By Simon Bahceli
AS thousands of Turks dug in yesterday for a weekend of anti-government demonstrations, so far, politicians in the north have remained silent on the unfolding events in Turkey over the past ten days.
Similarly, ordinary Turkish Cypriots have for the most part been quiet, although most would likely feel a sense of empathy, and even allegiance, with Turks protesting against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic style of government, having experienced it first-hand themselves.
In 2011, when police waded into a group of peaceful male and female protesters and began beating them with sticks and their fists, Turkish Cypriots got their first real taste of just how serious an act it was to offend Erdogan.
What precipitated the beatings was that some of the demonstrators had been carrying banners addressing Erdogan directly, telling him, not so politely, what he could do with the financial aid that Ankara has been using to prop up the breakaway state since its inception.
That was on July 19 in 2011, and Erdogan had just arrived in Cyprus on the eve of celebrations for the 37th anniversary of the Turkish invasion.
Prior to his visit, he had already become a hate figure among Turkish Cypriots, having earlier branded them “ungrateful dependents” of Turkish aid. His later suggestion that the breakaway state’s authorities should consider imprisoning the tens of thousands who had demonstrated in the spring of that year against economic austerity measures being remotely enforced from Ankara didn’t go down well either.
And when a video of the police violence of July 19 emerged on YouTube, people wondered in shock and anger why the police were acting as if the demonstrators had desecrated images of the nation’s founding father Kemal Ataturk, or burnt the Turkish flag (acts that everyone knows are tantamount to suicide in the Turkish world).
In the two years that ensued, demonstrations against him and newspaper articles criticising him and his policies in northern Cyprus had all but disappeared. Journalists self-censored and politicians kept their mouths shut for fear of Erdogan’s wrath or, worse still, a prison cell. Whatever complaints the Turkish Cypriots now had, they directed at their own politicians. Shooting Erdogan’s messenger became a game that has so far seen out two ‘governments’, with the second being forced to resign just this week.
It goes without saying that Erodgan and his AK party have had a profound impact on life in the north. When he came to power in Turkey in 2002, one of the first things he did was to declare Turkey’s policy on the enclave up for review, saying that the foreign ministry’s former mindset that the Cyprus problem had been solved in 1974 was now considered defunct. It was Erdogan who set the ball rolling that led to the 2004 Annan plan referendum. And it was Erdogan who persuaded Turkish immigrants to vote with the Turkish Cypriots to say ‘yes’ to the plan, and for them to elect moderate Mehmet Ali Talat as leader.
But later it was Talat’s relationship with Erdogan that lost him, first his credibility as a leader, and then his position. Similarly, ‘prime minister’ Irsen Kucuk this week lost a confidence vote after eight of his deputies left his party complaining, among other things, of Kucuk’s close relationship with the Turkish leader and his willingness to implement his policies without question.
But it is not only the political arena that has been impacted by Erdogan’s looming presence. As researcher Mete Hatay told the Sunday Mail this week: “Between 1974 and 2002, [when Erdogan came to power in Turkey] only two new mosques had been built in the north. In the last ten years, 30 have been built”.
“Religious people are now more numerous, visible and vocal,” he adds, along with the observation that the consummately secular Turkish Cypriots predominantly see these things as threats upon their secular and Western lifestyle.
But, as Hatay also points out, Erdogan and his AK party do not only have a religious side to their ideology.
“The neo-liberal side of his party’s philosophy has changed the economic landscape – to one beneficial to Turkish businessmen,” says Hatay.
What he is referring to are the economic aspects of what Erdogan and AK have sought to impose on the north. These include a radical stripping down of the public sector (which is the north’s largest employer, largely due to the economic restrictions because of its non-recognised status) and a sweeping programme of privatisation of ‘state’-owned enterprises such as power generation, telecommunications, schools and many other smaller enterprises. For Turkish Cypriots, this might not have been such a big issue had there been a private sector for them to turn to for work.
The problem is that they don’t, and this has meant that the almost miraculous economic growth witnessed in Turkey in the last decade has not been replicated in northern Cyprus. Moreover, the companies bidding to buy the north’s ‘state’-owned enterprises are all Turkish-owned corporations who have little or nothing to lose in investing in an ‘illegal’ state. In short, Turkish Cypriots see their part of the island being sold off cheap to Turkish businessmen, many of whom are seen to be close ideological allies of Erdogan.
Surprisingly however, there has so far been little sign of Turkish Cypriots jumping on the Gezi Park and Taksim Square demo bandwagon; only a vigil and diminutive marches to the Turkish ‘embassy’ have taken place where police have far outnumbered the demonstrators.
But as in Turkey, most of the demonstrators are not Erdogan’s traditional enemy, the ultra secularists and nationalists, but people who represent a growing number of those who feel their lifestyles are under threat from the Turkish prime minister’s creeping social conservatism. And, again as is in Turkey, those who are actively opposing Erdogan’s paternalist and condescending style of government are generally young, educated, and well connected through the bourgeoning phenomenon of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
But as to what developments on the streets of Istanbul and a host of other Turkish cities will have on Cyprus in the coming weeks and months to come remains to be seen. Erol Kaymak, also a lecturer at the EMU, told the Sunday Mail, “Of course things have to run their course. If Erdogan has to take a step back from the brink then reformist forces here will gain ground. If, on the other hand, Erdogan stares the protesters down and they fizzle away into oblivion, then AKP’s dominance of the street will reassert itself with impunity”.
So far, politicians in the north have remained silent on the unfolding events in Turkey, likely fearful of nailing their colours to the mast before the outcome becomes clear – especially with an early general election set to take place on July 28.
Perhaps the sole exception has been Kudret Ozersay, former chief negotiating aid and currently the leader of the Toparlaniyoruz social movement that seeks to pressurise the authorities in the north into governing more openly and honestly. In a press statement on Thursday he backed the demonstrators, saying that such expressions of political will were a “healthy part of, and in fact a necessity, in a healthy democracy”. He warned the government and media in Turkey not to ignore the demonstrators or underestimate their role in the political landscape.
“Democracy is not just about elections; you have to also acknowledge the views of those who didn’t vote for you”, he told Erdogan, echoing many of the Turkish PM’s critics.
It is fair to so say, then, that most Turkish Cypriots will feel a sense of empathy, and even allegiance, with Turks protesting against Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic style of government. As international relations lecturer and researcher at Famagusta’s Eastern Mediterranean University (EMU) Ahmet Sozen told the Mail on this week, “The Turkish Cypriots are feeling vindicated that their feelings about Erdogan are being replicated in Turkey,”
But whether they return to the streets to add their voices to those in Taksim Square, Gezi Park and a host of other cities and towns in Turkey remains to be seen. But one thing is very clear: they won’t be voting for Erdogan’s messenger again.