The Washington Diplomat / February 2014
By Larry Luxner
Ahmet Erdengiz may very well be the Rodney Dangerfield of Washington-based foreign diplomats: he don’t get no respect.
That’s because only one nation, Turkey, recognizes his self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — a political oddity slightly bigger than Rhode Island which was unilaterally proclaimed on Nov. 15, 1983.
To mark the 30th anniversary of a country that doesn’t exist, Erdengiz recently invited several hundred guests to an official function at historic Parks House along Embassy Row, where guests noshed on a variety of Turkish delights such as humus, Antalya bean salad, stuffed grape leaves, lamb kofte, tabouleh and baklava.
One of the evening’s most prominent guests was former congressman Michael McMahon of New York. Now a partner at Herrick Feinstein, the ex-lawmaker heads up a $200,000, one-year contract for his Park Avenue law firm to handle public affairs and government relations for the TRNC. McMahon has also done extensive legal work on behalf of Turkey, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
But other than Turkey’s Namik Tan, no ambassadors were there to congratulate Erdengiz. Nor was anybody from the State Department, whose officials normally flock to such national day celebrations.
“It’s obvious that whenever people visit our office from the government side, the Greek Cypriot embassy causes lots of problems,” Erdengiz told The Washington Diplomat. “So we do not want our friends to suffer needlessly.”
Asked whom he considers his friends or enemies on Capitol Hill, Erdengiz refused to name names, saying only that “congressmen of Greek descent have always been hostile to us.”
It’s hard to overstate the bitterness on both sides of this never-ending conflict.
The Greek-speaking citizens of Cyprus, as well as their allies in Greece and elsewhere, argue that Erdengiz’s so-called “Turkish republic” deserves no more international respect than the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have been recognized only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the Pacific islands of Nauru and Tuvalu — or the short-lived “homelands” of Transkei and Ciskei, which were created and recognized only by the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Nevertheless, said Erdengiz, “we have been trying for a long time to solve the Cyprus issue. The talks have been going on and off for the last 48 years. It’s unbelievable. This must be one of the longest surviving disputes in the world.”
Erdengiz, 56, was born and raised in Nicosia, the last divided city on Earth. He’s been in the diplomatic service for the last 26 years, except for a five-year period as head of his government’s Missing Persons Committee. Previously, Erdengiz served at TRNC missions in Brussels and Istanbul. He also did two stints in Washington — once from 1987 to 1991 and again from 1997 to 2001.
Erdengiz arrived for his third Washington posting in April 2012, heading a four-person office on K Street. Yet this seasoned diplomat doesn’t enjoy the red-carpet treatment afforded most foreign dignitaries. On the contrary, his frequent arrivals at Dulles International Airport on flights from Istanbul end up being a major headache because immigration officials don’t know what to do about his TRNC-issued passport.
“It makes my job extremely difficult, to say the least. Even coming into this country is a big ordeal for us, because our passports are not recognized. We have to go through secondary inspections every time,” Erdengiz complained. “Last time, I had to wait more than three hours at the airport. Life isn’t easy for Turkish Cypriots. And it’s not only here. In many other countries we face the same situation.”
That “situation” dates back to the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which placed Cyprus under British administration just as the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. When World War I erupted in 1914, Great Britain annexed the Mediterranean island outright, elevating it to a British crown colony 11 years later. That status that remained until 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus achieved full independence under an agreement that included guarantees of the rights of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The accord also prohibited either political union with Greece (an option backed by Greek Cypriots but strongly opposed by the Turks), or partition of Cyprus into two separate republics. Yet following independence, the Greek Cypriot majority curtailed the rights of the country’s Turkish-speaking citizens, launching what the Turks say was a violent campaign to force Turkish inhabitants into fleeing. In 1964, UN peacekeeping forces had to be sent in to quell the worsening communal violence.
The situation finally exploded on July 15, 1974, when a military coup by officers favoring union with Greece deposed the Makarios government. On July 20, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern two-fifths of the island. Following the 1974 invasion, an estimated 170,000 Greek Cypriots were expelled, and thousands of Turks from Anatolia were brought in to populate the area. In 1975, Turkey announced a de facto partition of Cyprus, and eight years later, the TRNC was unilaterally declared.
Erdengiz denies that Turkey’s rule over the northern 37 percent of Cyprus constitutes a military occupation.
“Turkish troops arrived on the island in 1974 in accordance with an international treaty that gave Turkey the right and obligation to intervene if the territorial integrity of Cyprus was threatened, or if any of the communities living there were threatened,” he said. “Turkish troops did not invade the island but were sent to protect and save it.”
That’s ridiculous, counters George Chacalli, the Cypriot ambassador to the United States, who has never met Erdengiz and has no desire to.
“Since he is part of an entity that promotes this forcible division of my country, how do you expect me to have a conversation with him?” Chacalli told The Diplomat. “You’re talking about a part of our country that is under foreign occupation. It’s been created by force of arms contrary to international law. Thousands of colonists from Turkey have been imported, fundamental human rights are being violated and religious freedoms are going down the drain.”
Miltos Miltiadou, a former spokesman for the Embassy of Cyprus in Washington, was even more bitter in his condemnation of the Turkish Cypriot festivities in the city where he used to serve.
“It is incomprehensible why anyone would join celebrations for such an international crime — planned, directed and executed by Turkey — to dismember the Republic of Cyprus,” Miltiadou told The Diplomat in an email from Nicosia, listing a long list of transgressions that includes massive ethnic cleansing, “systematic cultural genocide aimed at eradicating all traces of non-Turkish and non-Muslim cultural heritage” and usurpation of the homes and properties of displaced Greek Cypriots. “All these crimes are part of Turkey’s ongoing aggression against Cyprus and an insult to human decency and an affront to the rule of law. How can one feel good participating in parties celebrating such despicable acts?”
The ill will is clearly mutual, judging from the way Erdengiz speaks.
“They cannot simply make Turkish Cyprus disappear by saying there is only one Cyprus,” he said. “The fact is that since 1963, we have administered ourselves. Turkish Cypriots were kicked out of the Republic of Cyprus by force of arms, so as far as we’re concerned that republic does not exist.”
The United Nations is certainly not on Erdengiz’s side.
On Nov. 18, 1983 — just three days after the TRNC declared its “independence,” — the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 541 by a 13-1 vote, with Pakistan voting against and Jordan abstaining. The resolution ruled the Turkish Cypriot declaration legally invalid and called for its withdrawal, warning that it “would contribute to a worsening of the situation in Cyprus.”
Of the 1.13 million inhabitants of Cyprus, about 840,000 people, nearly all of them Orthodox Christians, live in the Greek-speaking 63 percent of the island not under Turkish occupation, while just under 300,000 people, practically all of them Muslims, live in the Turkish-occupied northern zone Erdengiz calls the TRNC. The island’s overall ethnic breakdown is 84.7 percent Greek, 12.3 percent Turkish and 3 percent foreigners.
Besides its own passports, the TRNC issues its own postage stamps and maintains a 5,000-man Turkish Cypriot Security Force. It even has its own international dialing code, +392, though all phone calls must be routed through Turkey. Likewise, letters addressed to the TRNC must be mailed via the Turkish city of Mersan because the Geneva-based Universal Postal Union doesn’t recognize the TRNC as a sovereign entity.
Yet that doesn’t mean the TRNC is completely friendless.
“In Pakistan, we remain unrecognized but we are part of the diplomatic corps. We have offices in all the Gulf states,” said Erdengiz. “We have 15 offices in Europe, including one in Sweden we opened around six months ago. We’re in the process of [establishing] new missions in Helsinki and elsewhere.”
According to Erdengiz, the TRNC’s New York mission is slightly larger than its Washington office, with six staffers.
“We are registered [in the United States] under the Foreign Registration Act and we maintain our offices as representatives,” he said. “It’s more or less like Taiwan, but there’s a big difference: at one point, the U.S. recognized Taiwan as a state. Nevertheless, we meet people on the Hill and function like a small embassy. And the U.S. Embassy in the Greek part of Cyprus maintains a liaison office in northern Nicosia.”
Notably, the TRNC’s foreign policy differs from that of Turkey in one key aspect: its officials maintain strong ties with Israel as well as with several former Soviet — and predominantly — Muslim republics such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
“We have offices in Baku, Astana and Tel Aviv,” Erdengiz told us. “We have no problems with Israel, and in fact we have Israeli tourists visiting Northern Cyprus as well as Israeli investors in the tourism sector. An Israeli company recently built [in the TRNC] one of the largest marinas in the whole Middle East. There’s also an Israeli company producing drinking water from a desalination plant. Israeli investors are building holiday villas and selling them. We also receive Arab tourists from the Gulf states and have seven international universities with students coming from more than 40 countries.”
The TRNC’s population is growing at around 1.5 percent a year, and has more than doubled since 1974, when about 125,000 people lived in the Turkish zone.
“Since 2004, the border crossings are open, but the problem is there are no direct flights to Northern Cyprus from anywhere, so all international flights go through Turkey,” he complained. “Because of this, it is very difficult for tourism to pick up momentum. Our exports also suffer greatly because of non-recognition and the embargoes imposed on us.”
Chacalli, however, doesn’t see those checkpoints as borders at all, but rather “as the point where the Turkish troops stopped advancing.”
Even so, he noted that since the election of Nicos Anastasiades of the center-right political party Democratic Rally as president this past February, “we’ve been working very hard to achieve some kind of a solution. There’s now a very intense effort between the two communities to come up with a common declaration that will set the principles on which a high-level dialogue will be based, under the auspices of the United Nations.”
In April 2004, more than three-fourths of Greek Cypriots voted to reject a United Nations plan to reunite the divided island. Some 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots supported the move, seeing it as a way to end their international isolation. However, both sides had to approve the plan — put forth by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan — in order for Cyprus to be reunified in time for membership in the European Union.
As a result, the island joined the EU “divided and militarized,” Annan told the media, complaining that Cyprus had missed an historic opportunity to solve its problems.
In early November, talks resumed in Brussels on Turkey’s own accession to the 28-member EU. The negotiations — stalled for nearly half a year over the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Istanbul — are said to be proceeding well. But the Cypriot government is blocking the opening of six of the 35 chapters in the EU’s rulebook, while the European Commission itself is blocking eight because of Turkey’s trade ban on Cyprus, and France is blocking another four.
Turkish negotiator Egemen Bagis told reporters the UN is working on a new conflict resolution deal that could be put to a vote by both Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 2014. Meanwhile, EU official Stefan Fuele said his enlargement commission would lift its eight-chapter veto if Turkey opens its airports and sea ports to Cypriot vessels.
Chacalli said the 2012-13 financial crisis, which led to the downgrading of his country’s credit rating to junk status, the closing of its second-largest bank, and finally to a €10 billion EU-IMF bailout, has had “no effect whatsoever” on this ongoing dialogue.
“The economic track is one thing, the political element is completely different,” said the Cypriot ambassador. “We are trying to get the economy of the Republic of Cyprus back on track, and we’re also trying to find a political situation since 1974.”
Of course, Erdengiz doesn’t buy that argument for a minute.
“On the contrary, they use this economic crisis as an excuse to delay the talks,” said the envoy, sounding a note of pessimism. “The EU wants to resolve this issue, but it is at the end of the day up to the Greek Cypriots to come to the negotiating table. And since the Greek Cypriot side is recognized as the government of Cyprus and we remain unrecognized, the Greek Cypriots don’t feel the need to resolve it.”