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 future 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.

Cyprus under British rule also remained predominantly agricultural. Belonging started in the villages, where the Church in the 20th century grew unusually powerful. Enosis (union with Greece) became first a spiritual dream and later a political strategy of the Church and military rulers in Greece itself. It provided one path to post-imperial independence and a sure method of freeing Greek-speaking Cyprus from the long-held fear of being recaptured by post-Ottoman Turkey. Achieving those objectives would also boost the power of the Orthodox Church; beginning in the 1950s, future Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios III, a temporal and religious leader, sought to control the political and economic future of the island. Makarios saw himself as a freedom fighter, but he was a power-maximizer for the Hellenic cause, the Church, and himself.

After India gained independence in 1948, the dismantling of the British Empire proceeded apace. But Britain opted for a studied withdrawal from the administration of the island by 1960, after five years of Greek Cypriot and Greek mainland agitation, violence fomented by EOKA (National Organization of Cypriot Fighters) and attacks by EOKA against Turkish Cypriots.

The Republic of Cyprus came into being with provisions for a permanent Greek-speaking president, Makarios, and a Turkish-speaking vice-president. In order to preserve its language, culture, heritage, and political saliency, the Turkish Cypriot minority was intended to have a veto over legislation and budgets. According to the 1960 independence agreement, Britain, Greece, and Turkey were guarantors of the new constitution, so as to protect the rights of the minority from being trampled upon. Enosis was specifically forbidden.

This carefully constructed, imposed, quasi-democratic arrangement never worked. By late 1963, it was fully evident that Greek Cypriot leadership wanted to subject Turkish Cypriots to the will of the Greek-speaking majority. The drive for enosis continued. The presidency became more powerful. Ethnic cleansing became more prevalent during early 1964. The United Nations was compelled to send its first peacekeeping mission to Cyprus in that year in order to protect Turkish Cypriots who had gathered in Turkish-speaking enclaves north of what became the Green Line across the northern half of the island.
Squaring the Circle
The people of Cyprus were more or less already separated (where once they had been integrated) when Nicos Sampson, a guerrilla fighter and publisher, forcibly ousted Makarios in 1974 with help from a mainland Greece-backed military operation. Turkish troops, no longer restrained by US pleas and promises, crossed the waters from the Turkish mainland to prevent Cyprus from joining Greece and to protect their fellow Muslims and Turkish-speakers from being swept up into the Greek maw. Ultimately, about 18 percent of the islanders came to control nearly 38 percent of the land of the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, backed by 35,000 Turkish soldiers. Greek speakers from the North fled south; the remaining Turkish speakers in the South went north. The Green Line demarcated Greek Cypriot- and Turkish-controlled territory. Only very occasional border incidents have since challenged the mostly peaceful de facto partition of the island.

Since the late 1960s, Denktash has led Turkish Cypriot resistance to Greek Cypriot assertions of hegemony and to the continued legitimacy of the 1960 Republic of Cyprus. His own TRNC developed slowly, in stages, finally flowering in its contemporary form in 1983. Ever since, Denktash has told almost everyone who cared to ask—the United Nations, the great powers, Turkey, Greece, and South Cyprus—that in order to prevent a recrudescence of the atrocities of the 1960s, the TRNC would never agree to put itself “under” a Greek Cypriot majority on the island. In order to establish the equal sovereignty of the Turkish-speaking part of the island, he demanded recognition before negotiation. The official mantra was bizonal and bicommunal; Denktash saw annexation to Turkey as a plausible alternative to any failure to be recognized as the head of a legitimate polity. Greek Cypriots always insisted that they had been invaded and that a large part of their territory and their island-wide authority had been snatched by Turkish force, claims that made Denktash’s demands virtually impossible to entertain. How could the circle be squared?

By mid-2002, a reasonably satisfactory method had been found at least to divide the circle into portions for each side. After long and patient Track One negotiations brokered by the UN Special Envoy Alvaro de Soto and equally laborious Track Two discussions over several years among politically prominent and very well-informed Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, the major details of a settlement emerged. The two parts of Cyprus (usually referred to as entities or polities, but not as states, so as to avoid bruising Greek Cypriot sensitivities) would come together to compose a United Cyprus Federation or some similarly-named central governing body. The two component entities would retain control over internal affairs, internal education, local policing, and local budgets and taxes. The central government would control foreign affairs, a central banking system, island-wide taxes, immigration to the island, shipping and fisheries, environmental issues, and other common matters. There would be a central judicial system with appellate authority over the court systems in the two entities.

This governmental edifice would be run from the center by a legislative lower house or assembly whose members would be elected by proportional or preferential voting, roughly on the basis of population. That is, Greek-speakers, comprising 80 percent of the island’s population, might have 65 or 75 percent of the seats in the legislature. The upper house, or senate, would be comprised of equal numbers of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots; it could exercise a veto over legislation. The executive authority on the island was expected to be either a rotating presidency, with the presidents coming from the Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking sections of the island, a joint presidency, or a ceremonial joint or rotating presidency combined with a legislatively-chosen prime minister.

Three major issues of enormous contention in mid-2002 and continuing well into 2003 were territorial exchanges, population transfers, and the right of return. Briefly, it appeared to make negotiating sense that the Turkish Cypriots would return to the South perhaps 10 percent of the 38 percent of the island that they had controlled since 1974. A number of Greek-speakers would be permitted to move north, even into the territory of the Turkish-speaking entity. There could be a regulated theoretical right of return (of Greek Cypriots to their former homes in the north, and Turkish Cypriots to the south), the fine details of which had to be negotiated after a settlement. The implementation of these difficult issues could be delegated to a special commission.

There were many other issues separating the two sides. But, by October 2002, the makings of a settlement were in place. Together, they arguably could have (and still can) provide a reasonable basis for both entities on the island to live harmoniously, with just enough separation and autonomy to dampen the fears of Turkish Cypriots that they would again be submerged under a Greek-speaking tide. Moreover, since South Cyprus in 2002 was at least seven times wealthier per capita than North Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots would obviously be able to prosper under the proposed new arrangements. Indeed, since the entire island (or South Cyprus alone) was accepted into the European Union later in 2002, the potential carrot of assistance from the European Union to North Cyprus was a further incentive to forge an agreement.

When the United Nations tabled its elaborate “Basis for Agreement on a Comprehensive Settlement of the Cyprus Problem” in November 2002, Denktash and President Glafcos Clerides of the Republic of Cyprus (South Cyprus) were asked effectively to accept all of its many conditions. Both agreed to negotiate, but Denktash continued to resist agreeing to the terms set by the United Nations well into March 2003, even after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had come to the island and had told both presidents (Denktash and Tassos Papadopoulos, a former EOKA fighter who replaced Clerides) essentially to take an amended version of the “Basis” or leave it. Denktash had not achieved prior recognition of TRNC as a sovereign entity. Nor will he, no matter how hard he bargains with the United Nations and South Cyprus. Both north and south naturally sought more or less territory, more or fewer people exchanges, and also contested how many Greek speakers could live (and vote) in the north. Then there was the need to agree upon the number of settlers from the Turkish mainland who could or would be regarded as citizens of the Turkish-speaking entity.

But by the time UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited the island to consider these issues, Denktash’s leadership had undergone two crises of legitimacy. First, as many as 60,000 people—between one-third and one-half of the total population of North Cyprus and a clear majority of the Cypriot-born Turkish Cypriots—protested vociferously against Denktash’s leadership. They held rallies in Nicosia, marched in the streets, and demanded Denktash’s resignation. The left-leaning parties in North Cyprus led the protestors and, with an unprecedented surge of educated popular opinion at their back, urged Denktash to accept the UN plan. The protests were noted, especially in Turkey.

Second, Denktash’s legitimacy in the motherland, unquestioned for 30 years, was undermined by political changes in Turkey. In August 2002, his long-time allies in Turkish politics lost credibility. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and his followers were compelled to call early national elections to resolve a deep economic and social schism in Turkish national life. Elections in November 2002 annihilated the parties that had governed Turkey since World War II and produced an unprecedented majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite the Islamist heritage of the AKP, Erdogan and the AKP were determinedly modernist. They were focused ultimately on becoming European and joining the European Union, despite hesitancy by France, Germany, and Belgium. Unlike other Turkish governments since 1974, they were less impressed by Denktash than by the protestors and not particularly worried about a unified Cyprus becoming a security threat to the much larger and militarily potent mainland. They signaled a willingness to sacrifice Denktash and the recognition question on the altar of Turkey’s larger European and modernist goals. After all, Cypriot Turkish speakers represented only a tiny fraction of Turkey’s 67 million inhabitants. Moreover, under the UN plan, Turkey would remain a guarantor of the agreement.
A Legacy Lingers
Denktash demonstrated a high order of leadership skills from 1960 through mid-2002. He mobilized his followers to resist Greek Cypriot attempts to marginalize and terrorize them, to drive Greek Cypriots from the island, and to deprive them of a lasting place on the island that they called home. He had marshaled mainland Turkish support in the form of massive loans from the Turkish government for Turkish Cypriots and for his government, gradually built up his own status from that of a pasha of a minor, easily ignored, satrapy, and become a formidable if unrecognized world statesman of a troublesome but real polity. He gradually molded and strengthened the TRNC and, despite easily derided pretensions, won it acceptance as an entity that could not be ignored. Throughout the 14 months of UN-brokered negotiations, Denktash was accorded effectively equal status with President Clerides.

Denktash, moreover, was and is a formidable negotiator—to the exasperation of Clerides and the United Nations. He put forward demands in the 1980s that the United Nations and South Cyprus later granted, but by the time that they were met, new demands had superseded the old. So as he gained some advantage, Denktash sought more. As the player with the theoretically weaker hand, but with the strong support of 35,000 Turkish troops, Denktash was able to move forward relentlessly. Despite the Republic of Cyprus’s legal authority for the island internationally, the TRNC was able to carve out more and more local and international space for itself.

Yet Denktash could not or would not take the final step when it came time to capitalize on his successes, making him reminiscent of Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000. It was the moment to become an unquestioned hero, as unofficial visitors to his residency urged him steadily in late 2002. So did official representatives from Washington, London, and Brussels, as well as Annan, in frequent bedside visits during Denktash’s hospitalization in New York at the time of his successful heart bypass operation.

Denktash, a consummate leader for so many years, was unable to let go. Even when he was warned that Turkey no longer needed him and North Cyprus as a bargaining chip with or against Europe, he refused to accept the possibility of being sacrificed on the altar of a larger, Turkish, national interest. As a result, in 2002 he forfeited a critical and irreplaceable opportunity to become a peacemaker—to be party to a conclusive agreement and, potentially, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize along with Clerides. When the official UN-brokered discussions ceased in March 2003, both Papadopoulos and Denktash were still registering reservations to the third iteration of the UN plan. Denktash determinably, and Papadopoulos with reservations, were refusing to accede to Annan’s call to present the plan in its entirety to the people on both sides for separate referenda ratifications. Denktash, intransigent, was still demanding recognition.

In the short term, Denktash’s calculated and implacable resistance to a settlement could be defended as necessary to buttress the security of the beleaguered Turkish Cypriot people. He could, and did, claim a kind of victory. But it was a hollow and, likely, a Pyrrhic one, for thousands of Turkish Cypriots had come to reject his leadership and his legitimacy, which had never before been seriously questioned. Prime Minister Erdogan—as he became in March 2003—also indicated that in the aftermath of the Iraqi war, he would be prepared to trade North Cyprus for a future place in Europe. His belated support of Denktash at the final meeting with Annan in March appeared tactical, and temporary. The European Union, for its part, made it perfectly evident that South Cyprus would become a member on schedule, divided or not, and that Turkey’s own candidacy could well depend on how it handled the future of North Cyprus.

Denktash had won the battle, but almost certainly, and decisively, he had lost the war. As many would-be autocrats before him had discovered—such as Ian Smith in Rhodesia, Dirk Mudge in Namibia, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire/Congo, Raoul Cedras in Haiti, Sani Abacha in Nigeria, and Muhammad Omar in Afghanistan—there comes an auspicious moment when unrecognized, unpopular, and illegitimate regimes must accommodate or respond to external pressures and realities. There is a moment when it is still possible to make satisfactory arrangements capable of preserving some measure of one’s power and authority. Missing that opportune moment often means an abrupt fall, and the loss of all influence. The fact that Denktash cannot see around the final corner erodes his constituency base, vitiates the reach of his charisma, and undermines his legacy as a shrewd and effective leader. A king on the local chessboard, Denktash has become an easily traded pawn in a much larger game.