Although the island nation of Cyprus has been an independent republic since 1960, its northern region has been occupied by Turkey since 1974. But many see last month’s elections in the north of Cyprus as a sign of a desire for reconciliation by the people of the divided nation.
The April 26 election, held under the auspices of the occupying power, Turkey, was for the presidency of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,” an entity held to be illegal by the United Nations and which is recognized only by Turkey itself. The election was conducted under rules imposed by the occupation forces which, for example, allow some of the settlers brought in from Turkey to vote. Nevertheless, the result was the decisive defeat of the right-wing nationalist incumbent, Dervis Eroglu, by a progressive independent, Mustafa Akinci. Akinci captured a little over 60 percent of the vote.
The winner of this contest is seen as the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community and has traditionally taken the lead in reunification talks with the representatives of the Cypriot Republic. The two communities, those of Greek background and those of Turkish, have been divided since a short lived right-wing coup and subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974. The population of the northern entity is around 280,000 at least half of whom have settled from Turkey since the invasion. The total population of the Republic of Cyprus is about 1 million.
Turkey had been given a role in Cyprus in 1960 by the departing British colonialists who had agreed to make Turkey one of the powers (along with Britain itself and Greece) which “guaranteed” Cyprus’s independence. In 1974 the Turkish government was able to use a
right-wing coup against the elected president, national hero Archbishop Makarios, as a pretext to invade, ostensibly to restore democratic order. Turkish troops have been in Cyprus ever since, occupying about one-third of the country’s territory, helping to keep the two communities divided and helping to foster right-wing nationalist sentiment in the occupied area.
But following the official announcement of Akinci’s victory last month, Turkish Cypriots, rejecting the right-wing nationalist ideology, marched through the streets of the occupied region, joined by Greek Cypriot compatriots who had crossed from the south. Notably absent in these crowds were flags of the illegal “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” or of Turkey.
Akinci ran as an independent but had the support of the United Cyprus Party, BKP, a Turkish Cypriot political organization fraternal with the major Cypriot political party, AKEL, the
Communist Party of Cyprus, which has long made reunification of the country a priority. In an official statement in Turkish, Greek and English, AKEL noted that its leader Andros Kyprianou phoned Akinci to congratulate him on his victory and pledged that AKEL would support all efforts to reunify Cyprus, based on the framework established through past negotiations.
In one of his first official statements Akinci suggested that the relationship of Turkish Cypriots to Turkey should be more like brother and sister than the mother-child relationship favored by the nationalist right. However, this suggestion was rebuffed by rightist Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Turkey maintains a large military force on Cyprus.
Although most world leaders were quick to congratulate Akinci on his victory it remains to be seen what their long term commitment to Cypriot reunification will be. Cyprus’s location in the eastern Mediterranean, between Greece and Turkey and near the Middle East, gives it international strategic significance, in particular for Greece, Turkey, the U.S. and Great Britain. But its divided status is a source of tensions, making it yet another festering sore spot in an already volatile region. With a renewed possibility now of at long last democratically reunifying the country, many believe the entire region would benefit.
Photo: Cyprus’ president Nicos Anastasiades, right, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci, left, shake hands as the United Nations envoy Espen Barth Eide, center, smiles before a dinner at the Ledra Palace Hotel inside the UN controlled buffer zone that divides the Cypriot capital Nicosia, May 11, 2015. The dinner was the first meeting between Anastasiades and Akinci since the progressive Turkish Cypriot leader soundly defeated the hard-line incumbent in the April 26 election. Petros Karadjias/AP