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Neşe Düzel, in one of her periodic interviews for the high-brow daily Radikal dated 19 June 2006, discusses with academic Ayhan Aktar the Greek Cypriot view of the Cyprus problem. I think this is a groundbreaking article in that it represents a genuine attempt in the Turkish media to understand the mentality of Greek Cypriots. Translated from Turkish by Tim Drayton.

There will be no peace in Cyprus before 2008

    There are presidential elections in the Greek side in 2008. If the extreme nationalist Papadopoulos is re-elected, intransigence will continue in Cyprus. If he is not elected, the situation on the island will change and an opportunity for peace will arise.

    Former Istanbul University Rector Kemal Alemdaroğlu said before the referendum on the Annan Plan “If we wish we will take all of Cyprus.” Greek Cypriots think that this statement increased the “no” vote by 3-4%.

    South Cyprus cannot close its doors on the Turks. Turkish Cypriots have acquired the South’s passports. Now they all receive medical care in the South and benefit from high living standards in the South without paying any tax.


WHY? Ayhan Aktar

Turkey keeps coming up against the Cyprus problem. This island with a population of one million poses one of the most painful problems for Turkey in its relations with the EU. In Cyprus, both sides have for years considered themselves to be indisputably in the right. This conviction of being right and lack of interest in the other side’s feelings and thoughts has led to both sides becoming entrenched in their own positions and has made a solution impossible. Today, while Turkish Cypriots have adopted a position that favours peace and a solution, the Greek Cypriots stick stubbornly to their old beliefs. I spoke to sociology professor Ayhan Aktar, who conducts research into Cyprus and has spent the past few months on the island, about the reasons for the Greek Cypriots’ opposition to peace, why they have adopted this position, what they think about the Turks and why they are trying to block Turkey’s EU membership. Aktar’s most recent book Türk Milliyetçiliği, Gayrimüslimler ve Ekonomik Dönüşüm (Turkish Nationalism, Non-Muslims and the Economic Transformation) has been published.

As European Union entry talks begin, we are once again confronted by Cyprus. Not that this Cyprus problem ever ends. You conduct research into Cyprus. How do the Greek Cypriots view this “Cyprus Problem”?

The only country to join the EU for purely political reasons is South Cyprus. South Cyprus did not enter the EU to get rich. Even before becoming an EU member it had a per capita national income of 17-18,000 dollars. The Greek Cypriots did not become members of the EU because they saw this as a way of increasing living standards in the way that Croatia or Turkey do. They joined the EU for external political reasons. They wanted to feel secure against Turkey and to move the Cyprus problem onto the EU’s agenda. They now see themselves as having gained a political guarantee. Don’t forget … The former rector of Istanbul University Kemal Alemdaroğlu commented before the referendum on the Annan Plan that, “If we wish we will take all of the island.”

Did the Greek Cypriots really take these words seriously?

Pro-peace Greek Cypriots think that this statement by Kemal Alemdaroğlu increased the “no” vote by 3-4%. For a professor, a university rector, to say this is not the same as if it came from Joe Bloggs in the street. Greek Cypriot society, with its experience of 1974, relived its terror when confronted by such a statement and went in search of a political guarantee. You shouldn’t be surprised by such a reaction.

Well, how do Greek Cypriots view the “Cyprus problem”?

For Cypriots, Cyprus is the centre of the world. You may find it laughable, but Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots as an island community see Cyprus as the centre of the world. You will ask, “How can the Greek Cypriot population of 750,000 along with a total Turkish population of 260,000 if you include those who came from Turkey see themselves as the centre of the world?”, but that is just how they see themselves.

So what is the result of this perception?

The most important question in the world according to them is of course the Cyprus question. My anthropologist friend Peter Loizos defines this feature of “self-centeredness” that is shared by Greek and Turkish Cypriots as “Cyprus centeredness”. Every time I speak to Greek Cypriots the conversation invariably turns to the Cyprus problem. They say “The problem is on the EU’s agenda”. “So what?”, you say, “The Irish problem is in the EU. The EU has been unable to solve the Irish problem. It hasn’t even attempted to do so.”

But, because they see Cyprus as being at the centre of the world, all expectations are also self-centred, Cyprus centred. They believe that the Cyprus problem will be solved in the EU in line with the wishes of the Greek Cypriot community. For they see themselves in a stronger position politically.

When Rauf Denktash was at the top, the Turkish side was seen by the whole world as the side that did not want peace. With Denktash having left office the perception has changed. Now the whole world realises that it is the Greek Cypriots who do not want peace. Are the Greek Cypriots aware of this new perception?

Not particularly. Look … 1974 is a trauma for the Greek Cypriots. They underline the fact that they had to flee from Kyrenia in their slippers. They believe that they have suffered a great injustice since 1974. They think that the island is under Turkish military occupation, that they have lost their properties and possessions, that 140,000 Greek Cypriots became refugees and that the Annan Plan did not remedy those injustices. A very interesting thing that I have noticed is the lack of “social criticism” on the Greek Cypriot side.

What do you mean?

What I mean is they open the pages of history at 1974. It is as if the 1950’s and 60’s didn’t happen. It is as though in 1960 with the assistance of Britain, Turkey and Greece a bicommunal republic and constitution were not proclaimed. As though the Greek Cypriot political elite did not fight to change this constitution and the Turks did not take refuge in enclaves in the ensuing conflict…For example, when you talk to Greek Cypriots most of them think that the Green Line was created in 1974. When in fact the Green Line was created in 1964 to keep the two communities apart because they couldn’t live together and were spilling blood. But their position as “the victims and oppressed” has been burnt into the Greek Cypriots’ consciousness. They thus think that the Annan Plan fails to compensate them for all the pain they have suffered over thirty years. You put your money in a bank for thirty years. Now you get your money back without any interest. They say, “This is not on. First you have to pay us for what we have suffered.”

Do they think that peace will be against their own interests?

They think that the peace in the Annan Plan is against their own interests. They want a peace agreement on their own terms. The Greek Cypriots, when they rejected the Annan Plan, thought, “We are joining the EU anyway. Let the Turks stay outside. Let us get the right to block Turkey’s EU process a little.” But the result was very interesting from the Turkish Cypriot perspective. The Turks said “yes” to the Annan Plan and the Greeks said “no”. The Greeks joined the EU and the Turks didn’t, but in the period that ensued the Turks crossed through the Ledra Palace gate and applied to ministries in the Greek Cypriot side and the majority of the 145,000 Turkish Cypriots, including Denktash’s grandson, acquired South Cyprus passports. For South Cyprus cannot close its doors on Turkish Cypriots.

Why not?

Because the Greek Cypriot side says that the Cyprus Republic is the owner of the whole island and the North is under occupation. Under such circumstances it cannot close the door on its own citizens. Turkish Cypriots can currently enter EU countries without a visa. They have become de facto EU citizens. At the same time, every morning 7-8,000 people go from the North to the South to work. Everyone in the North who gets heartburn or a headache passes through the gate for treatment in hospitals in the South. Turkish Cypriots enjoy all the benefits of the high standard of living in the South without paying a penny in taxes. The Turks were not penalised as a result of the Greek Cypriots saying “no” to the Annan Plan.

What do Greek Cypriots think of Turkish Cypriots?

When we talk, they all say “We get on well with the Turks, we are all of the same island”, but this is mythology. In fact these two communities lived side by side but without mixing. Moreover, the most important dimension of Greek Cypriots’ nationalism is the feeling of being Hellenic. Only if you are Hellenic, have Hellenic roots, can you be considered Cypriot. They say, “We are the essential owners of the island; the Turkish Cypriots came to the island later.” Or there is a reading of history that supports this…They also hold the view that “Turkish Cypriots are Hellenes who later became Muslims.” Such circumstances do not engender an ideological or intellectual structure that brings together people of different religions on the same island. And the current mentality is not subjected to criticism

Well, what do the Greek Cypriots think of the mainland Turks?

The name generally given to mainland Turks is ‘Mavri Yeni’ or “Black Beard”. This expression goes back to Ottoman times. They think that people who come from Anatolia are less civilised. In a survey conducted by Cyprus television, 41% of Greek Cypriots said that they felt little affection for Turkish Cypriots, while 26% said that they felt great affection. The remainder were uncommitted. The referendum on the Annan Plan actually produced the same outcome. Only 25% said “yes” to the plan. There was another finding in the television survey: while 45% said, “I can live together with Turkish Cypriots”, 48% said “I can’t”. This shows that the Greek Cypriot community is split down the middle.

What kind of Cyprus do the Greek Cypriots want?

They don’t have a clear plan of the kind of Cyprus they want. But they have a vision of a Cyprus in which the injustices they have suffered are remedied by constitutional means. Look…The most characteristic feature of all nationalisms in the world is a lack of empathy. Frankly, the Greek Cypriots rarely put themselves in the Turkish Cypriots’ shoes. They say, “They have 20% of the population but hold 30% of the island. It is we who are suffering injustice. Because we are 80% of the population; we are the majority. What we say should go on this island”. This is precisely why they are against the 1960 constitution that granted communal rights to both sides.

Don’t they think that the kind of Cyprus they want is no longer on the table?

Greek Cypriots lack this kind of critical thinking. If you don’t subject your own nationalism to criticism, you can’t reach that point. For as long as a self-justifying Hellenic nationalism that sees itself as right is not subjected to criticism, this ideology will see itself as the owner of the island. But everywhere in the world the elite are the first to criticise nationalism. The rapprochement between Germany and France did not happen as a result of a spontaneous rapprochement at the level of the man on the street. The political elite saw that it was impossible to live in that atmosphere of push and shove and worked to find a way out. The political class persuaded the people to embrace rapprochement. Clerides, who called for a “yes” vote to the Annan Plan, seven or eight years ago as president quite openly apologised to the Turkish Cypriots. He said, “I apologise to Turkish Cypriots for what we did.” But this historic speech by Clerides was shot down on both sides. Denktash shot down this speech because it did not suit his interests. And in the South it was shot down because it didn’t fit into the generally-accepted ideological moulds.

Are the Greek Cypriots thinking of pressurising Turkey in the EU negotiations?

Yes, they are thinking of doing this. On paper the Greek Cypriots have a veto but the weight of the Cypriot Greek side with 750,000 people does not match the weight of Germany or Britain. If the EU’s large players wish to see Turkey in the EU, they will succeed in quashing the Greek Cypriot side’s “no” vetos. We should not forget that the Greeks in the Simitis period made a U-turn in their relations with Turkey and supported Turkey’s EU membership. And this was precisely when those who did not want Turkey and were hiding behind Greece’s back were exposed. Presidential elections will be held in the Greek Cypriot side in 2008. If the Cypriot communist party AKEL continues to support extreme nationalist Papadopoulos’s presidency and Papdopoulos is re-elected president, intransigence will continue. If they don’t support him, the situation may change. An opportunity for peace will appear on the island.

Why do the Greek Cypriots give the impression of being so chauvinistic and opposed to peace?

The world is just starting to notice this. When actually all of this intransigence has its ideological roots in the Hellenistic nationalist ideology that is dominant in the South. And this is an ideology that is injected into society by the education system. Look…44% of Greek Cypriots have not even once crossed over to the North. This means that 44% have closed their shutters to the North. Anyhow, 48% want to live separately from Turkish Cypriots. These preferences are a result of the national education system. According to one piece of research, while 80% of Greek Cypriots aged over 50 answer “yes” to the question “Do you want to live together with Turkish Cypriots?”, 80% of those aged 18-30 say “no”. Don’t forget that those aged over 50 have seen blood and war. They are people who experienced 1974, who fled to the South in their slippers. Those aged 18-30 are the ones who learned about experiences with the Turks from books.

Isn’t nationalist ideology also strong and widespread in the North?

It is widespread but the nationalism here does not have a religious dimension. You have Turkishness but not a Turkish Islamic synthesis. Thus even if it is hard to escape the nationalism in the North, its secular nature means that it does not greatly affect every aspect of Turkish Cypriots’ life. On the other hand, in the South a Hellenic nationalism mixed with Orthodoxy is capable of taking the form of an ideology that determines a person’s whole identity.

Cyprus used to be one of the world’s tourism centres. But this situation changed after 1974. What is the state of tourism in the Greek Cypriot side?

Think, 2.7 million tourists come to South Cyprus with its population of 750,000. Tourism isn’t like that in the North. Our Turkish Cypriot friends complain about the embargoes placed on them, but if these restrictions are lifted will they really be able to satisfy a tourist coming from London with the tourism infrastructure that they have put in place? Turkey has exported the worst kind of statism to Cyprus. The total population of North Cyprus is 260,000. 145,000 of these are Turkish Cypriots. Those who came from Turkey some time ago have also been given Cyprus passports. When these are added the figure amounts to 160,000. The remaining 100,000 of the population are people who have come from Turkey. Today 30-35,000 of these 145,000 Turkish Cypriots are civil servants or retired civil servants. North Cyprus is like a huge Sümerbank, a big state enterprise. The political structure, in order to legitimise its own existence, over thirty years from 1974 to 2004 distributed Greek Cypriot property and operated a plunder economy. A strange capital accumulation took place. As a result there are as many as twelve nightclubs in the fields along the road from Nicosia to Famagusta. Also gambling tourism has become established in the North.

Returning to the Greek Cypriots, do they see the Turkish Cypriots as a minority?

That’s how they see them, of course.

The Turkish Cypriot side is much poorer than the Greek Cypriot side. OK, does this Turkish Cypriot poverty scare the Greek Cypriots?

The Turks are no longer poor, either. Figures show that the TRNC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) economy has grown by 46% over the past two years and that per capita national income has risen to 11,000 dollars. Today in North Cyprus construction work covers five million square metres. North Cyprus is now a massive construction site. This is an explosion that followed the rejection of the Annan Plan. In the words of writer Mehmet Hasgüler, we are witnessing the second period of plunder in Cyprus. This is not wealth that is based on production and the morality of capitalism. This is along the lines of a lottery economy. It’s a situation where you keep getting money from the instant lottery. Now villas are being built on Greek Cypriot fields. The British are selling their houses in the South and buying much cheaper villas in the North. Weekly English newspapers are also now starting to appear in the North.

So, do the Greek Cypriots secretly believe that if the island is divided this will be good for them?

Nobody says this openly, but this is what actions say. In 1974 there was a military partition. This thirty-year military partition received democratic recognition with the 76% “no” vote that was given to the Annan Plan. The Greek Cypriot politicians who called for a “no” vote in one sense chose the path leading to two states and achieved democratic partition of the island. No one says it, but Cyprus is heading towards a two-state political structure. 60% of Greek Cypriots rate Papadopoulos, who refuses to acknowledge Mehmet Ali Talat as a partner for discussion and applies intransigent policies, as successful. Uniting both sides in Cyprus under a common administrative model is a much harder thing than uniting the two Germanys. There are two sides with heavy baggage from a history of ethnic conflict that have different religions and languages. There will be no development relating to peace in Cyprus until the 2008 elections.

Neither the United Nations nor the EU is involved in any diplomatic efforts over Cyprus. Annan, who has lost prestige because his plan was rejected, can no longer do much in connection with Cyprus. Coming to the EU…It will not do much for a solution, either.

Archive of Turkish press translations by Tim Drayton