need reminding of that in the island’s capital, Nicosia, where a line of bullet riddled buildings and barricades make this one of the world’s last divided cities.

“In a few months,” says car rental manger Serkan Cin, looking out at this barbed wire entangled border, “all this will be finished.”

It is a hope that many Turkish Cypriots share – even if the future that lies beyond the barricades still holds many doubts.

Source : Al Jazeera

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