Turkish Cypriots feel bullied by Turkey as vote looms

Amid sky-high tensions with Greece, Turkey further muddied the Cyprus waters this week, suggesting a possible two-state solution the day after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was looking to start reunification talks for the divided island after the October 11 presidential vote in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

This came a day after Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades charged Turkey with continuing its provocations in the eastern Mediterranean, after Ankara extended the navigational warning for its drillship Yavuz in the waters around Cyprus.

It’s not only the Republic of Cyprus that sees the meddling of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as increasingly problematic. Many in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognized only by Turkey, increasingly fear the AKP’s efforts to Islamise and demographically re-shape their state, and have grown resentful of Turkey looking to fight their battles.

The two state proposal is just one more example, according to Turkish Cypriot Kemal Baykallı, an activist with the grassroots initiative Unite Cyprus Now.

“An internationally recognised independent Turkish Cypriot state in the north can only be possible if the U.N. Security Council changes their decision with the approval of the recognised Cyprus government -- something very unlikely,” said Baykalli, who agrees with European Union-member Republic of Cyprus that reunification is the best option.

“The establishment of a federal republic in Cyprus would mean Turkish Cypriots will have an equal say in an EU-member Cyprus, creating a further opportunity for Turkey to mend its relations with the EU.”

Ever since 1974, when Turkey invaded to save Turkish Cypriots from an Athens-backed coup that sought to put a military regime in power, Ankara has seemed to treat TRNC and Turkish Cypriots with a measure of condescension. In 2011, Erdoğan referred to Turkish Cypriots as “foster children”.

In 2015, after Mustafa Akinci won the most recent presidential election, he called for the perception that Turkey is the motherland and TRNC the baby motherland to end. Yet it has persisted in part because the TRNC relies heavily on Turkey, which supplies both defence security and budgetary support. In May, Turkey pledged $325 million to help TRNC Northern weather the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar dropped by to witness Turkish military exercises in Northern Cyprus.

Along with that security and financial muscle comes a measure of AKP Islamisation. Two years ago, Erdoğan visited to inaugurate the massive Hala Sultan Mosque, which hosts a university, a high school and an Islamic vocational college within its compound on the northern edge of Nicosia.

“Turkish Cypriots have increasingly felt threatened by the words and actions of Turkish officials,” said Baykallı. “Turkish officials are concerned that the Turkish Cypriots have lost their touch with Islam. Thus, this needs to be fortified with the building of new mosques and the introduction of religious teaching.”

The TRNC government has investigated reports of students at the Islamic college facing religious pressure. Many Turkish Cypriots imagine the AKP opening up hundreds of Islamic schools, as it has done in Turkey.

Turkish Cypriot teachers have urged authorities to pay more attention to education, complaining TRNC has more mosques than schools and religious education is on the rise due to an increase in unlicensed summer schools and Quran lessons. TRNC also gets its school textbooks from Turkey, which dropped evolution from the curriculum several years ago.

Fiona Mullen, director of the Cyprus-based consulting firm Sapienta Economics, said the majority of Turkish Cypriots are happy to have the security and financial guarantees Turkey provides, but are troubled by what comes with it.

“What they are worried about is the increasing influence of not just Turkey, but AK Party Turkey, in their cultural, social and political life,” she told Ahval in a podcast. “Turkish Cypriots are very secular. They are children of Ataturk, in that sense, and they don’t like what they see as attempts to influence the education system and so on.”

Another Turkish Cypriot concern is that Turkish settlers -- whose numbers have increased in recent years, though exact numbers are unknown -- and their descendants will become more conservative, and alter voting patterns. Ankara has pressured successive TRNC governments to grant citizenship to Turkish citizens who migrate there.

“Demographic change is a serious concern,” said Baykalli. “It is affecting not only the voter base of the small Turkish Cypriot community but also the possibility of reaching a deal on who will be the citizens of a future united federal Cyprus.”

Karol Wasilewski, Turkey analyst and head of the Middle East and Africa programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, pointed out that Turkey’s influence campaign in Northern Cyprus echoes its approach in the European Union.

The Turkish state has sought to instrumentalise the sizable Turkish diaspora in Europe, and not just for votes. Turkish imams in Germany have admitted to performing surveillance for the Turkish government, while Turkish intelligence created an app for Turkish-origin Germans to report suspected members of the Gulen movement.

Working with Qatar, Turkey is the top supporter of Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamist groups in the EU, and has hinted at using ultra-nationalists to carry out attacks on supposed enemies living in Europe. Finally, the Turkish state has supported a number of emerging pro-Muslim political parties, such as Denk in The Netherlands and Nyans in Sweden.

“Turkey is simply trying to destabilize the situation in European countries by using the diaspora,” Wasilewski told Ahval in a podcast. “Turkey is not behaving like a partner of the European Union; sometimes it is behaving like a hostile country.”

Turkish Cypriots might agree. Yet unlike the diaspora, Turkish Cypriots feel little connection to the so-called homeland and do not like being told what to do. “The Turkish Cypriot people do not have an understanding of allegiance,” Akıncı told Turkish news outlet T24 last week.

Again, on this issue, Turkish Cypriots appear to be torn between two views.

“They’re afraid of a federal Cyprus dominated by Nicosia and at the moment they’re afraid they’re going to be swallowed up by Turkey,” said Mullen. “Ultimately Turkish Cypriots want to be independent, one way or another.”

An early September survey by Gezici polling found 81% of those surveyed in TRNC supported the creation of two states. This should be taken with a grain of salt, as many Turkish Cypriots, like Baykalli, favor reunification, and the TRNC has been rife with polls this election season.

“There are so many polls saying so many different things,” said Mullen, adding that it made the upcoming vote all but impossible to predict.

She expected it to come down to a run-off, which would be held on Oct. 18, and saw Akinci and his prime minister, Ersin Tatar, as the two most likely to face off.

Tatar, whose campaign has promoted the idea of an independent Turkish Cypriot state, is likely Turkey’s preferred candidate, though Ankara is unlikely to make its view clear and risk a backlash. Mullen sees an Akinci victory as more likely to spur renewed settlement talks.

“The Greek Cypriots would be more willing to get back to the table if it’s Akinci,” said Mullen, adding that she had been skeptical of new talks until U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the EU’s Mediterranean states both in recent days called for a resolution.

When Akıncı first took office in 2015, the resolution process between the TRNC and the Greek Cypriot Administration made some progress until talks collapsed in 2017. If he were to win again, hope might be rekindled.

“Everyone is saying, after the Turkish Cypriot elections in October there ought to be a push,” she said. “There will be talks about talks, but I don’t know if we’ll get back to the table.”