On January 28, a mass rally with around 40,000 demonstrators took place in Inonu Square, in the Turkish Cypriot zone of Nicosia, the capital of the divided island. The protests were against cuts in public spending, which the National Unity Party (UBP) that administers northern Cyprus had agreed with the Turkish government, and which means cuts of up to 40 percent in civil servants? salaries. The demonstration displayed not only the Turkish Cypriots? underlying dissatisfaction with the Turkish occupation, but also how dependent northern Cyprus is on Turkey. After the Turkish invasion in 1974 and the subsequent occupation of 37 percent of Cyprus, the north was declared an independent republic, the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), in 1983. But Turkey is the only country that recognizes its independence.
However, its independence is an illusion, as northern Cyprus?s economy is dependent on Turkey. Exports are far less than imports, most of which come from Turkey. In what once was a fertile area; now 80 percent of the need for fruit and vegetables is met by Turkey. As a Turkish commentator noted: ?[Northern] Cyprus is like a water mill that cannot run without hand-carried water.?
Public expenditure makes up 70 percent of the Turkish Cypriot economy and Turkey covers 40 percent of Turkish-occupied Cyprus?s budget. Since the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government came to power, Turkey?s contribution has tripled, and last year it donated 600 million dollars, half of which covered the enclave?s budget deficit. Nevertheless, much of the deficit was not covered, and therefore a package of austerity measures was agreed with the Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish Minister for Cyprus, Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek, has stated that if the protocol is not implemented, Turkish-occupied Cyprus will go bankrupt by October.
Last August these economic measures led to a general strike in northern Cyprus, which at the end of January, developed into a mass rally not only against the cuts but also the Turkish occupation. The rally was organized by 35 trade unions and other organizations, and among the slogans was a clear message to Turkey to leave Cyprus to the Cypriots.
This is not the first time northern Cyprus has experienced this form of uprising. In July 2000 there was a mass rally under the slogan ?This Country Is Ours,? supported by the trade unions and other organizations. A letter was sent to the UN, demanding a federal solution in opposition to the then-Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Turkey?s confederal policy. The demonstrations continued with growing force in 2002 and culminated with a rally of more than 70,000 in February 2003, calling for Denktash?s resignation. Denktash, who once admitted ?I do what Turkey says,? was overthrown and the border to the south was opened two months later to prevent an explosion. A year later, 65 percent of the Turkish Cypriots voted for the Annan plan for reunification.
As Sener Ercil, general secretary of the Turkish Cypriot Primary School Teachers? Union (KTOS), has explained, there is no longer the same common goal. ?Although we are fighting for a solution and for a united federal Cyprus, some of the other unions are happy with the existing situation, and some of them support the creation of a separate state in the north.?
Rauf Denktash was replaced by Mehmet Ali Talat, who shares a background in the trade union movement with his Greek Cypriot counterpart, President Dimitris Christofias.
Before the current round of talks began in September 2008, the two leaders agreed in principle on the issues of single sovereignty and citizenship for a united Cyprus, but since the new Turkish Cypriot leader Dervis Eroglu took over last April, this agreement has ended.
Eroglu insists the new Cyprus should consist of two states with separate sovereignty, which led to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, at the summit in Geneva on January 26 between Christofias and Eroglu, asking the latter whether he retracts from the agreed issues, in which case the UN will have to reconsider its position.
Officially, Turkey adheres to the UN?s criteria for a federal state, but government rhetoric takes a different line. Cicek has stated that two separate states, two separate republics and two equal peoples are the parameters for the solution of the Cyprus problem. And Turkey?s chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, repeats like a mantra: ?Every morning when the sun rises, it rises over two separate states.?
The Turkish reaction to the mass rally in Inonu Square was not long coming. Characteristically, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened with reprisals. ?Who are these people? We have video records of them. They need to be submitted to the court.? And he indignantly reminded the Turkish Cypriots that they were dependent on Turkey for handouts. At the same time, he came with a remark, which revealed Turkey?s real intentions with Cyprus: ?I have strategic interests.? In 1956, Professor Nihat Erim, the government?s adviser on Cyprus, recommended partition, as Turkey could make no legal claim to the whole island. This is the policy which Turkey has since followed with remarkable consistency. The Greek junta?s attempt to overthrow President Makarios in 1974 gave Turkey an ideal opportunity to intervene, and since the occupation. the original Turkish Cypriot population has become a minority because of the massive influx of settlers from the mainland. Turkey has ignored repeated calls from the UN and the EU to withdraw its troops, and the prime minister recently declared: ?Turkey will not give away a single gram of northern Cyprus.?
When the trade unions? platform announced a new ?communal existence? rally on March 2, Ankara retaliated by appointing Halil Ibrakim Akca, the architect of Turkey?s economic package, as ?ambassador? to the occupied areas. The Turkish Cypriot daily Afrika referred to Akca as ?a provincial governor? and the Turkish daily Hurriyet proclaimed: ?Iron fist in Cyprus.?
After the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, Erdogan advised Hosni Mubarak: ?Listen to the shouting of the people, the extremely humane demands. Without hesitation, satisfy the people?s desire for change.? When it comes to Cyprus, perhaps he should take his own advice.
*Robert Ellis is a regular commentator on Turkish affairs in the Danish and international press, and adviser to the Turkey Assessment Group in the European Parliament.