|As many other people, I was disappointed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s reaction to a protest staged by Turkish Cypriots on Jan. 28. Erdoğan’s belittling and threatening statement accusing Turkish Cypriots of insulting Turkey and its government and urging the Turkish Cypriot authorities to track down those responsible, in particular those who had held banners criticizing Turkey’s intervention in their affairs, was shocking.|
Erdoğan, whose words were backed up by at least two of his ministers, was furious that Turkish Cypriots dared to criticize Ankara. While Erdoğan’s reaction was condemned by opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and viewed rather negatively by many in the international community, many Turks seemed to support the prime minister.
Erdoğan’s comments have left even the most Justice and Development Party (AK Party)-friendly Turkish Cypriots feeling angry. It is therefore not surprising that the headline “Who do you think you are?” appeared in a number of newspapers. Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu responded to Erdoğan’s complaints by issuing a statement calling on people to be responsible in their protests and saying that demonstrations targeting Turkey and its government cannot be accepted. For Turkish Cypriots, who are not used to having restrictions placed on their democracy and freedoms, these apparent efforts to narrow and muzzle their sphere of democracy has been a real eye-opener. A second, and apparently much larger protest, is to be staged on March 2. It seems Tahir Square is being followed by İnönü Square. With tensions rising, if no precautionary measures are taken, it risks turning into an ugly battle between Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turks.
Northern Cyprus is not (yet) a colony of Turkey, although Ankara seems to have been trying to transform the Turkish Cypriot culture for years. There seems to be a presumption among ordinary Turks that Turkish Cypriots are happy with Turkey’s role on the island, being increasingly viewed as the 82nd province of Turkey, and that they should be eternally grateful for having such a kind and generous big brother guarding them. Jan. 28 has shaken this perception. In all the years I have been following Cyprus I don’t ever remember Turkish Cypriots publically expressing their unhappiness about Turkey’s role in their affairs, let alone waving a Republic of Cyprus flag, until now. Some may have grumbled behind closed doors, but not publically. After all, with Ankara signing a nice big check every year to keep the north financially buoyant, this seemed to dictate that Turkish Cypriots should keep tight-lipped over Turkey’s increasing footprint in the north.
An increasing number of Turkish Cypriots seem to be getting fed up. Now a minority in the north thanks to the massive number of Turkish settlers (the precise number is seemingly unknown), they feel like foreigners in their own country. They are sick of being isolated, having to cow-tow to Ankara, being let down by the international community and by many Greek Cypriots (but certainly not all) treating them like second-class citizens.
The only way out is to reach a peace deal with the Greek Cypriots to reunify the island. Negotiations have been going on since 2008, and no one is over-optimistic. While the Turkish Cypriot side feels confident that a provisional agreement could be reached in the next couple of months — indeed, they submitted such a roadmap to the UN secretary-general in Geneva in January — the Greek Cypriots remain opposed to strict deadlines and timeframes. They seem happy to go on negotiating forever unless someone, somewhere starts to put some pressure on.
However, if by December 2011 there is no deal, it seems likely the talks will collapse and there may not be another opportunity for some time, if ever, with time working against Cyprus. What will happen to Turkish Cypriots then, given that international recognition seems highly unlikely? Turkey may convince a few “friends” to recognize it, but in real terms this will not much change the lives of ordinary Turkish Cypriots. Or Turkey may just move to “absorb” the north. With EU talks on the rocks, it would seem Turkey has little incentive to do otherwise. Indeed, the recent replacement of the Turkish ambassador by a non-diplomat could be a milestone on the road to de jure annexation.
Of course there could be another explanation for the recent events. You could conclude that Erdoğan’s over-the-top reaction was deliberate. He is beginning to the pave the road for a Cyprus deal by trying to create a division between mainland Turks and Turkish Cypriots in order to save face when Turkey accepts a compromised Cyprus solution.
However, if this is not the case, I would advise the Greek Cypriots to perhaps accelerate their efforts because if it is Turkey’s intention to make northern Cyprus their 82nd province, it will not only affect the lives of Turkish Cypriots but also Greek Cypriots in a whole range of ways: illegal migration, security, investment and probably put the brakes on their hoped for oil/gas exploration, too.