• Turkey has claimed all along that it stays in Cyprus to "protect" the Turkish Cypriot minority. Since Turkey has "protected" them, almost half of Turkish Cypriots have abandoned Cyprus. They have been conveniently replaced by Anatolian Turks whose Islamic orientation and ethos could not be more foreign to Cyprus.

  • If Turks are so keen on "saving" minorities, why have they not applied the same principles in Turkey to save their own Kurds?

  • With these circumstances in mind, it might be helpful to summarize the demands of the Turkish Cypriot minority and their patron, Turkey.

The Turkish Cypriots are sort of like the "Kurds" of Cyprus -- with the emphasis on the sort of. Like the Kurds in Turkey, the Turkish Cypriots are a sizeable minority in Cyprus -- and that may be just about where the similarity ends.

The Greek Cypriots, the original Cypriots, like the Kurds in Turkey, have a provenance that is deeply rooted in history.

They happen to have, in fact, an uninterrupted, well-documented Greek and Christian cultural footprint that dates back over three millennia. Modern Cyprus was born in 1960 out of geostrategic concerns after an anti-colonial struggle, the aim of which was union with Greece.

In Turkey, similarly to the Greeks in Cyprus, the Kurds who have lived mostly in north Kurdistan, the eastern part of the country, have a history as its indigenous people of over a thousand years.

The Turkish minority in Cyprus emerged only during the Ottoman occupation of Cyprus, between the late 16th and late 19th centuries. Since that time, the Turkish Cypriots lived scattered around the island. At present, the Turkish Cypriots form an 18% minority in Cyprus[1], roughly the same percentage as the Kurds' population in Turkey, estimated at 20%.

The democratic right of self-determination for Greek Cypriots was denied by the United Kingdom, the colonial power in Cyprus since the late 19th century. The UK, by pursuing a policy of "divide and conquer," brought Turkey into the picture as the "patron" of the minority. Then, in 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus. Since that invasion, the Turkish Cypriots live in the illegally occupied north of Cyprus, often in the homes left behind by the Greek Cypriots who fled to safety.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1960, two powerful NATO allies, the UK and Turkey, presented the Greek Cypriot majority with a charter on 'take-it-or-else' basis.

This crippled independence "offer" provided for three foreign guarantors of Cyprus's territorial integrity: the UK, Greece and Turkey. There would also be two sovereign military bases for the UK, as well as a constitution laden with innumerable, apartheid-like, bi-communal characteristics. These consisted of extraordinary privileges for the Turkish Cypriot minority, such as, for example, ethnically-based separate elections and a Turkish Cypriot legislative veto system that would enable a lock-down in communal and state politics by either a simple veto from the Turkish Cypriot vice-president or simple majority of the Turkish Cypriot representatives. In other words, a mere eight MPs out of a parliament of 50, with a 70%-30% Greek Cypriot -Turkish Cypriot makeup[2] could block any legislation.

And they did.

Although the Turkish Cypriots used to be called Muslim Cypriots, they are mostly secular and would identify themselves as Cypriot first. Many of them are Christian converts to Islam, due to the Ottoman era's tax system that favored Muslims. Most of them also spoke Greek, but that changed with the 1960 constitution, which separated the Greek and the Turkish communities by offering education exclusively in Greek and Turkish for each community.

The problem is that in Turkey, the Turks apparently want to prevent the minority of Kurds from having any rights at all, but in Cyprus, the Turks want the Greek majority to submit to be ruled by the Turkish minority. While Turkey continues to demand full political and cultural rights and privileges for the Turkish Cypriot minority on Cyprus, when it comes to its own Kurdish population inside Turkey, the Turks continue to bomb, gag, imprison, and culturally suppress the Kurds in every way for asking for even a fraction of those rights.

"Turkey is loudly championing the rights of Turkish Cypriots in the EU," Kirsty Hughes wrote in the New York Times back in 2006[3]. "But anyone who champions Kurdish rights in Turkey risks being accused of separatism and even terrorism."

Nothing has changed.

In Cyprus, according to a recent article[4] in the Turkish daily, Hürriyet, before 1974, over 80% of the land occupied by Turkey in northern Cyprus was Greek property. Greek Cypriot refugees, with their 19th century land registry property titles in hand, are still waiting to return to their literally within-sight, but inaccessible, ancestral towns and tracts of land. Despite Turkey's efforts to encourage the Greek Cypriots to sell, so far very few have done so. According to the Republic of Cyprus's land registry, only around 15% of all private property in Cyprus belongs to Turkish Cypriots.

In Turkey, there are no official records of property ownership or other statistics by ethnicity, so there is no way of knowing what percentage belongs to Kurds.

When the Republic of Turkey came into existence in 1923, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks and Kurds, both Sunni Muslims, had fought side-by-side, shedding blood for independence. The Kurds had evidently expected a joint state to be formed and equally shared. The Turks, however, took control of the entire state and began to pursue policies that would force assimilation. These included, among other things, a ban of the Kurdish language, the forced relocation of Kurds to non-Kurdish areas of Turkey, the banning of any opposing organizations, and the violent repression of any Kurdish resistance. The Kurds aptly refer to these practices as "cultural genocide".

During the past 90 years, tens of thousands of Kurds have died struggling for more rights, to no avail. In the Turkish school system, for instance, even the teaching of Kurdish is forbidden.

The Turkish researcher Fuat Dündar details the tactics of the Ankara governments to achieve the Kemalist goal of "one nation, one language, one country" in his 2000 book "Minorities in the Turkish Census"[5].

In Cyprus, many would agree that the historic, 82% Christian majority population should have had the right to chart its own future. The goals of the compromise solution, the Cyprus constitution, should have been two-fold: first, to secure Western geostrategic interests in the eastern Mediterranean; and second, to strike the right balance between majority and minority.

Sadly, it achieved only the former, with the British military bases being the only part of the 1960 deal that to this day maintain both their sovereignty and territorial integrity. In the words of constitutional law expert, Alexander Stanley de Smith[6][7], the Cyprus charter was "unique in its tortuous complexity, and in the multiplicity of the safeguards that it provides for the principal minority ... [it] stands alone among the constitutions of the world."

Unsurprisingly it did not take long for the new constitution to prove unworkable.

Unable to approve state budgets three years in a row, and faced with a plethora of religion-based segregationist demands, the Cypriot president -- with British encouragement , albeit duplicitous -- presented proposals for a constitutional overhaul. Sir Arthur Clark, the British High Commissioner in Cyprus in 1963, was directly involved with the modifications. He was ordered by London to overlook those amendments, in order that they "would affect as little as possible the Turkish interests."

In different reports and discussions in London, Sir Arthur Clark regarded the Cypriot president's proposed amendments of the most unworkable points of the constitution as totally logical and justified. London's deepest worry was, and still is, the status of the British bases in Cyprus. Clark and the British Government were fully aware of the Turkish plans and intentions, long before the December 1963 Turkish attacks. He had calculated accurately, however, that the Turkish Cypriots would use the Cypriot president's proposal as a pretext to proceed with their long-organized plan for partition.[8] Nevertheless, London never gave official approval to the final version of the "13 amendments"[9].

Indeed, the proposals did spark island-wide violence, which prompted the United Nations to send peacekeeping forces in 1964[10] . It also produced a policy of self-segregation[11], as UN Secretary General U Thant described it. The Turkish Cypriot community leaders committed themselves to physical and geographical separation of their community, and abstention from all political offices in an apparent attempt to undermine the new state.

The uneasy peace this produced was ended in 1974 by a brief failed coup instigated by Greece. Greece at the time was run by a military junta, since 1967. The Greek generals attempted to overthrow the elected Cypriot government and some Greek Cypriots in the paramilitary sided with the Greek military. Dozens of Greek Cypriots died in defending the president and the Republic, almost 100 in total. No Turkish Cypriots were involved or harmed. The junta fell a day after the Turkish invasion of July 20, 1974 (five days after the coup) and democracy was restored in Greece as a result.

This attempted coup offered Turkey the perfect pretext to execute a plan of "taksim", geographic division based on ethnic and religious lines. The sole legal premise for the invasion was to restore the constitutional order and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Cyprus. Although not a single Turkish Cypriot was harmed as a consequence of the coup, Turkey launched a massive military invasion, the repercussions of which were, to say the least, devastating. More than 1% of the population, or 6000 people, lost their lives, and for the first time in Cypriot history a purely ethnic-based geographic division was established.

The northern part of the island was ethnically cleansed of almost its entire population; all surviving Greek Christians fled south. In the subsequent months, the Turkish Cypriots living in the free southern part were encouraged to abandon their homes for a new life in the north. This organized "temporary" transfer was facilitated by the British and completed by 1975.

Despite the Turkish Cypriot policy of self-segregation in the 1960s and the 1974 invasion by Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus survived as the sole legitimate state, sovereign over the entire island, today a member not just of the United Nations but the European Union and the eurozone as well.

The status quo in the north of Cyprus is a self-declared state called the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (or "TRNC"), recognized only by Turkey, which maintains 40,000 troops there.

The European Union considers the entire island as part of its own territory. However, as the Republic of Cyprus authorities have no control over the Turkish-occupied northern part, the "acquis communautaire," or EU law, cannot be enforced pending a final resolution to the problem.

The UK, in violation of its own legal obligations, remained on the sidelines, enabling the Turkish invasion and throwing its full diplomatic support behind the legitimization of the "facts on the ground" ever since. From its perspective, any solution that preserves the vital military bases or entrenches the status quo is an acceptable solution.

Turkey remains involved in its ostensibly noble "protective" pursuits in Cyprus. Turkey has claimed all along that it is there to protect and save the Turkish Cypriot minority. This claim has been refuted by facts and experts alike. Since Turkey "saved" them, almost half of Turkish Cypriots have abandoned Cyprus and have been conveniently replaced by Anatolian Turks, whose Islamic orientation and ethos could not be more foreign to Cyprus.

Since the Turkish invasion of 1974, Turkey has implemented a systematic policy of colonization, in direct violation of the Geneva Conventions. It has been condemned by various international bodies, including twice by the Council of Europe, which in 2003 revisited the issue of settlers. The report produced by Jaakko Laakso was approved by an overwhelming majority. It stated that "it is a well-established fact that the demographic structure of the island has been continuously modified since the de facto partition of the island in 1974 as a result of the deliberate policies of the Turkish Cypriot administration and Turkey."[12] As a matter of fact, colonists today constitute more than half of the population in the occupied north.[13]

Turkey's objectives are obvious. It aims to change the demographic character and to distort the population balance on the island between Turks and Greeks, in the hope of gains at the bargaining table. It also shifts the balance of political power in the occupied part of Cyprus and influences the elections, since colonists are a different "breed" than the Turkish Cypriots and easily controlled. To that effect, the colonists have been given "citizenship", Greek Cypriot properties, "voting rights" and work permits.

In an interview[14], former Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat admitted the policy of colonization. He said that, "there were times when 'citizenship of the TRNC' had been given in restaurants. There are people who never came to Cyprus, yet they were given 'citizenship'."

But if Turks are so keen on "saving" minorities, why have they not applied the same principles in Turkey itself to save their own Kurds?

To agree to reunification, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots base their demands on two historical occurrences: the "rights" they legally secured in Cyprus's imposed charter of 1960, and the geographic division they secured via the unprecedented Turkish military invasion of 1974.

Under the United Nations and with European Union support, negotiations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are once again in full swing. They aim to produce a plan, by early 2016 preferably, to reintegrate Turkish Cypriots back into the international community under a Cyprus bi-zonal federal structure.

With these circumstances in mind, it might be helpful to summarize the demands of the Turkish Cypriot minority and their patron, Turkey. They demand:

  • The end of the Republic of Cyprus as a legal entity and its replacement with a brand new federal state based on a 50-50% partnership between the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority
  • An autonomous zone/state on stolen Greek Christian land
  • A guaranteed Muslim majority in the "Turkish Cypriot state"
  • Recognition of the "Turkish Cypriot state" under international law, much like in a confederation arrangement, making secession easier if/when warranted
  • Universal veto rights for all federal decisions, implying that Turkish Cypriots would have to approve every decision the federation makes
  • 50-50% representation in the upper house of the federation
  • Over-representation in federal state positions up to two and a half times their population numbers
  • Full exclusive education in Turkish for their community, without learning Greek, the majority's language
  • Half of all hydrocarbons and natural resources of Cyprus, the only finds of which have been in the southern waters controlled by the legitimate government of the Republic of Cyprus
  • The naturalization of all illegal Turkish settlers who have been granted the pseudo-state's "citizenship"
  • Automatic accession of the "Turkish Cypriot state" to the EU, which the Republic of Cyprus secured in 2004.
  • Eternal say by proxy, and presence of "Turkey" in Cypriot affairs, and by extension in those of the European Union

These would seem to be extraordinary demands indeed for any ethnic minority anywhere.

Many would agree that it is one thing to stand for the respect of the human, political and cultural rights of people and communities, but it is totally another to allow a minority to dictate the fate of an entire nation. Since 1960, the majority Greek Cypriots have felt hostage to what they regard a sort of tyranny by an 18% minority.

What if the 20% Kurds of Turkey were to follow the Turkish Cypriot example and demand for themselves "rights" commensurate to those demanded by the Turks in Cyprus? What if Turkey's Kurds, as preconditions to lay down their arms and drop all talk of an independent Kurdistan, applied the same Turkish logic to Turkey's majority-minority dispute?

Kurds, after all, fought alongside the Turkish majority for independence, and they have a historic claim as the native people of the entire east of the country. Turkish Cypriots can make no such claims.

This might be a hypothetical list of the Kurds' demands:

  • The end of the Republic of Turkey as a legal entity and its replacement with a brand new federal state based on a 50-50% partnership between the Turkish majority and Kurdish minority
  • An autonomous state in the east on what historically constitutes Kurdish land as well as autonomous zones in every major district in Turkey that has a sizable Kurdish population, with forced relocations of ethnic Turks where necessary
  • Safeguards that their autonomous state/zones shall have guaranteed Kurdish majority
  • Recognition of the "Kurdish state" under international law, much like in a confederation arrangement, enabling it to secede if/when warranted
  • Universal veto rights for all federal decisions, implying that Kurds would have to approve every decision the federation makes
  • 50-50% representation in the upper house of the federation
  • Over-representation in state apparatus up to two and a half times Kurds' actual numerical numbers; in other words, that Kurds would have guaranteed representation in state positions well above their population proportion
  • Full exclusive education in Kurdish, which would become an official language of the new federation, along with Turkish; in other words, Kurds would be educated exclusively in Kurdish and Turks exclusively in Turkish, without either learning the other's language
  • The right to half of all hydrocarbons and natural resources of the country
  • The naturalization of millions of Kurds from other parts of Kurdistan
  • Eternal say and presence by outsiders, NATO perhaps, in Turkish affairs to ensure that the state would not recede to methods of the past of cultural assimilation and physical extermination

Would Turks regard such demands as logical and acceptable? How would the average Turk feel if the HDP, the Kurdish party that in the recent general elections in Turkey entered parliament by surpassing for the first time the 10% threshold[15], explicitly stated these demands from the Turkish state?

The truth is Turkey has always considered notions of political and cultural equality a threat to its indivisibility as a nation. Throughout Turkey's existence, even more so perhaps today, most, if not all, ethnic Turkish politicians deny Kurds not just political status and autonomy in Kurdish majority areas but even their human rights, in a manner that bears the hallmarks of systematic persecution intent on destroying the Kurdish identity, all on the basis of the need to preserve the nation's unity.

The Kurd in Turkey cannot be educated in Kurdish, cannot learn it in public schools, cannot make use of it in an official capacity and cannot even find government websites in Kurdish. The Kurd in Turkey faces torture, repression, discrimination and denial of freedom of expression and association. The Kurd in Turkey cannot even grant her child a Kurdish name if such name entails a letter that does not exist in the Turkish alphabet. As a result, three letters, 'Q', 'W' and 'X' have become a symbol for the uniqueness of Kurdish identity.

The Turks see one people and one nation in Turkey, but they see two in Cyprus; they see one language in Turkey, but they see two in Cyprus; they see one indivisible land in 'bizonal-by-history' Turkey, but they see two states in 'bizonal-by-ethnic-cleansing' Cyprus; they see a minority in Turkey, but they see two equal communities in Cyprus. Turkey has insisted, since the 1920s, on a policy of forced assimilation for the Kurds and other smaller minorities, but they regard as anathema any proposition for Turkish Cypriot integration. They see majoritarian democracy as the only solution in Turkey, but they cannot contemplate anything different than political equality in Cyprus, which they interpret as a 50-50 share of everything, from power, to property, to resources, to political and cultural rights.

Both the Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus and the Kurds in Turkey want, at a minimum, respect for their legitimate rights as large ethnic communities within the borders where they live and share. Finding a fair and reasonable way to balance the rights of a large ethnic minority community with the rights of the majority should be the goal in both countries.

Equally puzzling to Turkish double standards is the Turkish Cypriots' silence with respect to the Kurdish struggle for political status, autonomy and cultural equality -- the very rights they consider "sacred" for themselves.

It is as if there is a sort of Turkish omertà (code of silence) in exchange for the military and financial support they receive. With one Turkish soldier for every two Turkish Cypriots stationed in occupied Cyprus, and at a subsidy of a billion Turkish liras a year[16], that is the way it looks.

It would be sensible if the same universally accepted principles were employed to address what is essentially the same political problem, for the sake of all peoples concerned.

Regrettably, we can be optimistic neither about the future of the Kurds in Turkey nor for a successful conclusion to the latest round of the Cyprus negotiations for a truly just and viable settlement.

It feels as if the largest nation in the region is abusing its only indisputable Western credential, that of NATO membership, to apply a contradictory set of principles to the rights of two large ethnic minorities.

Conversely, the most powerful alliance in the world, NATO, conveniently looks the other way, like a modern Pontius Pilate, while its third most powerful member abuses its military might to enforce an illicit nationalist agenda. Turkey, however, may not manage much longer to keep this split in its values regarding sizable ethnic minorities at home and abroad out of the public debate.

Kyriacos Kyriakides is a political activist, current events expert and blogger based in Limassol, Cyprus. He hopes that by juxtaposing the Cyprus and Kurdish issues, a common understanding can be reached to solve both on the basis of universally accepted principles. He blogs in English and Greek. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


[1] The 82% Greek Cypriot majority also includes three other small Greek-educated minorities that the constitution recognizes: the Armenians, the Latins and the Maronites, which altogether count for close to 4%.

[2] 15 Turkish Cypriot MPs, 35 Greek Cypriots in a 50-member parliament

[3] "The Cypriots and the Kurds," by Kirsty Hughes, International Herald Tribune, November 14, 2006.

[4] "KKTC'de mülkiyet kaosu," Ömer BİLGE / LEFKOŞA, 31 Temmuz 2015

[5] Fuat Dündar, "Türkiye Nüfus Sayimlarinda Azinliklar" (Minorities in the Turkish Census), Istanbul: Çivi, 2000. (Translated in Greek in 2003 by Infognomon).

[6] Republic of Cyprus: Core document on Cyprus drawn up in accordance with General Assembly resolution 45/85 and the consolidated guidelines for the initial part of the reports of States parties (document HRI/991/1) - May 2008

[7] Cyprus: Sui Generis, The New Commonwealth and its Constitutions, 1964, Pages: 282-296, Publisher: Stevens & Sons, Authors De Smith, Alexander Stanley

[8] Bloody Truth, C6: "The 13 Points", page 326

[9] Suggested measures for facilitating the smooth functioning of the state and for the removal of certain causes of inter-communal friction (1963), President of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, 30 November 1963.

[10] These forces are still in place today. UNFICYP, as they are called, is one of the longest-running UN peacekeeping missions.

[11] "Turkish Cypriot leadership is committed to physical and geographical separation of the communities as a political goal, it is not likely to encourage activities by Turkish Cypriots which may be interpreted as demonstrating the merits of an alternative policy. The result has been a seemingly deliberate policy of self-segregation by the Turkish Cypriots (S/6426, Report of 10.6.1965, p. 271)".

[12] "Colonisation by Turkish settlers of the occupied part of Cyprus," Doc. 9799, 2 May 2003, Report Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography, Rapporteur: Jaakko Laakso, Finland, Group of the Unified Left.

[13] "In 2011, the resident population was reported at 286,257 (excluding the Turkish army), of which 'TRNC' citizens amounted to 190,494 (66.5% of the resident population) [with] what might be termed the indigenous Turkish Cypriot population around 136,000 people, or 47.6% of the total resident population.", in-cyprus.com, 'Northern Cyprus demographics: who is voting?' by Fiona Mullen — 25/04/2015.

[14] Interview to the Turkish Cypriot daily "VATAN" (24/10/05).

[15] HDP scored 13.1% in the 2015 general elections, which made it the 4th party to enter parliament with 80 deputies, the same as MHP nationalist party.

[16] Roughly 350 million US dollars at today's exchange rate, or 500 million less than a year ago.

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