Cyprus' Continuously Returning Past

by Rebecca Bryant | published June 3, 2010

For more on these suits, see Rebecca Bryant, "A Dangerous Trend in Cyprus,” Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005). See also Rebecca Bryant, "Turkey, Cyprus and the European Division,” Middle East Report Online, February 25, 2007.

The April 18 victory of a nationalist candidate in the Turkish Cypriot presidential election threw international observers of the Cyprus negotiations into mourning. They had to bid farewell to Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist leader who had swept to power in 2004 in the wake of a popular revolution against long-time leader Rauf Denktaş, a man known for his ties to military and ultra-nationalist elements in Turkey and his intransigent stance toward negotiating with Greek Cypriots. Talat’s backers also saw conservatives cement the hold on power they had begun to regain in parliamentary elections in 2009.

After the turn of the millennium, Turkish Cypriots had decided that intransigence was not going to open any doors, neither the one leading to international recognition of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus nor that leading to accession to the European Union. Their revolution did open the gates on the island, namely the checkpoints that had divided Cyprus since 1974, when a Greek-sponsored coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece led Turkey to intervene militarily, dividing the island and establishing a majority-Turkish north. For years, Denktaş had rejected talks with Greek Cypriot leaders who wanted to reunify the island as one state. But in 2004, after the fall of Denktaş, it was Greek Cypriots who defeated a UN reunification plan at referendum, and new negotiations had to await the 2008 election to power of Dimitris Christofias, another leftist, in the island’s south. Talat and Christofias were old comrades in the island’s communist movements, and many observers billed their meetings as yet another “last chance” for reunification. But what they accomplished during their two years of negotiations was too little, too late, and the perception that Talat was willing to give away anything for what he and his supporters called “peace” sparked a counter-revolution that has now sent a long-time supporter of a two-state solution to the negotiating table.

“There’s a People, There’s a Difference”

The new president of the unrecognized state in the island’s north, Derviş Eroğlu, is a 72-year old veteran of island politics. By profession, he is a doctor who served Turkish Cypriot fighters during the community’s enclave years between 1964 and 1974. He is also an orphan whose father died fighting with the British in World War II, and is known as a man of the people. Although Eroğlu garnered only a bit more than 50 percent of the vote, the swing to the right was considerable, as a breakaway candidate from his own National Unity Party (UBP) came up with another 4 percent, putting the right a solid 13 percent above Talat. Eroğlu made few statements during his presidential campaign, but his managers chose the slogan, “There’s a difference: The people are behind him,” to express the sense that Talat’s regime had lost its mandate through a combination of secrecy and arrogance.

For many, Eroğlu’s victory was predictable after his party’s win in 2009 parliamentary contests. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the election, many Talat supporters whispered worriedly about the future of the leader and his party, while UBP supporters seemed already to be celebrating victory. Although Talat ran as an independent candidate, the period leading up to the election was filled with angry denunciations of Talat’s Republican People’s Party (CTP), some of whose supporters had caused offense by labeling the people “donkeys” who did not know what was best for them. The Talat campaign miscalculated the extent of this anger and often exacerbated it with slogans such as “Either yesterday or the world,” suggesting that the public had to choose between a past represented by Eroğlu and a cosmopolitan future represented by Talat. The Eroğlu campaign replied to such grandiose claims by insisting, “The time of ‘I know what’s best; I’ll do everything’ is over; the era of ‘We know; we’ll do it’ has begun.”

Outside the island’s divided capital, Nicosia, leftists have never fared well in the north’s elections. Rural areas have consistently supported conservative parties, often by significant margins, and it is not hard to find villagers who still express loyalty to Denktaş, the “founding president” of their tiny statelet. The CTP’s rise to power six years earlier had required convincing this populace that the only way forward was through a united island within the EU. At the time, Denktaş seemed mired in a past that many wished to overcome, his speeches and television appearances a constant litany of Greek Cypriot “barbarism” and Turkish Cypriot suffering. During that period, many Turkish Cypriots repeated the formula that “France and Germany put aside their differences, and we can, too.” Young people, especially, longed to escape from what was called their “open-air prison” of isolation. After the 2003 opening of the checkpoints, the sight of Greek Cypriot prosperity, compared with the backwardness of their own state, seemed only to prove what many young people had known all along, which was that intransigence does not pay in a neoliberal world. Linked by the Internet to far-flung places but unable to work, study or travel where they wanted, youth flocked to the younger Talat, who promised, “We will be connected to the world.”

But that same opening also brought a slow shift in the status quo that has gradually undermined the will for change. Because the Republic of Cyprus claims sovereignty over the entirety of the island, it also recognizes Turkish Cypriots living in the north as its citizens. As a consequence, after the checkpoints opened, an estimated 100,000 Turkish Cypriots received birth certificates and identity cards from the south, entitling them to services such as free health care. Many also received EU passports, while youth have begun to take advantage of opportunities to work and study in Europe that they acquire by becoming EU citizens. In addition, Turkey’s relative stability and prosperity in the past decade has meant that northern Cyprus’ economy has achieved some measure of steady growth. As a consequence, Turkish Cypriots have begun to buy new and bigger houses and cars, and many have been lulled into a tacit belief that the status quo may be better than radical change.

Many Turkish Cypriots had voted in favor of the 2004 UN reunification plan because they would have gained a recognized state within a federal system, one that would have given them an international political identity and rescued them from the uncertainties of non-recognition. The past few years have brought few political changes, however, including few rewards for their own efforts at reunification. As a result, Turkish Cypriots have again begun to turn inward, retreating into their isolated enclave. As Turkish Cypriots discovered in the 1960s, an enclave may both protect and confine, may be both a desert island and a soothing cocoon. And while in 2002 Turkish Cypriots were prepared to bring down the walls of their enclave, the perceived lack of acknowledgment from the outside world has pushed them back into their cocoon, making historical references to a time of common struggle.

Doors Onto the World

During the spring 2010 campaign, Talat supporters often blamed growing Eroğlu support on the EU, which had failed to keep promises made to the Turkish Cypriot community after its support for the 2004 UN reunification plan. The EU had promised direct trade and a lifting of the embargoes that isolate Turkish Cypriots but found attempts to fulfill these promises blocked by a Greek Cypriot government that in May 2004 became a full EU member. After Greek Cypriots defeated the UN plan at referendum, the EU negotiator for Cyprus’ accession said that he felt duped, but there was nothing to do then besides accept a divided Cyprus into the union and suspend the EU’s acquis communautaire in the island’s north. Today, the unrecognized state in Cyprus’ north is called, in official EU-speak, “the areas not controlled by the government of Cyprus,” a considerable softening of tone from the days when the EU would have followed the Republic of Cyprus in calling it “the areas under Turkish military occupation.”

But a few fluid phrases have not been enough to hide the EU’s failure to formulate a policy regarding the Turkish Cypriot community, which has experienced a significant cooling of excitement with regard to the EU. Many people express anger, like one farmer who asked, “Why can I go to any EU country with my EU passport and be treated like any other EU citizen, but I’m a second-class citizen in my own country?” Before 2004 Turkish Cypriots had wearied of having one door onto the world, the one through Turkey, which had allowed them to work, study, travel and trade, while also bringing Turkish military, economic and political intervention. Talat’s promises of a universal opening notwithstanding, northerners found after 2004 that they were simply faced with a second door through the island’s south, which cracked ajar to them only insofar as they accepted the Republic of Cyprus’ hegemony. EU passports and other privileges were funneled through the Republic, meaning that this new door provided Turkish Cypriots with benefits only by depriving them of voice.

The ensuing resentment was certainly part, but not all, of the reason for the UBP’s ringing defeat of the CTP in the 2009 parliamentary elections. Many observers saw the result as a sign that the left-leaning party should do some serious stock taking. Instead, the CTP pointed fingers at voters, claiming that they had been deceived. Indeed, the thesis that Turkish Cypriots have been duped is an important part of certain leftist histories in Cyprus, which claim that nationalist leaders have consistently fooled or forced villagers into doing their bidding. Those demands have included dividing the villages and towns in the 1950s and 1960s as a prelude to permanent partition, and in this history many of the important events that Turkish Cypriots remembered have been turned on their heads.

Denktaş’s exaggerated use of the language of martyrdom and images of dead bodies, as well as his close ties with a Turkish military that many saw as anti-democratic, had begun to create much dissatisfaction by the turn of the millennium, especially among the youth. Youth have rebelled against attempts at indoctrinating them with a master narrative of ancestral struggle against bitter enemies, but in the process, they have called all of their history into question. Violent events that etched deep marks in the collective imagination and for which there are living witnesses have been recast as creations of the Turkish Cypriot nationalist leadership. For instance, a 1964 event usually known as the “Kumsal massacre,” in which a Turkish officer’s wife and children were shot dead in their home, was long used in Turkish Cypriot propaganda, the house turned into a “museum of barbarism.” Although survivors of the event testified that Greek Cypriot paramilitaries committed the act, resentment of the political use of atrocities meant that by 2004 claims that the Turkish Cypriot leadership itself was responsible for the act were taken quite seriously. Today, it is common to find Turkish Cypriot youth assuming that all exaggerated, nationalist use of suffering translates into deception.

The youth no longer know what or whom to believe, a problem that was only exacerbated when the opening of the checkpoints did not bring the expected reunification. While youth had rebelled against a history that portrayed Greek Cypriots as implacable foes, the opening of the checkpoints also brought few signs that Greek Cypriots were willing to become their partners in a new state. Clearly, historical experience continued to play a role, but youth no longer had the tools to understand it and have consequently become apolitical, content to drive new cars and enjoy the limited prosperity brought by a controlled economy and Turkish aid.

The questioning of the past by the youth is a sore point for many older Turkish Cypriots and was one of the reasons for the UBP’s rise to power in 2009. One of the first things the CTP had done after coming to power in 2003 was to revise the history books used in schools, replacing staid, decades-old texts with engaging volumes full of colorful illustrations. The old textbooks laid heavy emphasis upon suffering, using gruesome photographs to illustrate the “barbarism” of the Greek Cypriot neighbors. The new textbooks called on students to question history and its writing, but at the same time they almost entirely eliminated Turkish Cypriot narratives of the conflict and so gave young people few tools to grapple with collective memories of suffering and struggle. The UBP promised in its campaign that it would rewrite the textbooks once more, and it kept this promise within three months of coming to power. The new books retain the contemporary pedagogical tools while bringing back the old narratives. The past, then, has fallen victim to party politics, and public history in northern Cyprus has swung between pacifism and propaganda. There have been no meaningful discussions about what it would mean to confront history, mourn it and “put it in the past,” and so the past continuously returns.

Being “Put in the Place of Men”

The Eroğlu campaign was short on platform but long on skillfully deployed slogans with historical echoes. In early 2010, a Turkish journalist published a book of interviews with Talat in which the leader confessed that he had cried in 1983 -- and not with joy -- when the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was proclaimed. Turkish Cypriots wondered how a man who had mourned the establishment of the unrecognized state could possibly negotiate on its behalf. Many were confirmed in their belief that Talat was willing to give away anything at the bargaining table, a belief that was strengthened by the secretiveness that surrounded the negotiations. Talat often met with Christofias alone, behind closed doors, apparently keeping no notes, while the little news that leaked out of the negotiating committees seemed to give no reason for hope. Eroğlu’s campaign, then, stressed, “We didn’t cry. We gave a standing ovation.”

In television and radio programs leading up to the election, one would often hear the phrase, “Turkish Cypriots want to be put in the place of men [humans]” (adam yerine konmak istiyor), a phrase with definite, indeed traumatic, historical connotations. During the first part of the twentieth century, Turkish Cypriots consistently complained of the “disrespect” shown them by their Greek neighbors. And during the period of inter-communal conflict between 1963 and 1974, Turkish Cypriots often described their struggle as one “to be put in the place of men.” This phrase meant to gain the respect of the other, to be recognized by him. Indeed, the philosopher Axel Honneth has noted in his book The Struggle for Recognition (1995) that “for the victims of disrespect…engaging in political action also has the direct function of tearing them out of the crippling situation of passively endured humiliation and helping them, in turn, on their way to a new, positive relation-to-self.” During that period, the entire community was organized for self-defense, and all men who could hold a rifle were put on guard duty. Talat himself was a mücahit, or fighter, and many people remember the period as a time when “all worked together.”

Turkey’s military intervention in 1974 enabled Turkish Cypriots to establish a state, but that state remains unrecognized (except by Ankara), its supposed “sovereignty” eroded by the presence of Turkish troops and, more recently, by lawsuits brought by Greek Cypriots in European courts. Since the early 1990s Greek Cypriots have brought suits over property to the European Court of Human Rights, with Turkey as respondent. After the failure of the UN reunification plan, Greek Cypriots began bringing suits directly against foreigners and Turkish Cypriots, using the courts in the island’s south, which claimed jurisdiction over the north. In early 2009, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) confirmed the authority of the Republic of Cyprus’ courts, noting that “the real property rights relating to those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of that Member State does not exercise effective control (‘the northern area’) subsist and remain valid in spite of the invasion of Cypriot territory in 1974 by the Turkish army and the ensuing military occupation of part of Cyprus.” As a result, the ECJ acknowledges the jurisdiction of courts in the south over property in the island’s north. These suits were essentially disputes over sovereignty, attempts to impose the de jure sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus over the de facto breakaway state through penalties at the international and transnational level.

This strategy has begun to backfire, however. When the ECJ opinion was announced in 2009, it resulted in considerable tension in Cyprus that only increased when the case was ultimately decided in favor of the Greek Cypriot complainant. Only a few short weeks later, however, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued a monumental decision that appears to contradict and to supercede the ECJ’s judgment. The ECHR decided that it would no longer hear cases brought by Greek Cypriots against Turkey for their lost property, and that they should either take these cases to the Immovable Property Commission set up in the island’s north in 2003, or they should wait for a negotiated political settlement. While Greek Cypriots had celebrated the ECJ opinion, Turkish Cypriots proclaimed the ECHR decision a victory. While the ECJ opinion had affirmed the Republic’s de jure sovereignty over the north, the ECHR decision had recognized that the Republic has no de facto authority there. Each of these decisions was celebrated on the winning side of the island as the juridical equivalent of military victory.

The effect of the cases has been polarizing, overall, as Turkish Cypriots have been made increasingly aware of the questionable legitimacy of their status as residents in their homes. Foreigners have begun selling off property in the island’s north, while Turkish Cypriots complain that they are now vividly aware of the ownership of every piece of land on which they walk. The lawsuits have brought the issue of recognition and sovereignty into their lives in tangible ways by calling into question the legitimacy of the property regime that has issued them titles. Whereas in the past Turkish Cypriots knew that they were not recognized as sovereign outside their state, while in their state they could at least “play at” sovereignty. There was internal if not external sovereignty, but even that has now been called into question. The lawsuits have made the bundle of property, territory and sovereignty the most emotional and decisive issue in Turkish Cypriot politics.

Recognition and Rights

Recognition is contested and consolidated, then, not only at the level of the state but in Cypriots’ everyday lives. In recent years, Turkish Cypriots have felt their de facto sovereignty eroded by transnational legal mechanisms that have ruled on Turkish Cypriots’ control of property within their territory, and by the continuing lack of recognition that impedes trade and economic growth. In a March 25 interview on the northern television station Kanal T, the elderly Rauf Denktaş who has always insisted on the sovereignty of the north, was asked by an exasperated caller, “Are we sovereign? Do you call this sovereignty?” Denktaş’ pithy answer was, “If you believe you’re sovereign, you’re sovereign…. Sovereignty is a matter of character.”

For many Turkish Cypriots, however, belief is difficult after more than 35 years of non-recognition, and for many it has become an issue of identity. “Who are we in the world?” many people ask rhetorically. Life in what many Turkish Cypriots now call a “made-up state” is filled with uncertainty and simulation, visible in the copies of recognized brands (Burger City instead of Burger King) but more importantly in the sense that life is not entirely in one’s hands, that it could be overturned with a single court decision.

The issue of “recognition,” then, is not only political but also existential, and the failure to achieve it has brought Turkish Cypriots’ history, their state and, indeed, the very houses in which they live into question. Some have reacted with passivity, a fatalistic acceptance that they will never gain political recognition, just as their history never been recognized. This is one reason why many members of the island’s left have begun to call their unrecognized history into question. Talat came to office as a “realist” who accepted the fact that northern Cyprus was unlikely ever to be recognized and could probably only gain some limited recognition as part of a federal state. But, for many others, the newest failure of recognition has resulted in a turn inward, and a renewed struggle, a desire for some form of recognition that has consistently been denied.

In many ways, the election of Eroğlu was a choice made inadina, a Turkish word that has the connotations of thumbing one’s nose at someone. It comes from the word inat, or stubbornness, and hence also connotes resistance. Turkish Cypriots voted for Eroğlu inadina, in the face of an international community and a Turkey that clearly supported Talat. Eroğlu’s promise to resume negotiations immediately, however, acknowledges that stubbornness may not be good strategy, especially with a Turkish government pushing to see this obstacle lifted from its own path to EU accession. Eroğlu has chosen moderates for his negotiating team, and he even invited Christofias to dinner at his home (an offer that was refused). This change recalls Talat’s election to office, when his inability immediately to seal a deal was often described in Turkish Cypriot papers as “Denktashization.” It seems the circumstances of the negotiations require a certain amount of “Talatization,” and so the biggest “difference” in the Eroğlu period may be the new leader’s break from his own nationalist past.

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