In his sunny office in northern Nicosia, Şener Elcil is preparing his next protest. Anger, he said, is in the air in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus.
The economy is in free fall, thanks to the financial and political dependence of the self-proclaimed republic on Turkey. Thousands of people took to the streets, spurred on by inflation rates which made it difficult to make ends meet; ahead of parliamentary elections later this month, calls for a boycott are on the rise, as a blacklist of Turkish Cypriot dissidents, allegedly drawn up at Ankara’s request, has sparked dismay and fear.
“Turkey is our biggest problem,” says Elcil, who heads the Turkish Cypriot teachers’ union and is a strong supporter of reuniting the war-divided island under a federal umbrella with the Greek-ruled south. “He should keep his hands on Cyprus and take his lira and go.”
Elcil, 58, is one of the small state’s most vocal opponents of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his unorthodox economic policies.
The recent gyrations of the Turkish lira – adopted by the territory in 1976, two years after the Turkish invasion – have had a devastating effect on the daily life of a population which remains under an international embargo and cut off from the rest of the world. The use of foreign currencies for real estate transactions and the purchase of imported goods made matters worse, even as the pound regained some of its dramatic depreciation against the dollar.
Amid growing desperation and demands for the entity to adopt a “stable” currency, Elcil is far from alone.
“People are tired of the international isolation and they know it will only get worse,” he said. “Five years ago a teacher entering our system for the first time was earning the equivalent of € 1,100 (£ 920) per month. Today, because of reading it, they would earn 350 € per month. “
The protests come as hopes for Cyprus’ reunification have rarely been so gloomy. Last week, nearly 15 months after hard-core nationalist Ersin Tatar won presidential elections in the north, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released his most brutal report yet , warning that “without decisive action” further efforts to reach a negotiated peace settlement seemed increasingly slim.
“Partition is so close,” said Izzet Izcan, who heads the United Cyprus Party, one of three leftist groups that announced they would abstain on January 23. parliamentary vote. “The Tatar is the puppet of Ankara who was not elected until after Turkey intervened in our democratic process. His policies in favor of partition are not in the best interest of our community. The only way to oppose it is to fight together.
In the 38 years since the breakaway republic unilaterally declared independence, Turkey’s interference in the entity’s affairs has never been so blatant, Izcan said, echoing a widely voiced concern. “The elections are no longer representative of the real will of ordinary Turkish Cypriots. It’s like a game planned and played by Turkey, ”said the former MP. “Our main problem is political. Our economic difficulties are the result of a political situation, with Turkey continuing its military occupation of the north by means of the lira. with Greece, pushed Ankara to launch a military operation to seize its northern third. Although Turkish Cypriots voted for reunification in a referendum in 2004, the island entered the EU as a divided state after its majority Greek Cypriot population rejected the prospect of a partition power. Until reunification is achieved, EU laws are suspended in the north although it is also officially part of the bloc.
Growing discontent follows alarm over the expulsion from Turkey of prominent Turkish Cypriots opposed to Ankara’s policies.
Until recently, the self-proclaimed state – recognized only by Ankara – was seen as a safe area for opponents of Erdoğan and his ruling AKP party, an area in which Turkish Cypriots and mainland Turks in exile were staying. freely open to criticism of the president’s authoritarian leadership.
But the appearance of a blacklist, published by Avrupa, a local newspaper, in October heightened concern about the extent to which Turkey is prepared to go to silence dissent. The newspaper identified 42 politicians, writers, journalists, lawyers, trade unionists and artists as being on the list.
“It has created fear and uncertainty,” said Mehmet Harmancı, the mayor of northern Nicosia, pulling a cigarette in a cafe near the capital’s UN-guarded and divided buffer zone. “No one knows exactly who is on it. All we know is that there is a list, a blacklist of people who are considered a security threat in Turkey and who are prevented from entering the country. “
People who were not afraid to voice their opinions were increasingly concerned, he said, about the consequences if they did. Turkish Cypriots expelled from Turkey only learned of the ban when they arrived in the country.
“Even though our country is not recognized, we have a long democratic tradition of freedom of expression, respect for each other’s values and ideas,” says Harmancı. “Since the election of Ersin Tatar, this has changed.
Tatar, who grew up in the UK and was educated in Cambridge before returning to Cyprus, used his tenure to advocate for a two-state solution to the island’s division after years of fruitless negotiations to unite it as a bizonale, bi-communal federation – a proposal categorically rejected by the EU. He defended the travel ban saying: “Every country has the right not to allow the entry of foreign nationals for security reasons in the face of threats and insults.
However, the Turkish Cypriots who are said to be on the list are united in their desire for reunification and opposed to any suggestion that the EU’s easternmost member state should remain divided.
For Ahmet Cavit An, who co-founded the Movement for an Independent and Federal Cyprus, the island’s first such organization, the memory of being arrested by immigration officials at Istanbul Airport l last summer is still painfully long-lived. “I was at passport control when they said I was persona non grata», Explains the 71-year-old retired pediatrician. “I was then told that I should write to the Turkish Embassy in Nicosia for more information. Five months after my lawyer sent a registered letter asking for an explanation, we still have not received a response.
In a landmark case, won in 2003, An brought Ankara to the European Court of Human Rights for being prevented from entering the island’s buffer zone to participate in bicommunal meetings. “What I want to know is the length of this ban so that I can go on with my life,” he said.
In October, the European Federation of Journalists condemned the arrest of Ali Kismir, who heads the northern press union, after being detained at Istanbul airport and refused entry to Turkey.
“I was taken to a special deportation area where my photo and fingerprints were taken,” he recalls. “It makes me very angry to think that I have been treated like a terrorist when all I am doing is writing the truth.”
Kismir, the fourth Turkish Cypriot to be barred from entering Turkey, is a well-known columnist who challenged Ankara’s electoral interference to secure Tatar’s election. His beliefs are such that he sports a tattoo with the word “peace” in both Greek and Turkish on his right arm.
In recent weeks, Turkish opposition MPs have also spoken about the plight of Turkish Cypriots banned from staying in Turkey, saying it goes against the motherland’s stated desire to protect the minority.
But, like almost all Turkish Cypriots opposed to Ankara’s policies, Elcil says time is running out for a community already outnumbered by settlers imported from the mainland. About 2,000 Turkish Cypriots moved south, attracted by jobs and a better standard of living.
“There must be more protests targeting Turkey, because Turkey is the biggest obstacle to a solution of the Cyprus problem and to reunification,” he said. “They call us traitors and Turkish-speaking Greeks, but we don’t give up. We are here to stay and we are here to fight.