The Cyprus Crucible: The Importance of Good Timing

By Rotberg, Robert | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

The Cyprus Crucible: The Importance of Good Timing


Rotberg, Robert, Harvard International Review


Turkish President Kemal Ataturk, a consummate leader, appreciated the importance of an acute sense of timing in pursuit of larger national objectives. Encouraged by chauvinists among his Turkish compatriots before he signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 with France and Britain, Ataturk easily could have demanded and fought for control over the Ottoman province of Mosul--located in modern Iraq--and its oil. Turkish irredentism would have been satisfied by such claims, and Ataturk's already heightened post-World War I popularity would have soared. At that time, Ataturk's standing in the minds and hearts of Turks was not unassailable. There were strong opposition politicians, reluctant traditionalists, and envious comrades he had to fear and win over on his way to becoming an icon. But Ataturk resisted short-term political rewards in order to seek stronger ties with Europe. He knew that the larger aim of modernizing Turkey could only be achieved with Western backing; winning that support meant sacrificing some parts of what could be construed as the new Turkey's national interest. It also demonstrated an acute strategic sense of what would prove most sustainable in those tumultuous and quixotic months after the end of World War I before the conclusion of a permanent peace.

In contemporary North Cyprus, Rauf Denktash, president of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC), which is recognized only by Turkey, has for three decades pursued a set of more and more carefully refined goals for himself and his people. Over those decades, his acutely tuned tactical senses, combined with a sharp notion of timing, have greatly strengthened an originally weak bargaining hand. Resistance and delay, plus incrementally escalating demands, have buttressed Turkish Cypriot identity, altered the long-running debate over the furore of the Cypriot isle, and produced unquestioned political and economic support for Denktash and his policies within both the Turkish Cypriot enclave and Turkey. His adroit gamesmanship and deft timing have produced many gains for the Turkish-speaking section of Cyprus. But has he now missed his best opportunities? Has the master's grip on timing slipped, and has he therefore forfeited the mantle of leadership? Do massive protests in early 2003 in North Cyprus indicate that Denktash has lost his last best chance to create a recognized polity alongside Greek-speaking South Cyprus? Moreover, has he diminished his and North Cyprus's utility, to the Turkish motherland?

An Island Adrift

Cyprus, fought over even before Alexander the Great's era, was an outlying province of Venice from the late 15th century through the late 16th century, when Ottoman forces laid siege to Nicosia and Famagusta. The Ottoman Empire controlled the island until 1878, when it ceded Cyprus to Britain, an annexation formalized in 1914. Greek Orthodoxy, strong under Ottoman rule, flourished under the Empire. So did a local version of Islam; both Greek and Turkish languages persisted under the Crown, while English became the tongue of those of both backgrounds who sought preferment in their professions or in the British administrative service on the island. Most important of all, Turkish and Greek Cypriots shared the same land. Segregation was not the rule, although farming villages were often monolingual. Yet Turkish Cypriots lived in the Paphos region in the southwest, along the south coast in the cities such as Limassol, and throughout Nicosia when it was a single municipality. Under British rule, educated Cypriots received their secondary education in an English-medium institution, had the ability to speak Greek even if they were of Turkish-speaking descent (Greek speakers were far more numerous on the island), and sought further training in London as much as in Athens and more than in Istanbul or Ankara. The common language, the common law, an inkling of representative democracy, and perceived Europeanness were all fundamental to a 20th century Cypriot intimation of proto-nationhood.

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