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Cyprus and the Turks

Nothing riles a Turk more than "the Cyprus question."

12:00 AM, May 14, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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RADEK SIKORSKI, the former deputy foreign minister of Poland and now head of the New Atlantic Initiative, recently pointed out to me that "there are no more contentious subjects in the world than the Middle East, Kashmir, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus." Unfortunately, he told me too late.

When last I wrote about the Cyprus issue, I received much warmth and gratitude from the Greek Cypriot community and even a glowing letter from the president of AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association). It all made me feel like I was somehow furthering the cause of democracy in the world--that is, before the irate letters and e-mails from Turkish Cypriots and their sympathizers started pouring in.

Aside from the calls for me to stop writing and "be allowed only to clean the toilets," many critics complained about the one-sidedness of the article. Why did I not meet with a Turkish Cypriot and get his perspective on the Cyprus question? So in the interest of fair-minded journalism--and a lunch at Levante, a Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant here in Washington--I decided to meet with Osman Ertug, representative of the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (recognized only by Turkey).

I was a bit nervous about meeting Ertug, even in a public place. (I had images of Michael Corleone meeting with the crooked cop and Sollozzo "the Turk," who famously said, "Try the veal.") But Osman Ertug was a genial-looking man in a natty blue suit, of slight stature, with a carefully trimmed, salt-and-pepper mustache. He seemed pleasantly surprised to see me too (and later confided that I look nothing like my caricature, which he described as that of an "angry Turk").

Things began well, with my host gladly pouring olive oil on my plate so I could swab it with warm and fluffy "pide" bread (or "pita" in Greek) straight from a wood-burning oven. And as I took my first bite, he noted that Turkish Cypriots tend to dwell on the past while Greek Cypriots want to look to the future. "In order to look to the future," he said, "we must look to the past. We must seek the truth--and the truth is on our side." He derided the Greek Cypriots for having "selective amnesia" about history: "For them, history begins in 1974 and not in 1963 and '64!"

Why are these years significant? In a letter he wrote me, Ertug cited "hundreds of Turkish Cypriots killed, wounded, or maimed as a result of the Greek Cypriot armed onslaught of 1963-64, which drove a quarter of the Turkish Cypriot population from their homes and properties in 103 villages across the island." He added that all of the atrocities are backed by full documentation. (Greek Cypriots concede that terrible things did happen in the past--but claim they happened on both sides.) The year 1974 refers to the "intervention" of the Turkish army in northern Cyprus after an attempted military coup on the island against President Makarios. "Makarios and the military junta were actually both on the same side, you see. It is just that the military wanted ENOSIS (the union of Cyprus with Greece) to happen militarily, while Makarios wanted it politically--they thought he wasn't acting fast enough and putting enough pressure on the Turkish Cypriots," Ertug said.

To the Turks, the 1974 coup was the breaking point and the clearest sign that ENOSIS would take place by force. Of course the coup was unsuccessful and Makarios was reinstalled. But the Turkish army never left. It is the reason, says Ertug, why peace has existed on the island uninterrupted all this time. "It's not because of the U.N. (peacekeepers), but because of the Turkish army." I tell him that you don't hear Greek Cypriots pushing for ENOSIS anymore and that they would never do anything undemocratic or unseemly to jeopardize their chances of reunification and, most of all, their entry into the European Union. "They have always wanted ENOSIS," he insists. "They cannot disguise what is inside," despite the friendly gestures.