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 (TRNC) — a political oddity slightly bigger than Rhode Island that unilaterally proclaimed independence on Nov. 15, 1983.
To mark the 30th anniversary of a country that doesn’t exist, Erdengiz invited several hundred guests to an official function last November at historic Parks House along Embassy Row, where guests noshed on a variety of Turkish delights such as hummus, Antalya bean salad, stuffed grape leaves, lamb kebabs 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 enmity between Greece and Turkey, two ancient rivals engaged in a modern-day standoff on the small Mediterranean island of 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 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 or the short-lived “homelands” of Transkei and Ciskei, which were created and recognized only by the apartheid regime in South Africa.
For his part, Erdengiz insists that “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.”
Deep Diplomatic Freeze
It’s a frozen conflict that doesn’t appear to be thawing anytime soon. Recent attempts to restart reunification talks after an 18-month hiatus were derailed over the wording of a joint statement. It was just the latest failure to resolve a decades-long trauma that has been seared into the collective psyches of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, igniting fierce passions and a narrative of victimhood that each side claims as its own.
The seeds of the conflict date to 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus achieved full independence from Britain 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 minority, launching what the Turks say was a violent campaign to force Turkish inhabitants into fleeing. In 1964, U.N. 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 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 litany 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, though, says it’s the other way around. On Nov. 18, 1983 — just three days after the TRNC declared its “independence” — the U.N. Security Council ruled the Turkish Cypriot declaration legally invalid.
Since then, the United Nations has tried to broker talks between the two sides but continually stumbled over issues such as power sharing, redrawing boundaries, Turkey’s military presence and thousands of property claims by the displaced. A pivotal moment came in April 2004, when 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 U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — 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 missed a historic opportunity to solve its problems.
“Four decades on, the sides remain far apart even on the meaning of the negotiations’ agreed objective: a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation,” the International Crisis Group said in a 2011 report that outlined six steps both sides could take to reach an elusive settlement. “Although there has long been peace, and a relative freedom to interact since 2003, trade and visits between the two communities across the Green Line are decreasing, reflecting popular cynicism toward the prospects of reunification.”
In the meantime, the TRNC, despite its economic and diplomatic isolation, does its best to keep up the trappings of sovereignty. 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.
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.”
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 Agents Registration Act and we maintain our offices as representatives,” he explained. “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.”
TRNC officials also 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…. We also receive Arab tourists from the Gulf states and have seven international universities with students coming from more than 40 countries.”
Last Push for Peace,
Or Another Letdown?
Yet Israel has also been cozying up to Cyprus as part of the rush to tap the vast reserves of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has warned that it considers drilling off the southern coast of Cyprus illegal, sparking fears of energy-related clashes in the region.
Since 2004, Cypriots have also used their EU membership to thwart Turkey’s longstanding bid to join the European Union. In early November, talks resumed in Brussels on Turkey’s accession to the 28-member bloc after stalling for nearly half a year over the recent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Istanbul. 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 United Nations 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 Füle said his enlargement commission would lift its eight-chapter veto if Turkey opens its airports and seaports to Cypriot vessels.
For his part, Chacalli says his country is ready to move forward with talks, despite rejecting the landmark 2004 reunification deal.
He noted that since the election of Nicos Anastasiades of the center-right political party Democratic Rally as president last 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.”
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 solution 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.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.