President Mehmet Ali Talat is a good neighbor—and loyal friend—that Syria does not really know. The 54-year old former electrical engineer is now president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which controls the northern third of the island of Cyprus. It has been an autonomous state since Turkish intervention took place, to protect the Turkish Cypriot community, back in 1974.
For many years the world refused to recognize TRNC, offering official statehood recognition only to the “Republic of Cyprus.” The international community imposed an air, ground, and sea embargo on TRNC; only local and Turkish banks were allowed to operate on its territory while foreign companies were prohibited, under pressure from the Greek Cypriots. The Republic of Cyprus declared that degrees offered by TRNC universities were “illegal.” Even athletes wishing to attend international tournaments were denied the right, under claims that they did not represent a legal, official state. TRNC’s only friends were a handful of countries in the Islamic world, and Turkey.
Mehmet Ali Talat’s career runs parallel with that of TRNC. He studied electrical engineering at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, and became involved in student politics at a young age, playing an important role in establishing Turkish unions in Cyprus. He became minister of education in 1993, supervising his country’s finest commodity—academia—and drifted through government posts until becoming prime minister in 2004. Talat became prime minister in 2004 and won the presidential elections in his country on April 17, 2005, replacing former president Rauf Denktas.
In 2004, a famed referendum regarding a peace plan was held by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, aimed at unifying Cyprus in advance of its entry in the EU. Talat called on his citizens to vote “yes.” To some, uniting with the Greek Cypriots, under not-so-favorable conditions, was considered a concession. They were willing to make it, however, to end the prolonged isolation imposed on their country. The Anan Plan received overwhelming support in TRNC. The Greek Cypriot community, however, flatly rejected it.
Why is the world so misinformed about the status of TRNC?
First of all, I should stress the deep effect of the isolation of Turkish Cypriots. The isolation is so deep that, it is sometimes impossible for the international community to hear our voice. For the last 40 years, the Greek Cypriot side succeeded in disguising the Cyprus problem, which has been on the UN agenda since 1963. It did not start with the 1974 Turkish military intervention, which aborted a cup aimed at annexing Cyprus to the mainland Greece. When the Anan Plan came to the fore and was put to referendum, the real attitude of Turkish Cypriots was perceived. It was the Greek Cypriots who showed negativity toward unification not us.
Continuing to live in such conditions is practically impossible. There is an air, ground, and commercial embargo on TRNC. Unemployment is low because most young men are not returning to work in TRNC. What is the best solution for your country: federation, union, or continued autonomy?
The young people were leaving the TRNC until the referendum of 2004. Many things changed after Turkish Cypriots said that they were in-favor of the island’s unity. The amount of foreign direct investment has grown substantially and the immigration has ceased, if not reversed. Now, Turkish Cypriots are not leaving the island. So there is no danger of TRNC becoming a ghost country anymore. Our policy is clearly to unify the island. To find a solution under the auspices of the United Nations. This would be a federal solution, which will be based on two equal constituent states, and the political equality of the two peoples. Hence, the ultimate solution for Turkish Cypriots is the unification of the island.
What if the Turkish support drops, what would your government do?
To give a theoretical answer, if this ever happens, it will definitely be a disaster for the Turkish Cypriots. However, our relations with Turkey are so close and so deep that I do not think that such a development is even possible. We know that we need Turkey. Turkey has invested in Turkish Cypriots and their prosperity, so them deserting us is out of question.
TRCN is 99% Muslim. The Islam we find in TRCN is a secular
Islam. Veiling is almost invisible and some say that your
people are Muslim only when it comes it relations with “The Republic of Cyprus.” Is this correct? Can the world be encouraged to support this country, because it provides a moderate version of Islam?
Modern or moderate Islam might be the correct description of the religion in TRNC. This definitely can be presented, and if possible, marketed as an example for other Islamic countries. Turkish Cypriots are Muslims and at the same time, a modern, secular and Westernized community.
Syria is a close neighbor with TRNC. How can Syrian-TRNC
relations be boosted? Trade. Commerce. Passport recognition. Political representation?
We are neighbors with Syria. We have the same religion and like us Syria is a secular country. We had commercial relations in the past and there is potential to re-establish them today. In former times, there were ferry lines between Famagusta and Latakia, which were very important for our economy in order to reach other markets in the Middle East. Hence reviving the ferry connection between the two countries would boost trade and deliver a very strong support to the Turkish Cypriot economy. In addition, the Turkish Cypriot side should have a representation in Damascus to promote relations between the two countries, and economic, social and cultural ties of the two societies. Recognition of the TRNC passports would definitely boost bilateral relations and help end my country’s isolation.
Forward Magazine, March 2007