Turkey needs to respect the office of the Turkish Cypriot president
'Turkish Cypriot president doesn't represent us: experts'... This was the title of an article published by Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency on February 9th. The agency, which is highly micromanaged by state officials in Ankara (I know this because I worked for them for four years), approached three well-respected Turkish Cypriot academics in Cyprus for their opinions on comments made by Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) President Mustafa Akinci that were published in The Guardian newspaper earlier on in the week.
The pro-reunification Turkish Cypriot president had warned that failure to strike a peace deal with the Greek Cypriots would cause the north to “grow increasingly dependent on Ankara and could end up being swallowed up, as a de facto Turkish province”. Akinci added that a Crimea-style annexation of North Cyprus by Turkey would be “horrific”.
His comments irked condemnations from Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Communications Director Fahrettin Altun. Altun went as far as saying that Akinci did not deserve to sit in the chair of the Turkish Cypriot presidency. Meanwhile, Omer Celik, the spokesman for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) said Akinci should apologise for his comments, while the head of Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, went a step further by calling on Akinci to resign and go “to the Greek part” of Cyprus. Akinci did neither. Instead, his presidential spokesman Baris Burcu said Bahceli’s words were “outdated” and represented a “fascist and racist” approach.
Of course Akinci’s comments do not represent all Turkish Cypriots. Even his own prime minister, Ersin Tatar, said Turkish Cypriot voters will punish him in the upcoming presidential elections on April 26. Yes, it is true that by making such comments Akinci probably did throw away his chances of picking up any votes from the Turkish Cypriot right-wing, but it is clear the timing of this argument ahead of the elections has been pre-planned and well-calculated.
In reality, Akinci knows he never really stood much of a chance with the right-wing anyway. Akinci is, and always has been, a leftist. He has never hidden his political leanings, and Turkish Cypriots were well-aware of what he stood for when they first elected him as president back in 2015, just as they know going into the 2020 elections. Actually, Akinci is in a tussle with his centre-left rival Tufan Erhuman to consolidate enough left-wing votes to get him through to the second round of voting. He is deliberately using polarising language to draw in the support of the left, and he knows such language will attract more swing votes than repel them. A certain Mr Erdogan would definitely know all about that form of populist electioneering.
But, if anyone was still undecided after reading Akinci's article in The Guardian, the reaction from Ankara to his statements has surely done more to add credence to his argument. Like it or not, agree with it or not, Ankara has to acknowledge the fact that Akincı's views resonate with many from among his support base, and while his views don't represent all Turkish Cypriots, not the least my own, they might just represent enough to get him re-elected. On an individual basis, Ankara does not have to like Akinci. Naturally, Turkey would like to see a “yes man” in charge of the TRNC than someone with his own opinions, but regardless of personal feelings towards the man, he is the democratically elected president of the TRNC and may be again. To belittle him publicly is to belittle democracy in the TRNC, to belittle the TRNC as a state (albeit a non-recognised one), and to belittle the Turkish Cypriots who voted for him.
Now I respect all the individuals who were approached for their opinion in the Anadolu Agency article. At least two of them are people I consider friends who I speak to regularly. But only approaching people who already agree with you and deciding to call them "experts", by default implying those who don't agree with you are ill-informed, is poor journalism, terrible PR, and counterproductive propaganda. The title implies that those who agree with Ankara’s stance are the true representatives of the Turkish Cypriots, while those who disagree are not, no matter how democratically elected they are. A similar title was published by Daily Sabah, a private newspaper owned by the family of President Erdogan’s son-in-law and finance minister Berat Albayrak. That, of course, is understandable, because while they may give voice to the thinking of the current Turkish government, it does not necessarily represent the policy of the state. Anadolu Agency, however, being state-owned, needs to think twice before publishing such provocative titles that seemingly represent state policy.
And what exactly is Turkey’s state policy towards the Turkish Cypriots? That needs to be made clear, because right now Turkish Cypriots seem to be receiving mixed messages. On one hand they are told by Ankara to keep going back to the negotiation table with the Greek Cypriots, because withdrawing from the peace process would be diplomatic suicide, yet when they elect a pro-peace president who genuinely wants to solve the Cyprus problem, they are branded as ungrateful traitors, or self-hating Greek-lovers. However, when they elect pro-Turkey leaders, they are again forced to head back to negotiations.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the Turkish operation in 1974, the time was ripe for Turkey to annex the north of Cyprus. It would have been almost an effortless sell to the Turkish Cypriots. Instead, they were given an independent country in 1983. As appeasing as that was at the time, Turkey did not use its political leverage to seek its recognition. Heck, even Turkey didn’t officially recognise it, despite maintaining diplomatic relations. This didn’t seem to bother the TRNC, however, because even the TRNC has not asked for recognition. It’s clear now that the establishment of the TRNC was just a tactic, and as time has passed, Turkish Cypriots who are fed up of being neither here nor there are growing increasingly frustrated with this status quo.
Turkey needs to make up its mind about the Turkish Cypriots, because with this lingering uncertainty they are losing them more and more, day by day. If Turkey does want to annex northern Cyprus, it would need to start acting now to stand a chance of completing that annexation. However, if Turkey has no interest in annexing northern Cyprus, it has to firmly stand by and support a real solution to the Cyprus problem, one that secures its long-term soft power influence and national interests on the island. I’m afraid that prolonging the status quo any longer could result in Turkish Cypriots rebelling against Ankara, which would see Turkey lose everything in Cyprus.
Saying Turkey has no designs on annexing northern Cyprus and then condemning a Turkish Cypriot president for expressing his concerns over an annexation is not only hypocritical, it indicates that even Ankara is confused about its policy on Cyprus. You cannot give Turkish Cypriots no choice but to push for peace then tell their leader to “go to the Greek part” for pursuing that peace.
If President Akinci is having to conjure up anti-Turkey fervour to win votes in upcoming elections, it might be wise for Turkey to ask itself why he feels he has to do so, and why he believes it will work. Imagine the implications for Turkish foreign policy if this tactic actually does work! I’m definitely not one of Akinci’s biggest fans, but I can honestly say this: Yes, Akinci probably does want to see a reunified Cyprus without Turkish troops, and in fact, I don’t think he’s very fussed about a bi-zonal federal solution or military guarantors, but, he is certainly no Greek-loving traitor. He is unapologetically Turkish Cypriot, and that’s what he has going for him in the run-up to the elections.
There are undoubtedly many Turkish Cypriots who are proud to see their president speak his mind to Ankara and stand his ground when pressured to step down. He certainly commands a lot more respect among the disgruntled masses than those who nod their heads obediently to every one of Turkey's demands even when it is to the detriment of the Turkish Cypriot population.
Turkey is in the dire situation it is in today with the Turkish Cypriots because over the decades it has refused to listen to people like President Akinci. Ankara has been taking poor advice from opportunist “yes men” who are more concerned about their own power and status than they are with solving the real problems of Turkish Cypriots. But these “yes men” are not completely to blame, because there is a toxic culture in Ankara of shooting down any advisor who does not say what the upper echelons of the government hierarchy want to hear. Bearers to bad news are severely frowned upon and sidelined, while the doors are opened for anyone who is happy to twist, misinterpret or even fabricate information to earn a spot in Erdogan’s good books.
If Turkey is looking for traitors, it should start with the people who are misleading the government and jeopardising its foreign policy for their own selfish gain. I’d advise Turkey to drop everyone it's working with regarding its policies on the Turkish Cypriots and start again from scratch, or else the day will come when a real enemy comes to power in North Cyprus and Ankara will be desperately searching for the man they disregard today to save them. Better the devil you know!
Ertan Karpazli is the Editor-in-Chief of Radio EastMed .
All views expressed by the writer are solely his own.
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