‘I WILL NEVER GIVE IN TO THE GREEK CYPRIOTS’
UNCOMPROMISING, patriotic and staunchly pro-Turkey – Ersin Tatar knows exactly where his interests lie.
The 60-year-old, who became the President of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus last October after defeating Mustafa Akıncı, believes that the Cyprus problem is as important for Turkey as it is for the Turkish Cypriots.
Under Mr Akıncı relations between Turkey and the TRNC hit an all-time low, but with Mr Tatar now in office – the office he used to spend time in as a child – the two countries are once again singing from the same song sheet.
“Turkey does need to have a good position of power in the eastern Mediterranean, because when you look at the map, Turkey has 1,900 kilometres of coastline in the eastern Mediterranean. In the middle of the map, you will see [the Turkish capital] Ankara, and down there, in the middle of the sea, Cyprus,” Mr Tatar tells me from behind his desk, flanked by the flags of Turkey and the TRNC and with a portrait of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, hanging above him.
“So Cyprus, as far as security is concerned, is very important to Turkey. Turkey’s presence in the seas around Cyprus is very important for our security.
“Our position here, as far as the Turkish world is concerned, is also very important for mainland Turkey. So it’s a . . . mutually beneficial arrangement as far as our security is concerned; we will never step back.”
For Mr Tatar, his ascendancy to the presidency is the culmination of a life spent deeply involved in the Cyprus problem and the Turkish Cypriots’ struggle for existence.
“As a boy I was playing in this room,” he recalls as he hands me a copy of the English-language book about his life, I Never Gave Up. “It’s all in here. My grandfather [Cemal Müftüzade] was the deputy assistant to [the late Turkish Cypriot leader] Dr Fazıl Küçük, who was then the Vice President [of the Republic of Cyprus].
“After 1963, when the Greek Cypriot attacks began on the Turkish Cypriots, Dr Küçük started using this [TRNC Presidency building in Lefkoşa] as his office and my grandfather was also in this building. In fact they tell me that Dr Küçük’s office was the room where you have been waiting. . . and they had a few people in here [Mr Tatar’s office] and my grandfather’s room was there [gesturing to a door]. They [have since] changed the building somewhat, but I used to come in here as a little boy; in fact I have a picture on the wall.
“I remember, as a little boy, that I listened all the time to what went on and I remember how worried we all were that if Turkey didn’t intervene, we could be exterminated.”
Referring to Archbishop Makarios, who became President of the island when it gained its independence from the UK in 1960, Mr Tatar states: “Who was the President? An archbishop, with all his robes and all the rest of it. Can you imagine that? You have the other community, the Turkish Cypriots, and the President is a Christian Archbishop, despite the fact the Turks are a Muslim community. That, from the very start, was a wrong choice.
“If part of your [people] are Muslims and not Christian, you would expect that the President would be a secular man, at least, but we had an Archbishop as President. And the Archbishop was the mild one – the real Eoka [Greek Cypriot terrorist group] man was Grivas.
“Makarios was also very much interested in Enosis [union of Cyprus with Greece] . . . but his policy was to do it [gradually], so as not to risk Turkey coming in, whereas Grivas was directly taking orders from the military junta in Greece. . . And their ambition, their hardline ambition, was to get all the Turks [and] exterminate them, and join Cyprus to Greece for the Megali Idea [the expansion of Greek control over areas inhabited by Greeks]. . . The Greek Cypriots and Greeks together live the dream, in their convictions, that this island will definitely become a part of Greece.
“Crete is a Greek island and you have all the others in the Aegean Sea and their final target was, and still is, Cyprus, to make Cyprus a Greek island . . . and surround Turkey. . . Our aspiration is for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to survive because we have suffered a lot on the island. . . People were buried alive.
“There was a lot of harassment, extermination, terror. Everything went on because [of] Enosis. . . And after all these years, they [the Greek Cypriots] talk about peace. They talk about stability. They talk about the European Union, they will talk about law. They talk about human rights and all the rest of it. But we are very sensitive, and we ought to be very, very careful because, as [TRNC founding] President [Rauf] Denktaş used to tell me when I was a young chap meeting him in this very room, agreements written on paper are worth nothing because paper is just thrown in a bin, by people like Makarios – you can’t trust them.
“Therefore your rights, especially national rights, should always be based on sovereignty, should always be based on guarantees. And as far as Turkish Cypriots are concerned, we have two vital issues: one is our sovereignty, the other one is the Turkish guarantee.
“These are two things . . . that we can never give up. If we give up our sovereignty, if we ignore the Turkish guarantee, then we have had it. . . We have to be very careful.”
Sipping a cup of Turkish coffee as a mobile phone on his desk whirs and vibrates throughout the interview – he doesn’t answer it – Mr Tatar explains that he has never been “induced” by the carrot of EU membership in exchange for a federal solution in Cyprus, which he warns would lead to Turkish Cypriots becoming “third-class” citizens.
“A lot of Europeans come and go,” he says. “They promise a lot of European help and support if there is an agreement on their basis, a bizonal bicommunal federation, which has been talked about for the last 50 years with no agreement because basically, as far as the [Greek Cypriot] side is concerned, any arrangement or any agreement . . . would be one sovereignty, one nation, one citizenship – it’s all one, one, one.
“Obviously, they do know that it should be based on two communities, but they will play the European card. Turkey will be out of here after so many years because Turkey is not a member of the European Union. And when Turkey is out, they will start using economic force and other superiority elements to extend their authority to the North [of Cyprus].
“And after so many years you will see the Turkish Cypriots become second-class citizens, maybe third-class citizens.
“You will have Greeks, you will have some other Europeans . . . so we become third-class citizens in our country. So we will never accept that. We will never say ‘yes’ to an agreement that will lead us to . . . a disaster. We have to be frank with each other, we have to be honest with each other.
“The Greek [Cypriots] aim for a solution which, at the end of the day, will bring their supremacy. We want equality. As far as I’m concerned, after all these experiences, after all that I’ve seen, after all that I’ve heard, after all these meetings, after reading so many books, after talking to diplomats, after talking to all the lawyers who were involved in the [previous] negotiations, an agreement based on political equality – bizonal, bicommunal, and for the guarantee system to be changed, this is what they [the Greek Cypriot side] are after, after all – will bring calamity to the Turkish Cypriots.”
Mr Tatar says that he was elected as President by “frankly saying all of this”. To emphasise the point, he rhythmically thumps his hand on his desk while declaring: “I always believed in two – equal – sovereign – states – living side by side.” He fears that a solution that involves a single state will lead to the Greek Cypriots using their “power and superior numbers” to “extend their authority to the North”.
He continues: “If we can secure [a two-state solution], then we can have a stable lasting agreement. . . I’m not after extending my authority to the South. . . They can get on with it, they can enjoy their life.
“They can be the kings of the South. I have no problem with that. What I care about is my people, their security, the wellbeing of the next generations and the supremacy, the sovereignty, of my people in the North.”
At the end of next month Mr Tatar will be travelling to Geneva, Switzerland, for three days of UN-hosted “informal” talks with Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and representatives from Turkey, Greece and the UK – the “guarantor” powers of Cyprus – to establish whether or not “common ground” exists for formal Cyprus talks to begin.
Given the President’s insistence on a two-state solution seemingly without any compromise – and Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades’s calls for a federal settlement – I asked Mr Tatar what he hopes to achieve in Geneva.
“I have to confront them [the Greek Cypriot side],” came the answer. “They want a federation because, at the end of the day, [they] want their authority to extend to the North. . . What kind of a federation? A bizonal bicommunal federation . . . but they’re not saying the North is Turkish, the South is Greek. . . They could flood the North. Who’s going to stop them? The ‘law’. No. The law says ‘we are in [the EU]’, forget about the United Nations. . . In the [EU] we have the Greek Cypriots and Greece, but Turkey is out.
“They will start flooding the North. That would give us a lot of discomfort. . . So when you look at the real depth of the matter there are a lot of dangers.
“[The meeting in Geneva] will be an informal meeting. . . I will go to Geneva to officially pronounce my position, which is 100 percent supported by Turkey.
“Turkey will also confirm what I have been [saying]. Turkey . . . is a very important country, a guarantor power, the motherland of the Turkish Cypriots, and also the biggest and most powerful country of this region, only 40 miles away – Greece is 500 miles away.
“Turkey will support my position. . . We will be conveying our views, officially, to the international community, to the United Nations, to all the other parties, so it can form the basis for new negotiations, which might take place later on. . . But our policy is that if we are going to have serious formal negotiations later on, they should respect our position.
“And we insist that before we start final, serious negotiations, they should respect our sovereignty. And they should also respect that we, as far as the international community is concerned, should be as legal as the Greek Cypriots are.”
If the Greek Cypriot side rejects a two-state solution at the Geneva gathering then “tough luck”, Mr Tatar says.
“[Former presidents Mustafa] Akıncı and Mehmet Ali Talat, said to their community, the Turkish Cypriots, that unless we secure an agreement in Cyprus, we have no future on this island. . . My position is not like that. I want an agreement for peace, stability, and win-win opportunities for all Cypriots.
“However, I’m not going to succumb, I’m not going to give in to the Greek Cypriots and risk the welfare and political viability of the Turkish Cypriots on this island just for the sake of peace or an imposed solution. . . I will never accept any imposed solution.
“An imposed solution is, in a way, a ransom: ‘Unless you accept this, I will finish you’. Nobody can finish me because I am also the representative of 85 million Turkish people just 40 miles away from here, and Turkey has vested interests in this island.
“Turkey [is] the continuation of the Ottoman Empire, which came here in 1571. We have roots, we have investments, we have history, we have culture, we have our soul. We have everything vested in this island of Cyprus. . . So Greek Cypriots can never discuss or impose their superiority on us. We will never accept that. They are not superior to us.”
Mr Tatar does not talk like a man who is willing to compromise on anything to achieve his two-state goal, a point I put to him. His response suggests that the TRNC’s and Turkey’s ability to stymie Greek Cypriot plans to exploit offshore energy reserves forms the basis of his “win-win” philosophy.
Holding up a copy of the South’s Sunday Mail newspaper, Mr Tatar refers to an article suggesting that the Greek Cypriots are now being left out of plans by countries such as Israel and Egypt to export natural gas from the region.
“Because there is no agreement in Cyprus, all these hydrocarbon exploration activities are at risk,” he says.
“Now they’re talking about Israel and Egypt acting together by side-stepping [South] Cyprus. “Because of the Turkish involvement, there are complications with Cyprus. . . So, if we have a fair and lasting agreement in Cyprus, that can be a win-win situation, because Cyprus can be an actor in this region, and the Greek Cypriots can entertain and enjoy the virtues of such an agreement. . .
“Therefore, if we have an agreement on the island, the Greek Cypriots will also gain. . . Having said all that, we are never going to accept an imposed solution just for the sake of economic benefits.
“We are very happy with our Turkish motherland, which over the years [has made] substantial investments.”
He said a type of two-state solution – partition – was put forward by the British in the 1950s, while Cyprus was still a colony of the UK, but that it wasn’t possible to implement the plan at the time because “Turks and Greeks were living together throughout the island”.
“After 1974, Greeks moved to the South, and Turks moved to the North, so you have two zones.
“Therefore, [a two-state solution] became much easier; you couldn’t do that in the 50s. . . If they [the Greek Cypriots] mean well, if they intend well, if they are not tricking us, why shouldn't they accept two states?
“Why don’t they accept two states so that we can have peace of mind, so that we have long-lasting peace and stability? And we can negotiate, we can cooperate on every issue, as if we were a united island, in a way, because that would give us a lot of comfort, a lot of security, and then we can discuss what we can do.
“We can say that if we are sovereign, according to our needs, we can have . . . Greek Cypriots coming and living [in the North]. . . but we will decide as a sovereign state how many Greek Cypriots will come, where and how.
“But if you are not sovereign, Europeans will decide how many Greek Cypriots will [come to North Cyprus], and where, how and when, and that can lead us to a calamity.”
I end the interview by asking President Tatar what he will do if the Geneva talks end in failure, and if he will pursue international recognition of the TRNC.
“We will discuss all this with Turkey,” he replies. “I’m not going to deny that Turkey is the key country here. Turkey is a regional power. Turkey is a big country. Turkey has got vested interests.
“And we are in full agreement with Turkey on all issues. Obviously we have [some] opposition [in the TRNC]. . . but when you look at the whole picture, Turkey is a determining country [providing] economic aid, political support, water, energy, everything.
“Therefore, we will be discussing all these important issues with Turkey. . . A solution is not just for the one million Cypriots but also for the 85 million Turkish people.
“So, when you look at the regional balances, regional interests, and I’ve been talking to [an] expert on these matters, he’s telling me the Greek Cypriots occupy 5,600 square kilometres of the island, which has a total area of 9,000 square km. . . [but] in the seas around the [island] Greek Cypriots claim 30 times more than the land they occupy in Cyprus . . . because they believe that because they are the Republic of Cyprus that they have sovereign rights to claim an [exclusive] economic zone . . . of that magnitude.
“And the expert is saying that this is more than what Turkey is being given as an [exclusive] economic zone. This is unacceptable.
“So the problem is much more important than what people think. It’s not just the island of Cyprus, it’s the seas around [the island], it’s the exploration rights and thre hydrocarbon [deposits].”