Are we to replace the known dangers of an ethno-national conflict in Cyprus with a new Cypriot nationalism, one that promotes the old xenophobic trope of the ‘Terrible Turk’?

The politics of gratitude is alive and well in Cyprus. In February, a remark by a fellow Turkish-Cypriot appeared in the Cyprus Mail (published in the Greek-Cypriot South), asserting that “Turkey wants Turkish Cypriots to constantly feel indebted, to have gratitude”. As disturbing as the comment, is the concept of a constant desire to never feel indebted, to never have gratitude, and to perpetually seek ulterior motives in others in a cynical fashion. These are of course two extremes that ought to be avoided, and both must be considered as crude observations emanating from both the Turkish-Cypriot and the Turkish camp. In an attempt to position themselves against each other, some Turks and Turkish-Cypriots in fact mirror each other: they are occasionally unified by careless and rash one-liners that provoke needless controversy, especially over social media.

The problem runs even deeper, however. The reason it deserves attention is the polarisation that is at play, and, crucially, the dangers of said polarisation to democracy, and for the prospects of the sustainable, mutually-beneficial peace for all stakeholders involved in the dispute. 

Firstly, the remark above is excessively reductionist. Interactions between Turkish-Cypriots and Turks are not dominated by a constant demand for gratitude; this is an erroneous abstraction with weak explanatory power, one that can never explain all facets of a relationship, or account for all interactions over time. In fact, the more one follows the assertion to its logical end, the more absurd it becomes. Such flights of rhetoric simplify and distort the nature of the bond between Turks and Turkish-Cypriots (or Cypriot Turks, as read in the Turkish), and the common cause they share: a bi-zonal, bi-communal federal Cyprus with two constituent states, and political equality between Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots. 

"Our collective history"

In other words, Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots are in the same boat: neither desires for the Turkish-Cypriot community to become an impotent minority on the island with a new set of dependencies. These dependencies are now unsurprising, given both the historical development of Cyprus Issue and the long-standing, intermittent, and ultimately unsuccessful settlement talks on the island. Remember, too, that Turkey vied for an independent, non-aligned Republic of Cyprus, the one that emerged in 1960, with a power-sharing mechanism between the two largest communities on the island. The role of the then Turkish Foreign Minister, Fatin Rustu Zorlu, in that endeavour, of what then became a ‘reluctant Republic’, is an interesting part of our collective history.

‘Dependency’ of course panders to established Turkish-Cypriot sensitivities regarding their political agency with both Turkey and the Greek-Cypriots; a question that must always be read in light of the history of the Cyprus Issue. Curiously, dependency vis-à-vis the Greek Cypriot community may sometimes be omitted. The said article referred also to a ‘slave-master’ relationship between Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots. Consider at this juncture how President Mustafa Akinci of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), himself reasoned, as per the released transcript of an interview with The Guardian, that “[…] we have a special relationship [with Turkey], I surely need not have to remind you that the only country that recognises us and supports the Turkish Cypriots is Turkey”. In his most recent election campaign, Akinci also referred to the stance of the Greek-Cypriot leadership as a source of the Turkish-Cypriot’s isolation in the international community, and therefore any dependence on Turkey. Thoughtfulness abates the outrage.  

Though President Akinci has certainly made recent statements that have raised eyebrows in both Cyprus and Turkey, he has also lately shown that one can guard and be proud of one’s Turkish-Cypriot identity without conceit. One can still caution on economic dependence and demographic change as per Akinci, but still have the foresight, the goodness, and the honour to say that: “We as Cypriot Turks cannot have anything else to give Turkey apart from love. From our community, only people who want good for Turkey emerge”, or “[...] I view Turkey as a brother and a friend. I want not just the North of Cyprus but with the South the whole of Cyprus to become a friendly geography for Turkey”.

Second, the assertion that “Turkey wants Turkish Cypriots to constantly feel indebted, to have gratitude” creates a binary (the backbone of polarisation), where one side is vilified and the other is presented as an innocent victim, powered over and blackmailed in all instances by the ‘Other’. Have we not learned in Cyprus the pitfalls of such binaries? Are we to replace the known dangers of ethno-national conflict in Cyprus with a new Cypriot nationalism, one that promotes the old xenophobic trope of the ‘Terrible Turk’? Credit (read ‘gratitude’), must be given where credit is due. But it must also be done proportionally, not in broad-brush, sweeping generalising statements that either demonise or romanticise entire populations in one fell swoop.

Third, there is a pathology to the idea that plays on related Turkish-Cypriot sensitivities with regards to the notions of dependence and independence. The more this pathological Sword of Damocles is hung over one’s head, the more outrage is felt, and the more backlash occurs, especially if the matter is made one of personal agency. The danger here is that emotion is placed far ahead of a more nuanced, rational, and objective discourse, where the anger provoked aids and abets polarisation. In turn, polarisation is detrimental to public policy, and therefore democracy. 

Fourth, the Turkish voice is also essentially being silenced. Oftentimes in conversation with Turkish nationals, one is asked “why are some hostile to us?” or “why did such and such a politician say that?”. These are legitimate questions, ones that should form the basis of the rational, constructive, and, ultimately, a mutually beneficial relationship. 

There are those who tend to draw glee and satisfaction at any and all gulfs that may have existed in the past, the present, or potentially in the future, between Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriots. The excitement is myopic. Consider here another remark again in the Cyprus Mail, where a Greek-Cypriot author explains that “the shortest road to our security and prosperity is solving our problems with Turkey”, that in Cyprus, “diplomacy is an industry of fear, negativity and prejudice, aimed at perpetuating rather than solving problems”. What must be assuaged at diplomatic level should also be reneged at the interpersonal level. 

The humbling reality is that Cyprus has never existed, nor will it exist, in a political vacuum given its mutual exclusion from developments around the world. At a time where cooperation and understanding among all relevant stakeholders to the Cyprus Problem is dearly needed, the clamour for rights must come with an awareness of collective responsibilities. We are now, and will all continue to be, dependent on each other in some form or another for our peace, security, and prosperity. It should not be a one-way street, but if this is the ultimate prize, the Turkish-Cypriot community has an almighty role to play as the conduit between Turkey and the Greek-Cypriots. Consider, too, the ‘Cyprus Peace Dividend’ that is at stake for all. The extreme idealism of acting without due consideration for the "other" would not help in breaking the cycle of polarisation.