Niyazi Kizilyurek says nothing like it has happened in ethnically divided Cyprus in 140 years: He is the first Turkish Cypriot elected to the European Parliament, and he was selected by a primarily Greek Cypriot electorate.
The fact that it's to a body representing the citizens of the European Union's 28 member states, he says, affords him the opportunity to reproduce the bloc's greatest achievement in his homeland – forging unity out of the ashes of war.
“I see Cyprus as the patrie [homeland] of all Cypriots and I feel myself responsible for all Cypriots,” Kizilyurek told The Associated Press from his apartment in the southern, internationally recognized part of the capital, Nicosia.
Unlike other elections where Turkish Cypriots living in the breakaway northern part of the island aren't eligible to vote, the European parliament election is one single big vote for the country's six seats. All citizens of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus have the right to vote, including some 80,000 Turkish Cypriots who hold Cyprus Republic passports but live in the north. Only about 5,600 of those voted, however, meaning that the larger proportion of the 25,000 votes Kizilyurek received came from Greek Cypriots.
The 59 year-old, who has taught political history at the University of Cyprus since 1995, courted much controversy during his campaign, on both sides of the divide.
Running on the ticket of the communist -rooted AKEL party, he stood accused by right-wing Turkish Cypriot detractors of being a Greek Cypriot puppet aiming to undermine their breakaway state in the island's north. The state is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops there.
Right-wing Greek Cypriots also eyed Kizilyurek with suspicion, questioning whether he intended to primarily promote the narrow interests of Turkish Cypriots, to the detriment of Greek Cypriots and the sovereignty of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus.
Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the aftermath of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Although Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 as a whole, EU laws apply and benefits are enjoyed only by residents in the south.
The German-educated Kizilyurek dismisses the criticism as either a flurry of nationalistic fervor that grips many on both sides or the “racism” of a far-right fringe that opposes any form of cooperation between the two communities.
“To see people coming out from one ethnic group and joining the other ethnic group and trying to do things together for a nationalist, this is an unknown world,” Kizilyurek says. “So most of them are reacting because of prejudices, because of ignorance.”
Kizilyurek, who has collaborated on a film project and authored some 20 books, mainly on Cyprus’ political history, describes himself as a staunch federalist and supporter of a federal type of peace accord for Cyprus that respects the national identities of both communities within a political union.
“I do see federalism … as an antidote to nationalism, especially in the geographies where you have multiethnic groups living together,” he says.
But Kizilyurek treads carefully around aspects of the island's complicated politics that could get him mired in a conceptual tug-of-war over his loyalties. He opts to take no position on Turkey's ongoing bid to drill for offshore gas in waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.
Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state and says it’s defending the rights of Turkish Cypriots to the island’s offshore hydrocarbon deposits. It also claims that part of Cyprus’ offshore economic zone overlaps its own continental shelf.
The Cypriot government has condemned Turkey’s actions as a flagrant violation of its sovereign rights and has secured the EU’s backing. Turkey’s actions drive to the heart of Greek Cypriot fears of Turkish domination over the island.
Kizilyurek faults the “lack of political will” on the part of both sides’ political elites in reaching the kind of compromises that would lead to an overall reunification deal. He says some are deeply invested in how things stand in Cyprus and resist change, but he warns the status quo is a breeding ground for tension. [AP]