Northern Cyprus: The Turkish Cypriot Revolt That Rocked The Turkish Occupation

“Even if the Turkish Cypriots do not want it, we want to liberate them.” Former Turkish Foreign Minister Mumtaz Soysal.

“You might say that while Turkey liberated us, it has overstayed its welcome. Denktash has been in power for nearly 30 years, but he’s not defending the Turkish Cypriots: he is defending Turkey’s strategic interests here…The Turkish Cypriots rose up against Denktash. We live in a dictatorship, run by the Turkish military and their cohort Denktash. ” Mehmet Talat, the leader of the Turkish Republican Party.

Brief Background to the Cyprus Conflict.

Cyprus has been partitioned into a mainly Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish- occupied north since Turkey’s invasion in 1974, following a short lived coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece against the government of Cyprus. Over 180,000 Greek and other Cypriots were expelled or fled from the northern part of Cyprus after the Turkish invasion and were never allowed to return. The Turkish-occupied northern third of the island declared itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC)” in 1983. Only Turkey recognizes this breakaway ‘Turkish Cypriot state’ which is economically and politically dependent on it. The Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash has had the support of the powerful Turkish army since 1974 and Turkey has over 40,000 troops on the island. An estimated 120,000 Turkish settlers have also been brought in from Turkey to alter the demographics of north Cyprus, the population of the north is about 200,000 with over half now settlers, the native Turkish Cypriots having become a minority. These Turkish settlers have dominated Turkish Cypriot elections for many years, with their votes keeping Denktash’s repressive regime in power and overwhelming the desires of Turkish Cypriots. Turkish Cypriot governing parties base their support on the Turkish settlers and the Turkish Army generals and bureaucrats who exert most of the real power. Various attempts by the UN and others to find a just and viable solution to reunify the island have failed due to the intransigent position of the Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash and his Turkish backers. Denktash and the Turkish military and political establishment have long promoted separatism and the partition of Cyprus. Since 1974, the policy of hard-line nationalist Denktash and his supporters in Turkey has been that, “the status quo is the solution” to the Cyprus problem. Denktash is relying on the Turkish military to ensure division and retain him in power.

Turkish Cypriot Resentment at The Growing Turkification of The Island.

” First of all, in 1974, they changed all the names of the villages, they were given Turkish names and now when I look at a map, I don’t recognize which village it is… They started building mosques. The Turkish Cypriot community is very secular and these mosques, the architecture is nothing to do with Cypriot architecture. All these years we were told we don’t count, what counts is being Turkish not Cypriot.” Turkish Cypriot Journalist and activist Sevgul Uludag.

After a while growing numbers of Turkish Cypriots began to resent Turkey’s control over their affairs. Many Turkish Cypriots consider fervently that their culture and traditions are very different from those of Turkey. They believe they have more in common with other Cypriots than the Turkish settlers. The Turkish Cypriot statelet has been a disaster for Turkish Cypriots, who have fled the place in droves, to escape the isolation and poverty for Britain, Australia, Germany, the USA, southern Cyprus and elsewhere. “I want to live on this island and I want to die here. For this to happen there has to be an agreement, otherwise I will be forced to emigrate,” said Pinar Yengin, a female student.

The Formative Beginnings of Dissent.

“Turkish Cypriots and Turks from Turkey do not like each other that much. If you enter a shop with a military uniform, you will be received coldly. A major part of the Turkish Cypriots wants the withdrawal of our soldiers from there.” Ahmet Altan, a former Turkish soldier writing in Yeni Yuzyil in an article entitled “Lies of the island”.

The initial stages of organized Turkish Cypriot opposition began modestly back in 1989, with a tiny movement called the New Cyprus Party. Despite threats and violent repression, including arrests, beatings, bombings and shootings they campaigned to reject Turkish rule in north Cyprus, wanted EU membership and reunification with the rest of Cyprus. The NCP kept up its protests, issuing joint declarations with other Cypriot parties and agitating to cross the border to meet their fellow Cypriots. In Turkish Cypriot elections the NCP received only around 1% of the vote. The party later grew and united with another group and became the Patriotic Unity Movement.

A Cypriot participant in those early campaigns Turgut Durduran wrote, ” This Homeland is Ours”; I heard this slogan from the New Cyprus Party campaigns back in 1989…rallying around the idea that Turkish Cypriots should break off from the rule of Turkey and refuse to be ruled by orders of Turkey. For them, EU membership was inescapable and desirable. They said it did not make sense to prolong the status quo in Cyprus any longer. That we should all look forward to…being EU citizens and live happily in a federated Cyprus.” Turgut Durduran, is a Cypriot journalist, activist and one of the co-founders of Peace-Cyprus.Org and Cyprus Action Network.

Turkish Cypriot Dissent Grows.

“Until 1974, we were needed. Once the Turkish intervention was over, we had served our purpose. They’re importing a population that’s more useful and more submissive than the Turkish Cypriots,” stated Ozker Ozgur, Turkish Cypriot politician and a leader of the opposition Turkish Republican Party.

There has long been public disenchantment with the status quo in north Cyprus, but mainly it is since the end of the 1990’s that fear gave way to anger and take the form of mass rallies and real popular discontent emerged. As time went on despite the risks more Turkish Cypriots voiced open criticism at the regime and more individuals and organizations took to the streets in there thousands to demonstrate, saying openly that Cyprus was under Turkish occupation. Demonstrations and protest strikes were happening daily. By July 2000 the opposition was getting more organised and most of the Turkish Cypriot opposition groups united on a common platform known as the Group of 41. On September 1, more than 6,000 people attended a Peace Day Rally in Inonu Square. The slogan, “This Nation is Ours” became more popular and became the name of a new grouping of political parties, trade unions and other organizations. They promoted a petition stating, “This Nation is Ours” which obtained 18,000 signatures. It was followed by a by a rally on October 17 attended by almost 15,000 and a general strike of 38,000 people. During this period demonstrations were broken up by tear gas and arrests, the opposition newspaper Avrupa (Europe) was bombed, there were death threats and there was a severe crackdown on all informal contact with Greek and other Cypriots. ” People are too scared to speak up because of intimidation. Entire families have got death threats.” Alpay Durduran, an opposition leader.

In response to criticism of his regime Denktash denied there was an indigenous Turkish Cypriot culture and stated, ” Those who are against Turkey are wrong. There is no Cypriot culture, apart from our national custom of drinking brandy. There are Turks of Cyprus and Greeks of Cyprus, that’s all.” Denktash also openly backed the National Patriotic Movement (UHH), with its declared aim to combat Group 41 and quash any criticism of Turkey “by the ungrateful traitors and spies.”

By November 2001, especially after Kofi Annan presented his plan for a solution an unprecedented momentum for change began among Turkish Cypriots, culminating in big demonstrations in the north. People were no longer afraid to speak out and found if they stood together, their voices could not be silenced. A strong Turkish Cypriot opposition force emerged from this, calling for a solution based on the Annan Plan.

People Power-The Turkish Cypriot Uprising.

“Please tell the world that the TRNC is an open prison, it’s one gig militarized zone and all the gates are locked. Our only key to freedom is a quick peace settlement (with the south of the island), entry to the EU and reintegration with the rest of the world,” said Ahmet Barcin, president of the Secondary Teachers Union.

In August, 2002, 86 Turkish Cypriot non-government organizations in the occupied areas jointly announced that they support the talks process aimed at finding a solution to the Cyprus problem as well as EU membership of a united partnership state to be established following a solution. The joint declaration further stated that a Cyprus solution and EU membership are necessary for resolving the problems of the Turkish Cypriots, adding that the lack of a Cyprus solution adversely affects the Turkish Cypriots and causes mass migration.

In late November 2002, the opposition daily, Africa commented, “that many settlers have no affection for the place and that they should go.” There was a protest attended by 15,000 people shouting, “This nation is ours” and signs calling for a united Cyprus and EU membership. By December there was growing discontent in the north with large protests involving thousands of people in cities and villages. In another fiery protest held on December 14, about 8,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Nicosia to urge Denktash to sign a peace agreement to join the rest of Cyprus and join the EU.

Finally there was an unprecedented demonstration on December 26, 2002 by an estimated 30,000 Turkish Cypriots in Nicosia calling for reunification and the resignation of the Turkish Cypriot separatist leader Denktash. Protestors carried banners saying, “This nation is ours”, “Denktash resign” and “EU membership and solution”. Turkish President Sezer responded saying, “The expectations of the Turkish Cypriots are very important…but just as important as the expectations of the Turkish Cypriot people, are Turkey’s historical and legal rights in its capacity as both a power and a motherland. This should not be forgotten either”. (3/1/03).

Another massive protest was held on January 14, 2003, with an estimated 60,000 Turkish Cypriots- over half of the Turkish Cypriot population- marching through the divided capital Nicosia in support of reunification of Cyprus. Other estimates put the crowd’s number at up to 80,000 people. The huge demonstration was the largest mobilization of Turkish Cypriots ever held and twice as large as the protest held in December. The protestors carried EU and Cyprus flags and banners with slogans that included, ” This nation is ours,” “Denktash resign,” “We can’t wait another 40 years,” “We don’t want to live in a prison,” “Yes to the Annan Plan, yes to the world” and even “Turkish army of occupation.” The crowd also chanted, “Make peace, Denktash, enough is enough,” “Denktash does not represent us” and “Peace in Cyprus cannot be prevented”. Many shops were closed and the teachers’ union declared a strike and shut schools to mark the protest. “It has been 30 years since the island split and now is the time for peace, for the sake of our children and our grandchildren,” said retired headmaster Cemal Ozyigit. Even many Turkish settlers especially the young have had enough of Denktash’s regime and long for freedom. Kader Hafiz, a Turkish settler who came to the island 11 years ago said, “We don’t like the UN plan, because it will mean they’ll send some of us back to Turkey, but we like Denktash even less, I went to this demonstration last week and I’d go again.”

Denktash denounced the protesters. The majority of Turkish Cypriots blame the intransigence of Denktash for the continuing deadlock in progress to reunify Cyprus. Despite the mass rallies, Denktash has with the continued backing of the Turkish military, the political establishment and bureaucracy refused to change his hard line stance rejecting the idea of reunification and the Annan Plan as “unacceptable.”

On February 27, 2003, another Turkish Cypriot demonstration attracted a crowd of over 40,000 people. Some reports even estimated over 70,000 people. This protest brought together opposition parties, civil servants, unions, teachers, students and others. The protestors gathered in the square in the northern part Nicosia calling for an end to the division of the island and for joining a reunited Cyprus and the EU. “We are ready for a settlement and for the EU,” the demonstrators chanted.

For the first time Denktash also faced pressure from sections of the Turkish authorities, with the election of the Justice and Development Party in Turkey things changed, with the new Turkish leader, Recep Erdogan making EU entry a priority. The EU is demanding that Turkey, which wants to join the EU work towards a peaceful solution to the Cyprus problem. Mr. Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister and holder of the EU Presidency said: “It’s a reality that the perception is that if we made progress in Cyprus, it would be very helpful.” Recep Erdogan, knows that the Cyprus problem is an obstacle to Turkey’s EU aspirations and tired of Denktash’s stubborn rejections of meaningful negotiations has urged him to listen to the protesters demands and show some flexibility.

Cracks in the Wall of Division.

“Turkish Cypriots are tired of having their lives dictated by the whims of Turkey. They are tired of being overrun by settlers imported by Turkey and living in a military state. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there will be an uprising in the streets if Cyprus enters the EU without a solution.” Mehmet Talat.

As Cyprus moved closer towards EU membership the Turkish Cypriots were seething with anger and a mood of rebellion was in the air with repeated calls for reunion and for Denktash to resign. Turkish opposition leaders warned that the situation in the north had “become explosive.” Trying to maintain his grip Denktash made attempts to both appease public opinion by relaxing some of the restrictions on Turkish Cypriots, but without changing his aim of recognition of his separate state. The huge demonstrations sent shock waves through the regime, fearing the prospect of either a Turkish Cypriot popular revolt or mass march across the Green Line on April 23, 2003 the regime decided to partially open the ‘border’. This was seen by critics of Denktash as a way for him distract and to defuse the fury and frustration of the people. Whatever his motives it was a wonderful victory for the protesters and unleashed political and social forces that will be hard to rein in again. Businessman Kufi Birlinci said that, “Turkish Cypriots are fed up with the injustice in the north. And if Denktash didn’t open up the gates, people would start coming here on their own.”

The Cypriot government which has always maintained that all Cypriots should have unfettered freedom of movement welcomed the decision, but pointed out that it had never put restrictions on Turkish Cypriots entering the south and said that the action seemed designed to deflect attention from Denktash’s “negative attitude” to the reunification talks organized by the UN. While this was not a substitute for a proper settlement, it was a positive breach of the barriers dividing Cyprus and only came about due to the unrelenting pressure from Cypriot protestors. The government of Cyprus announced a package of measures including the reopening of trade between the north and south and granting permission for Turkish Cypriots to work, gain access to health care and other benefits in the south.

A Victory For the Cypriot People and a Big Step Forward Towards Reunification.

“We are happy about it and we hope it will be for peace and not just to let people go and come –”that’s not enough. We want a solution, but at the beginning it is good to see each other and that it’s possible to live together. I think the borders will stay open because people in the north will be very angry if it closes,” said Turkish Cypriot Nada Yolik.

Thousands of ecstatic Cypriots from both sides flocked across the partition line. By the end of the first day 3,000 Turkish Cypriots and over 1,700 Greek and other Cypriots had crossed the line. And 150 Turkish Cypriots went to apply for Cypriot passports. The Cyprus government provided free buses to take Turkish Cypriots to towns throughout the south. By May 1, more than 150,000 people, over a tenth of the population of Cyprus had crossed the ‘green line.’ “This is people power. The pressure on him (Denktash) was getting stronger and the reunification of the island was becoming unstoppable. This is so amazing, we could not have imagined this one-week ago. Everyone has been so helpful and kind, as opposed to what we were told by our leaders,” said Emina Oguc, a teacher at the University of Famagusta in Turkish-held Cyprus.

Most Turkish Cypriots have had enough of Turkish nationalism, but the Turkish potent military/political bureaucracy have not given up the struggle to hold on to Cyprus, so the demonstrations and other forms of resistance continue in north Cyprus.

“The Turkish establishment doesn’t want real democracy…The army doesn’t want to see its power watered down by EU-instigated reforms. The reality is that Turkey is unable to sort out its own problems. It can’t create the conditions for initiating change,” Mustafa Akinci, a Turkish Cypriot opposition leader.

In the end only Cypriots can resolve their problems and despite the failure of the UN’s latest plan to reunite Cyprus, Cypriots themselves have clearly shown that their own efforts can transform the situation on the island and that the two communities can live as one again in peace. A Turkish Cypriot couple, said, “We want to meet and get to know Greek Cypriots. We believe we share the same country with them and we should live together.” The Cypriot people eagerly desire reunification and the struggle for a lasting solution will continue. Cypriots have experienced the tragedy of separation for 30 years and understand only too well where the disastrous policies of partition lead. They are determined to create together a better society in a united country, as a Greek Cypriot refugee said, “We are one people.”