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Turkey's Cypriot Albatross

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
December 23, 2003
Wall Street Journal


Turkey risks sabotaging its prospects of joining the European Union by continuing to support Rauf Denktash. Ankara would be better off distancing itself from the Turkish Cypriot strongman. Mr. Denktash isn't only standing in the way of Turkey's progress. He is blocking the popular will of Turkish Cypriots who want to reunify Cyprus so the island as a whole can enter the EU.

Mr. Denktash has staked his political career as a "defender of the national cause." In 1974, his fear-mongering led directly to Turkey's military action occupying the northern third of Cyprus to protect the island's Turkish minority, end communal violence and reverse a coup by Greek nationalists wanting to join Cyprus to Greece. Turkish Cypriots may have welcomed Turkey's intervention at the time.

But they've recently grown tired of their poverty and isolation. While the Greek Cypriot side of the divided capital Nicosia glistens like the Champs-Elysees, the Turkish Cypriot side resembles the worst slums of Istanbul. The average per capita income of Greek Cypriots is seven times greater than of their Turkish Cypriot neighbors.

On Dec. 14, the Turkish Cypriots backed political parties that support a United Nations plan to reunify the island. The opposition maintains that its margin of victory would have been even greater except that voter rolls included Turkish émigrés from mainland Anatolia. Despite winning the most votes, these parties got as many seats in parliament as the pro-Denktash parties, thanks to Cyprus' complex proportional representation system.

A possible political stalemate in Cyprus comes at a tricky time for Turkey. Next December, the EU is expected to set a date for beginning talks on Turkey's membership. Brussels has made clear that Turkey's candidacy would be greatly enhanced if Ankara can influence an agreement to unify Cyprus.

Despite his Islamist roots, Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has embraced Turkey's traditional ties to the West and adamantly supports Turkey's membership in the EU. Upon assuming office last April, Mr. Erdogan endorsed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's plan for reunifying the island. Turkey's establishment publicly rebuked him, forcing the new prime minister to retract his support.

Real power in Turkey resides with the "deep state" -- an inner circle of military, intelligence and financial interests committed to preserving their dominant role. When the Great Powers promulgated the 1920 Treaty of Sevres after the first World War, Kemal Ataturk rejected the deal, claiming it went too far in dismembering the Ottoman Empire. To this day, Turkish policy suffers from the "Sevres syndrome." Many Turks believe that Europe is against them. Turkey's establishment maintains its grip on power by inflaming national paranoia over Cyprus and Greece. It insists that recognition of the 1915 genocide is a Trojan horse for Armenian territorial claims. Though their demands for greater political and cultural rights are legitimate, Turkish Kurds are cast as a fifth column conspiring to split the motherland.

Some members of Turkey's establishment even disparage aspirations to join the EU. The General Staff of the Turkish armed forces is especially wary of EU standards requiring civilian control of the military and transparency of national security expenditures. Though Mr. Erdogan was elected with an overwhelming popular mandate, he is powerless to confront the country's entrenched elites.

Many Turks resent that the country's progress at the EU is held hostage by Mr. Denktash, who has resisted the growing public pressure to make peace with the Greek south and tried to intimidate his opponents. If Cyprus joins the EU before the island is reunified, Ankara has threatened to annex Northern Cyprus. This would have a disastrous affect on Turkey's prospects.

While Mr. Denktash can not survive without Turkey's support, Turkey gets little more than international opprobrium in return. The Turkish General Staff may want to keep its bases in Cyprus, but the political cost is simply too great. Even if Ankara backs away from the annexation threats, Turkey will find itself in the awkward position of deploying troops from an EU applicant country on the territory of an EU member state once a divided Cyprus joins the EU in May.

Dumping Mr. Denktash by making a clear push for a peace deal represents a win-win for both Turks and Turkish Cypriots, both of whom want to be a part of Europe. Advancing a Cyprus solution would advance Turkey's independence and burnish its credentials in Brussels. EU integration would accelerate Turkey's democratic development and enhance the country's security by signaling to the Islamists who were likely behind the recent spate of terrorist bombings here that Turkey's future lies squarely with the West.

Mr. Phillips is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.