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Divided Island

The Players: Rauf Denktash

Rauf Denktash
The new university will bear the Rauf Denktash name

This is one of a series of articles from our new feature ‘Background briefing: The Divided Island‘. It is a comprehensive interactive information guide on the Cyprus problem which we are publishing at this critical moment in the settlement negotiations. There is a menu bar to the full package to the right of this article. Just click on any of the items.

Rauf Denktash: 1924-2012
Turkish Cypriot leader: 1973-2005



Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader from 1973 to 2005, steadfastly opposed the island’s reunification after the 1974 Turkish invasion. He insisted that Turkish Cypriots needed a separate state to preserve peace and avoid domination by the larger Greek Cypriot community.

A London-trained barrister, he was appointed crown prosecutor in 1949 when Cyprus was under British rule. In 1957, he was one of the founding members of the Turkish Resistance Movement, TMT, an underground militant organisation whose declared aim was to prevent union with Greece.

He became a protégé of the Turkish Cypriot leader, Fazil Kuzuk, who was the island’s vice president after Cyprus gained independence in 1960. When the constitution broke down in 1963, Denktash was sent to New York to put the Turkish Cypriot case to the UN. But the Cyprus government, now solely in Greek Cypriot hands, accused him of inciting the Turkish Cypriot community to armed rebellion, and forbade his return.

After four years of exile in Turkey, he returned to Cyprus in 1968 as vice president of the Turkish Cypriots and represented them in negotiations with the Greek Cypriots. In 1973 he replaced Kucuk as vice president of Cyprus, a post reserved for Turkish Cypriots under the 1960 constitution.

A year after the 1974 Turkish invasion, Denktash became leader of the self-declared Turkish Federated State of Cyprus.

In 1983 he unilaterally declared the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ – which was only ever recognised by Turkey – and became its first ‘president’. He was returned to office in successive elections. But in his later years as leader, Turkish Cypriots became increasingly frustrated by his uncompromising stance on a Cyprus settlement.

Cyprus, represented internationally by the Greek Cypriots, was due to enter the EU in 2004 but Turkish Cypriots would not enjoy the benefits of membership until Cyprus was reunited.

Denktash in January 2002
Denktash in January 2002

After Denktash’s staunch opposition to the first version of the Annan Plan (a UN blueprint to reunify Cyprus as a federation) there were huge demonstrations by Turkish Cypriots in late 2002 and early 2003. Protestors demanded that he either accept the plan or resign.

Ignoring Denktash’s calls to reject the plan, 64.9 per cent of Turkish Cypriots endorsed it in a referendum on April 24, 2004. However, Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected the plan, with 75.8 per cent voting against.

Cyprus entered the EU a week later on 1 May 2004, with only the Greek Cypriots enjoying the benefits of membership. The acquis communautaire, or body of EU law, was suspended in northern Cyprus pending the island’s reunification.

Denktash announced that he would not stand for the ‘presidency’ again and stood down at the 2005 election to be replaced by Mehmet Ali Talat.

Below is a profile of Rauf Dentkash by Jean Christou in 2003

A man with a one-track mind who outlasted a succession of Cyprus presidents and world leaders

Denktash is surpassed only by Cuba’s Fidel Castro in terms of political longevity. He saw off six UN Secretary-generals, ten US presidents, five Greek Cypriot presidents, seven Turkish presidents and 36 Turkish prime ministers since 1960.

His long career looked as if it was all crumbling after his ‘no’ to the UN plan at the EU summit in Copenhagen in December 2002 and as Turkish Cypriots finally woke up from their 30-year-plus slumber and took to the streets only months later.

Denktash said at the time that the massive demonstrations by his people had reduced him to tears.

One Turkish newspaper said at the time: “Denktash has, for quite a long time, failed to take the pulse of his people. He lives in an entirely different dimension. I am sure that Denktash sincerely believes that these people who fill the streets are wrong. Unfortunately, the realities of the day are quite different and Denktash cannot — or is not willing to — see these facts.”

Politician, lawyer, former terrorist, would-be photographer, simple family man, animal lover, master of manipulation and drama… Denktash pulled the strings of the international community for 45 years with the sole aim of making northern Cyprus into a state. He didn’t even allow major heart surgery and other health problems to stand in the way.

Give me 30 years and I will create facts no one can change

The root of his philosophy is contained in the introduction to his 1982 book The Cyprus Triangle. It says: “There is not, and there has never been, a Cypriot nation. That may be the misfortune of Cyprus and indeed the root cause of its problem, but it is a reality which has to be faced and understood by all concerned.” Or to be more blunt, he once said that the only thing Cypriot on the island were the Cyprus donkeys.

Denktash’s mantra to diplomats over the years was: “Give me 30 years and I will create facts no one can change.”

“The man never tires of pushing buttons,” said one diplomat in 2003 after the failed talks in the Hague in March that year. “In the proximity talks, whenever progress was made or he was cornered he pressed the button feigning anger. His gamble was: ‘I will do it until you recognise the TRNC,” said the diplomat.

Denktash dramatically called the Kofi Annan plan a “crime against humanity”, and refused to go to Burgenstock in 2004. “This is against justice. This is merciless. We cannot pay this price, nor will we pay it,” he said.

In a similar theatrical fashion in 1997, after two rounds of failed proximity talks, he wailed: “I cried out at the Troutbeck and Glion talks that our rights were being taken away from us.”

Most people who came in contact with Denktash would attest to his pleasant demeanour, but he never lost any time in switching to Cyprus problem mode

His antics in The Hague however cemented his unpopularity in the international community – not that it appeared to bother him much.

Denktash forged strong ties with the Turkish generals when he founded the terrorist organisation TMT in the fifties and, indicative of his modus operandi, blew up his own office in 1962 and blamed the Greek Cypriot communists. “The British once offered him the post of Attorney-general in Hong Kong to get him off the island, which at that time was a tremendous post to have. He turned it down.

This refusal is an indication of Denktash’s one-track mind in devoting his life to partitioning the island. His mind was so focused on his goal that for all his shenanigans he appeared uninterested in wealth and was never tainted with corruption, apart from one report that he possessed a Greek Cypriot property for his personal use.

the last Greek politician of Cyprus

Most people who came in contact with Denktash would attest to his pleasant demeanour, but he never lost any time in switching to Cyprus problem mode. Indeed Denktash was known to have affable relations with former president Glafcos Clerides, but only socially.

He said once during a round of talks that he didn’t want to meet Clerides because Clerides made jokes which made him laugh. In fact the relationship between the two men led former UN envoy Diego Cordovez to mistakenly believe he was making progress on the Cyprus issue.

Indeed, many Greek Cypriots opposed to the Annan plan at the time had been hoping Denktash would ‘save us’. Archbishop Chrysostomos II, when he was still Bishop of Paphos, revealed that he had been “praying for Denktash to reject the peace plan” and his prayers were answered. One Greek nationalist writer even described Denktash as the last “Greek politician of Cyprus”.

Denktash got on quite well with Clerides who apparently used to crack jokes that would make Denktash laugh

The Paphian who founded the ‘TRNC’ by Simon Bahceli – Obituary published in the Cyprus Mail, January 14, 2012

RAUF Raif Denktash began life in Paphos in 1924 as the son of Raif Mehmet and Emine. When his mother died during his infancy, his father, a district court judge, sent Rauf to study at boarding school in Istanbul.

As a teenager he returned to Cyprus to study at the prestigious English School in Nicosia. After graduating, he worked briefly as a translator, court clerk and as a teacher at the English School. Then, as the Second World War drew to a close, he travelled to London to study law at Lincoln’s Inn, from where he qualified as a barrister in law in 1947 and returned to Cyprus.

His political career began in 1948 when the young Denktash served as a member of the Consultative Council, a body set up by the colonial rulers of the island to establish limited self-rule for Cypriots. At the same time, he was also a member of the Turkish Affairs Committee representing Turkish Cypriot interests to the British colonial government.

By 1949, Denktash had begun working as a crown prosecutor, a position he remained in until 1958. It was in this capacity that Denktash met and became friends with fellow lawman Glafcos Clerides, later to became president of Cyprus and thereby Denktash’s sparring partner in negotiations between the two communities.

When Greek Cypriots began an uprising against British rule in 1955, Denktash, believed the Turkish Cypriot community to be in danger and was instrumental in the formation the Turkish Resistance Organisation (TMT), an underground body whose declared aim was to prevent Cyprus from being united with Greece.

High-Level Agreement between President Makarios and Denktash concluded under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, February 12, 1977 (PIO)
High-Level Agreement between President Makarios and Denktash concluded under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, February 12, 1977 (PIO)

As Cyprus headed towards independence, Denktash became increasingly prominent and was by far the most eloquent and outspoken voice in the Turkish Cypriot community. In 1958 he appeared before the UN General Assembly to put the case for his community. The same year, he advised the Turkish government about his community’s interests ahead of the 1959 Zurich Agreement that paved the way for the establishment of the Cyprus Republic a year later.

After its establishment, the young leader was elected president of the Turkish Communal Chamber.

After just three years, however, the bicommunal state collapsed when the then-president Archbishop Makarios’ III sought to alter the island’s constitution in a way that Turkish Cypriots felt would deprive them of a say in the running of the state. The ensuing stalemate led to many Turkish Cypriots being forced out of their positions in the fledgling state.

Turkish Cypriot representatives then withdrew en masse from the government as armed conflict broke out between Greek and Turkish Cypriot militias. Seeking help from the Turkish government, Denktash travelled to Ankara but was refused re-entry to the island by the Republic until 1968 on the grounds that he was a member of the underground TMT.

Coming five days after a military coup that had effectively united Cyprus with Greece, the Turkish invasion of 1974 was viewed by Denktash as nothing but liberation from the grip of his worst possible nightmare. Indeed, partitioning the island was something he had been espousing since the 1950s.

Following the establishment of a UN-brokered ceasefire and a series of unsuccessful negotiations, Denktash was instrumental in establishing the ‘Turkish Federated State of Cyprus’ (TFSC) to which he was elected ‘president’ in 1975.

Gaining his second term as ‘president’ in 1981, Denktash renamed his breakaway state the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC), in a move that many felt was made in order to make reunification far less likely. In 1985 he suffered the tragedy of his son Raif’s death in a traffic accident.

During the 1990s, Denktash’s position hardened further when in 1995 the EU imposed an embargo on Turkish Cypriot exports. This prompted him to threaten annexing the north of the island to Turkey.

clerides-denktash-de soto1
Denktash pictured with President Clerides (3rd from left) and UN Special Advisor Alvaro de Soto (pictured to the right of Clerides)

By the early 2000s, the political and economic isolation of the north, compounded by a series of economic crises in Turkey, was beginning to take its toll. Increasing numbers of Turkish Cypriots questioned whether Denktash’s chosen path had been the right one. Few any longer believed that the Cyprus problem had been solved in 1974 by physical division. Perhaps more importantly, a new government had been elected in Turkey that signaled very early on that it would not offer the now veteran leader unqualified support.

In 2002, mass demonstrations in north Nicosia called for his resignation and for the island to be reunited. With Cyprus’ membership of the EU looming in 2004, Turkish Cypriots, and the Turkish government in Ankara, saw this as a golden opportunity for the community to come out of political and economic isolation.

However, Denktash had other plans, and did his best to scupper reunification negotiations that had begun yet again in 2001. Although as Turkish Cypriot leader he was the chief negotiator for his community, Denktash never liked the Annan Plan, a UN-backed blueprint for reunification that was put before the two communities in separate referenda at the end of negotiations in April 2004.

He also had little affection for the EU, which he saw simply as a means for Greek Cypriots to realise their dream of union with Greece. “Enosis though the back door” is what he dubbed EU membership. The increasingly bitter Denktash refused to participate in the final stages of the Annan plan’s negotiation, declaring its fundamental tenets as a betrayal of his beloved ‘TRNC’. When his people voted overwhelmingly in favour of the blueprint, Denktash announced that he would not stand for re-election in ‘presidential’ elections a year later.

Despite retiring, Denktash remained an active political campaigner and continued to write prolifically. For many years he continued to maintain a work schedule that would put many much younger men to shame. Known as a consummate workaholic, he somehow managed combine leadership with writing over 50 books on subjects ranging from philosophy, religion, photography, and of course the Cyprus problem. He leaves his wife Aydin, his son Serdar Denktash and daughters Ender and Deger.

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