By Ertan Karpazli
It has been over sixty years since ethnic tensions in Cyprus caused Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots to part ways on the football field. Turkish Cypriots boycotted the Cyprus Football Association (CFA) in 1954 following a Greek Cypriot uprising spurred by dreams of annexing of the island to Greece, which left Turkish Cypriots fearful of their future.
The split became official 20 years later in 1974 after Turkey took control of the northern third of the island, followed almost a decade later by the Turkish Cypriots’ declaration of an independent “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” in November 1983.
Once the dust of the war settled, life south of the UN-controlled buffer zone adjusted to life without the Turkish Cypriots under the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus (RoC), both on and off the pitch. Meanwhile, the self-proclaimed Turkish Cypriot state remained unrecognised and isolated in all aspects of life, including football, which was limited to unofficial, non-professional leagues and tournaments.
However, on March 30, 2015, Cyprus Turkish Football Association (CTFA) chairman Hasan Sertoglu made the historic announcement that the CTFA will make the necessary reforms in order to become an official partner of the official CFA, thus paving the way for Turkish Cypriot teams and players to participate in FIFA and UEFA competitions once again.
Sertoglu’s announcement was greeted with a mixed reaction both in and out of northern Cyprus. Many Turkish Cypriots praised the merger, including ‘Foreign Minister’ Ozdil Nami. On the other hand, ‘Sport Minister’ Serdar Denktash slammed the decision, vowing to cut off all ties between the CTFA and his ministry as long as he remained in office.
Earlier in March, feathers were ruffled when it was discovered that the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) in Turkey had asked FIFA for permission to open an office in the north in order to integrate Turkish footballers with the mainland Turkish football league. Sertoglu, however, was enraged when he learned of the TFF’s move via a letter sent to him directly from FIFA, as the TFF had failed to consult him.
The timing of this sudden decision by the TFF to stop ignoring decades of Turkish Cypriot isolation is a clear indication that Turkey is finally realising its weakening influence over the Turkish Cypriots. However, as in most cases, this attempted intervention came too little, too late. After seeing Turkish football clubs like Fenerbahce and Trabzonspor play against Greek Cypriot teams in international tournaments, despite having never played against Turkish Cypriot teams in over 40 years of self-declared independence, Turkish Cypriots have resorted to new measures to end their isolation.
To date, Turkey has made no official attempt to annex the north, nor has it taken any official steps to integrate Turkish Cypriot institutions like the CTFA with institutions in mainland Turkey. In fact, Turkish Cypriots only declared an independent state (albeit one that depends on Turkey for its national security and economic survival) when they realised the options of annexation and integration were unattainable.
However, this declaration of independence only defeated the objective of Turkey’s presence on the island as a guarantor, as the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee states that guarantor powers have a duty to prevent “either the union of the Republic of Cyprus with any other state, or the partition of the island.”
Nonetheless, Turkey has abstained from seeking recognition from the international community for the Turkish Cypriot state as it does not want to sabotage its chances of entering the EU by boycotting the Cyprus peace process. Rather, Turkey has opted to pursue a policy lip-service to Turkish Cypriot sovereignty, which gives it leeway to send its seismic vessels to the island with Turkish Cypriot blessing. At the same time, however, Turkey also prevents the Turkish Cypriots from seeking recognition in order to keep them in a state of dependence and submission to its every whim.
This policy worked relatively well with very few problems until the RoC joined the EU in 2004, after which point around 100,000 Turkish Cypriots went to collect their new EU passports. For the first time since the war, the door was opened for Turkish Cypriots to fall under the spell of a power other than that of Ankara.
As time progresses, it becomes ever more evident Turkey failed to foresee the dilemma that was to arise in the event of a divided Cyprus entering the EU. Just as it failed to prevent the “partition of the island”, Turkey also failed to prevent the “the union of the Republic of Cyprus with any other state,” and is now paying the price for its poor judgement as Turkish Cypriots gradually begin claiming their new found rights as EU citizens.
The merger of the CTFA with the CFA is arguably the most significant step Turkish Cypriots have taken to take their destiny into their own hands since the buffer zone crossings opened in 2003, but the fact is that thousands of Turkish Cypriots already re-integrated with the RoC long before Sertoglu’s announcement, with many seeking employment opportunities south of the buffer zone that are non-existent in the north. There has also been a steady exodus of Turkish Cypriots from the north to other EU countries for work and education, which could increase unless a solution to the Cyprus Problem is reached soon.
Should this trend continue, instead of being a Turkish Cypriot state, the ‘TRNC’ risks becoming a state for migrants from the Turkish mainland, who by international law are considered to be illegal settlers. This would again challenge Turkey’s sole justification for maintaining troops on the island as the protector of the Turkish Cypriot people, and simply turn it into an invading force that has replaced one population with another.
It is time Turkey realised that isolation has pushed the very same people it set out to “save” in 1974 to the point of near-extinction, and should therefore view the CTFA’s move as a wake-up call on its failed policy on the Turkish Cypriots.
As peace talks on the island look set to resume, it is up to Turkey to make amends for decades of mismanaging Turkish Cypriot affairs by pushing for a solution based upon the principles of last year’s joint declaration.
The talks also provide a perfect opportunity for Turkey to renew its intention to serve not just as a guarantor of the Turkish Cypriots with its own imperial interests at heart, but a guarantor for all people of Cyprus with the preservation of peace as its true motive.
However, by maintaining the status quo, in which the breakaway north is treated like an unofficial 82nd province, Turkey only risks losing all rights to the island it previously claimed, as more and more frustrated Turkish Cypriots can be expected to follow the CTFA’s example.
Ertan Karpazli is an opinion writer and news analyst based in Istanbul. He is the co-founder of Cezire Association and tweets @ErtanKarpasya. Email [email protected]