A question of faith

Something extraordinary is happening in Turkey and Cyprus these days. After a generation in which there was no progress on Cyprus and, consequently, in Greek-Turkish relations, all the action is suddenly coming from Ankara and the Turkish-occupied part of Nicosia, like a flood as a logjam breaks. On this side of the Aegean, we had grown complacent in believing that the Turks would never change their position on a host of issues that concern us; we never had to test our own ability to confront sacred cows and to welcome change. Now that a solution to the Cyprus issue is within our grasp, many people on the Greek side can be heard saying – unofficially, of course – «Thank God for Denktash.» As suspicious of change as he is, they believe that as long as Rauf Denktash holds out and does not accept the basic principles of the UN plan for Cyprus’s reunification, the Greek side can appear the more flexible one while not having to bear the cost of the compromise which Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan brings with it. So, suddenly it is the Turkish Cypriots, those formerly invisible people on the other side of the Green Line in Nicosia, who are holding demonstrations against the only leader they have known in a generation. In a pregnant comment that is at once ironic and a gesture of a single Cypriot national conscience, Mehmet Ali Talat, the Turkish-Cypriot opposition leader, on Tuesday challenged Greek-Cypriot parties to show that they were sincere in their proclamations of support for Annan’s plan by holding demonstrations on their side of the fence against the Church and others who oppose acceptance of it. The Greek-Cypriot parties have welcomed the Turkish-Cypriot demonstrations against Denktash and have demonstrated in solidarity with them. But it is easier to demonstrate against a familiar, foreign enemy than to take on those in your own community who would prevent a solution, as Turkish-Cypriot parties know. Denktash does not want Annan’s plan because it falls short of giving the Turkish-Cypriot «component state» the full sovereignty that he demands. On the Greek-Cypriot side, many object to the fact that the plan does not reunite Cyprus into the single, seamless state it was before 1974. But, as the nursery rhyme has it, once Humpty Dumpty had his great fall, all the king’s men and all the king’s horses could not put him together again. Kofi Annan has done the next best thing – giving each side enough gain and as little pain as possible in order to create a loose union of two states in one entity that will at once provide each community with security while also helping repair at least some of the damage and pain caused by the invasion. The plan is immensely complicated and it is very difficult to understand exactly how viable it may be in practice. What is clear, though, is that most of the objections come from people who expect the worst from the other side. Denktash and those who agree with him say that the Turkish-Cypriot minority will be wiped out by not being given the status of a sovereign state and by the gradual return of a number of Greek-Cypriot refugees (limited to 28 percent of the population of the «component state»), while others on the Greek side see the power-sharing arrangements as a recipe for deadlock. Both look to the past to prove that the future cannot work. Both predict the worst behavior from the other side, similar to that which followed Cyprus’s independence in 1960. This is the biggest obstacle to the success of Annan’s plan if it is agreed to by Greek and Turkish Cypriots. In December, a few days after the EU invited Cyprus to join the union, Cypriot Foreign Minister Yiannakis Cassoulides made the first effort to bridge the gap between the past and present. «We apologize to Turkish Cypriots for the mistakes we made in the 1950s and 1960s. Due to these mistakes, which were made one after another, people were forced to abandon their lands and homes,» he told Turkey’s Sabah newspaper. «Everything will easily be solved if the other side conducts similar self-criticism,» he added. He can hardly have foreseen that the biggest leap of faith would come from the Turkish Cypriots who, in their desire to become members of the EU, see hope rather than fear in a possible union with the Greek Cypriots. Then, on Wednesday, the man who leads Turkey’s ruling party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, made one of the most dramatic statements we have seen in a long time. He laid into Denktash in a way that not even Greek commentators could imagine. «I do not favor pursuing policies which have been pursued on Cyprus for 30-40 years,» Erdogan said. «We will do whatever we have to. This business is not Mr Denktash’s personal business… It’s the struggle of a nation for existence,» he declared. For Denktash – who for three decades has enjoyed full support from Ankara, right up to Turkey’s going along with his fruitless unilateral declaration of independence in 1983 – this was a slap that must have left his ears ringing. But Denktash knows that he is in the middle of a battle that will determine the future of Turkey. Erdogan and the Turkish political and military establishment are locked in a struggle for dominance and the Cyprus issue, which has been central to Turkish politics for the past 30 years, is inevitably one of the battlegrounds. Denktash should heed the wise observation that where the hippos fight the frogs get squashed. Instead, he is at the center of the fray. After years of stonewalling, he has done this one time too many and found himself to be the biggest single obstacle to his people’s desire to join the EU. Despite his protestations that it is Greek-Cypriot propaganda that presents him as not accepting the UN proposal as the basis for negotiations, both he and the Turkish-Cypriot opposition parties know that if he had wanted a solution he would have gone to Copenhagen for last-minute negotiations last month instead of going into an Ankara hospital and sending an aide instead without giving him authority to negotiate anything. Furthermore, he chose to insult as «annoying flies» the 30,000 Turkish Cypriots (a sixth of his statelet’s total population) who took to the streets of occupied Nicosia on December 26, calling for his resignation, for the signing of the UN deal and a united island’s entry into the EU. Erdogan, in turn, admonished that the demonstration was «not an ordinary event.» He added: «It should be evaluated carefully. One cannot brush aside the public’s view on this issue.» Regarding Denktash’s great distrust of the Greek Cypriots, Erdogan said: «We should leave the issue of trust aside. We find the plan negotiable so we should negotiate on it.» Once again, it all comes down to a question of faith. But for Erdogan there is also the issue of the national interest. His statements make it clear that Turkey’s efforts to become a member of the EU are one of his top priorities and he does not want Cyprus to jeopardize this. One might put it this way: The fate of 70 million Turks depends partly on a happy end to the Cyprus issue and Turkey’s eventual membership of the EU. Standing in the way right now are a minority of people in northern Cyprus (most of whom are said to be settlers from Turkey) and Denktash, who insists on sovereignty before he negotiates any deal. In other words, one man stands between Turkey and Europe. But the issue is also a vital component of the power struggle in Ankara. The Turkish military and bureaucratic establishment issued its first broadside at Erdogan immediately after his election on November 3, when the Foreign Ministry squashed his conciliatory statements on Cyprus by saying that the state machinery – and not Erdogan’s party – would determine the fate of this «national issue.» The backing for Denktash was renewed after the Copenhagen summit in a meeting which included President Ahmet Sezer, the chief of the military and Erdogan’s aides – Prime Minister Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis. It seems that this is part of the war of nerves between the ruling party and the establishment, a war exemplified by the fact that Sezer refused to sign legislation that would allow Erdogan to run for Parliament and so become prime minister. When the ruling party and opposition deputies again sent the legislation to him, the president backed down from the option of calling a referendum. If the people had supported Erdogan in such a dispute with the military and bureaucratic establishment, the myth of the latter’s power would have been shattered. And here, again, the problem is very clearly one of trust. The establishment does not believe that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has disavowed its Islamist roots; it also does not trust the people to choose wisely without the traditional guardianship of the military. On the other hand, the government does not believe that it can stay in power under the military’s Damoclean sword without the democratic guarantees provided by Turkey’s commitment to eventual EU accession. In the face of this great clash in Turkey – which is both unavoidable and, perhaps, part of a necessary evolution – the differences between the two communities of Cyprus appear easier to bridge. As a Turkish admiral who took part in the 1974 invasion told Istanbul’s Radikal newspaper on Wednesday, it is a mistake to talk of the Greek Cypriots killing Turkish Cypriots. «Who will slaughter anyone in a country that belongs to the European Union?» Attila Kiyiak asked. The ferment proves the wisdom of Cyprus’s joining the EU. It also allows many Turks and Turkish Cypriots to cut through the mists of myth and put their faith in the future. May such courage reach out from both sides to bridge the chasm of pain and doubt. It will take work to achieve this, but there is no other way.

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