Christopher Hitchens’ article “Uncorking the Genie: The Cyprus Question and Turkey’s Military Rule” (MERIP Reports 122) must be commended for approaching the complex issue of Cyprus from the vantage point of regional politics, rather than the more usual and not very enlightening arguments involving US imperialism or ethnic-religious differences. However, although his analysis is interesting and his paradigm plausible, the fact is that they quite simply do not apply. By looking at Turkish politics entirely through the prism of Cyprus, he has set up a model that appears to be supported more by aesthetics than hard facts.
First, Hitchens maintains that the invasion of Cyprus was a catalyst for the coup of 1980, insofar as it relegitimized the army that had been discredited after the 1971 coup. Yet, as explained in Ahmet Kemal’s article in the same issue, “Military Rule and the Future of Democracy in Turkey,” the place the army holds in Turkish society has never been seriously challenged. While the 1971-1973 period did end on a sour note for the military, and while such officers as Faruk Gurler and Faik Turun were indeed humiliated when they tried to get themselves elected to various offices, the army as an institution was at no time truly discredited. Even a cursory survey of the Turkish press during the 1970s will show that what led to the widespread acceptance of the 1980 coup was not the invasion but the period of political and economic chaos that reigned from the mid-1970s onward; Cyprus was hardly ever mentioned.
Second, in support of his claim that Cyprus “uncorked the genie” of military intervention, Hitchens points out that the Turkish liaison officer in Cyprus used to be Turgut Sunalp, now the leader of the junta-anointed Nationalist’ Democracy Party, and that the commander of the Turkish forces in 1974, Nurettin (not Necmettin) Ersin, later became a member of the 1980 junta. Yet, insofar as the chain of command has always been maintained during Turkish military takeovers, it is hardly surprising that those individual officers who “distinguished” themselves in Cyprus should have risen in ranks and are now heading the repressive regime in Ankara. That says nothing about causality, and indeed Hitchens’ anecdote about the decision to invade being made “upstairs” rather than in parliament suggests that the generals were sufficiently powerful before the invasion.
Third, Hitchens makes much of “ironies” in these developments: Bülent Ecevit was imprisoned by “the very generals he had uncaged,” and Deniz Baykal is “today under arrest at the orders of these same generals.” But it is preposterous to claim that these men “uncaged” the generals; the military were never caged, not before 1974, and not at any other time. To say that “Turkey is now suffering the consequences of allowing Cyprus to help incubate an ambitious and chauvinistic military caste,” or that “it was Cyprus which restored the military to a point where it could pose, once again, as a champion of Turkey and the nation” is to totally ignore Turkish history.
Fourth, Hitchens states that “Ecevit became the victim of the forces he had set in motion…he was replaced within a few months by a coalition of the rightist parties,” implying that he was somehow swept away by the rightist forces awakened by his own decision to invade Cyprus. But rightist forces did not need Cyprus to be set in motion. They have been rampant since the foundation of the republic, and with the qualified exception of the 1960 coup, the military has always been allied to them. Ecevit resigned in the wake of the invasion, a move prompted by opportunism and miscalculation, not by a surge of right-wing power.
All this is not to imply that Cyprus has had no effect at all on the course of recent Turkish history. For instance, the invasion and the upkeep of a significant military presence on the island, as well as the government-sponsored efforts to rebuild the devastated economy of northern Cyprus, have drained Turkey of precious resources, no doubt contributing to the economic collapse of the late 1970s. The political fallout of the invasion, however, has been much more limited than suggested by Hitchens. He should consider reexamining the theses in this chapter prior to the publication of his book, in a manner less colored by his Cyprus-centered outlook.