The sovereignty of Northern Cyprus remains a pipe dream

Ersin Tatar, the Ankara-backed president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) said Turks in Cyprus deserve sovereignty, during a joint press event with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Friday.

This was the highlight of the day in the north of the ethnically divided Mediterranean island, which has long existed under the shadow of Turkey.

The remarks coincided with threats by Turkish authorities’ targeting a Turkish Cypriot top court calling for it to cancel its latest ruling on Koran courses in the country.

The constitutional court of the de-facto TRNC on Wednesday annulled a law, allowing Koran courses to be held by the Office of Religious Affairs, which acts under the influence of Turkey’s own Directorate of Religious Affairs, also known as Diyanet.

The court ruled that Koran education should be take place under state control and surveillance, in a decision that was met by backlash from the Turkish president.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the court would face consequences unless it quickly amends its mistake, noting that “there will be repercussions with (Ankara taking) different steps.”

Setting aside the reality that both Turkish media and authorities distorted the decision as claiming that the court banned Koran courses within the scope of secularism, Turkey’s intervention in the judiciary of another state is an act that compromises the independence of said state in the first place. 

It is an ambiguity to expect the U.N. to recognise northern Cyprus as an independent state and host a negotiation table seeking a two-state solution for the Cyprus issue, while making such a direct intervention in the internal affairs of an “independent” state, especially in its judiciary.

Since its foundation in 1983, the TRNC has been under the shadow rule of Turkey. Not just as the sole recogniser of the country, but also as a financial backer, Turkey used its all might and power to keep this de-facto state’s “governance” under control.

But over the last decade, Turkey’s dominance has become more tangible than ever. While hanging the Damocles’ sword over the heads of the Turkish Cypriot government leaders by way financial means, Turkey boosted its political and religious impositions on the TRNC, following a decades-long demographic re-shaping of the state through migration.

The practice of religion is a very sensitive issue for the Turkish Cypriots that has historical secular roots and the pressure by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) on Cypriot Turks over religious affairs is causing an increasing rage and fear among TRNC society, particularly the rise of religious education through unlicensed summer religious schools and Koran courses.

According to a Cyprus Turkish Teachers’ Union report in 2019, there are only 162 schools in the northern third of the island, in contrast to 212 mosques. Since 1974, when Cyprus has been divided by a Turkish invasion to oppose a Greek nationalist coup that aimed to unite the island with mainland Greece, only 19 new schools have been built in northern Cyprus.

Meanwhile, a total of 45 mosques have been built since AKP came to power in Turkey in 2002, according to the union.

Along with Erdoğan’s hardening attitude towards dissidents within the borders of Turkey, Turkish Cypriot dissidents are also experiencing a similar tendency.

A riot against AKP in January 2011 and as the prime minister of the time, Erdoğan’s response to the Turkish Cypriots as saying “Who are you, Turkey is the one who feeds you,” was a significant milestone in terms of the course of the relations between Erdoğan and the dissidents in the TRNC.

By 2015 that Mustafa Akıncı, Erdoğan’s longstanding opponent won the presidency in the TRNC, bilateral relations soured even more.

Following his inauguration, Akıncı’s calling for an amicable relationship in terms of equal states, rather than a “mother and baby” relation between Turkey and TRNC, Erdoğan’s discourse became rougher both against the Turkish Cypriots and their leadership.

Akıncı’s comments over Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” in northern Syria in 2019, was a peak point of the deteriorated relation between the parties.

“Now, even if we say Operation Peace Spring, what is being spilled is not water, it is blood. For this reason, it is my greatest wish that dialogue and diplomacy come into play as soon as possible," Akıncı said via social media.

His remarks sparked fury in Ankara, leading to explicit full support for Akıncı’s opponent, Tatar, the prime minister at the time in 2020 presidential elections.

Former TRNC President Akıncı’s stance over Cyprus problem was also a disputed issue between the two counterparts. While Akıncı was in favour of a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation in the island, Erdoğan, despite his previous position, sharply shifted his way towards a two-state solution, which was in the contrary of the U.N. resolutions in terms of a reunification.

Regardless of the protests by Akıncı’s and his supporters’, pro-Erdoğan Tatar won the office with Turkey’s full support (described by Akıncı as an “open intervention with all its institutions and resources”).

Akıncı’s statement that he had received threats from Turkish authorities against re-running in the elections is also worth nothing. 

Six months after the presidential elections of the TRNC that left many questions looming, the country is now facing another open intervention from Turkey, this time against its judiciary.

While Tatar and pro-Erdoğan Turkish Cypriot government immediately rolled up the sleeves to please Turkey over the Koran courses, political opposition and dissident civil society in the TRNC raised their voices against the threats to their top court, defending the rule of law and the freedom of judiciary.

To make a long story short, for those in Cyprus who frankly call for sovereignty, it is safe to say this is a pipe dream. Before urging the world to respect sovereignty, Turkey should ensure that it implements the principle by all means domestically.






The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.