OPINION

Turkish Cypriots stand up to be counted

The chasm between people and governments that has torn open the Arab world is reflected on Cyprus, where the Turkish Cypriots — now a minority even on their part of the divided island — are standing up to Turkey. After 36 years in the shadow of occupation forces and repeated disappointment in reunification talks, they now shout, ?We want to be masters of our own home.? The Turkish Cypriots raised their voice against the motherland which since 1974 has provided them with billions of dollars and defends them with tens of thousands of soldiers, as PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to remind the ?ingrates? after the first major protest on January 28.

The response was just as angry. ?You saved us? Go to hell!? said one banner in a second demonstration in the occupied part of Nicosia on Wednesday. It was attended by about 50,000 people. This particular banner was the work of Sener Levent, publisher of the newspaper Afrika and permanent thorn in Ankara?s side. That alone is not noteworthy. What is ?unbelievable,? as Turkish-Cypriot journalist Yusuf Kanli noted in Turkey?s Hurriyet Daily News, was that Rauf Denktash, who led the Turkish Cypriots for decades, expressed solidarity with the demonstrators. All Turkish Cypriots joined together and proclaimed, ?We do not want to be Turkey?s hostages nor do we want to side with Greek Cypriots.?

The Turkish Cypriots? fear — the thing that unites them — is the fear of being overwhelmed by the huge wave of Turkish settlers that has flooded the occupied part of the island. Whereas the Turkish Cypriots are estimated to number about 80,000-110,000, the settlers are believed to be at least 500,000. The Turkish Cypriots, with their distinctive accent, sharp wit and shared history with the Greek Cypriots, see their schools, their hospitals, their neighborhoods swarming with people with whom they have nothing in common. The problem is not only numerical, it?s cultural. The settlers change not only the island?s demographics but have also introduced a strong religious element to a population that was largely secular.

At the heart of the matter is the issue of the Turkish Cypriots? identity, the need to defend what they are, what makes them different from others. In the past, they were afraid of being absorbed by the Greek Cypriots; after the invasion, their fears were overtaken by the reality that they were being absorbed by Turkey. Gone are the hopes of 2003, when the Turkish Cypriots demonstrated in favor of a united Cyprus and hoped that with the Annan Plan their isolation would end and they would join the EU. The Greek Cypriots? rejection of the plan, their continued isolation and Turkey?s settlement policy caused despair and anger among the Turkish Cypriots.

On this ground fell Ankara?s attempt to impose a harsh economic austerity policy on the occupied territory, with steep wage cuts for civil servants, higher taxes, lower pensions and sweeping privatization. Turkey contributed about 25 percent of GDP to the Turkish-Cypriot economy this year and has a say in how this is spent. When the Turkish Cypriots protested (arguing, among other things, that it was the need to deal with the large number of settlers which derailed their economy), Ankara?s response was an insult: The austerity program?s architect was appointed ?ambassador? to the occupied territory.

The insensitive manner in which austerity was imposed affected the Turkish Cypriots? way of life but also insulted their pride and sense of identity. The first demonstration (on January 28) was mainly a protest about economic issues. Ankara?s rage, however, provoked last Wednesday?s mass demonstration with its strong political context. Turkey?s answer, through EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis, revealed the extent of Ankara?s paternalism: ?In our culture, children never raise their voices to their parents. But we will not leave our child unprotected,? he said.

Turkey won the war in 1974 but today is destroying those whom it claimed to be protecting. It finds itself trapped in a relationship that it cannot escape. The Turkish Cypriots? new self-confidence could offer a useful way out, if Ankara allows them to handle their own affairs. But this is not a road that Turkey, for its own geostrategic reasons, is likely to take.