Is the TRNC truly independent?

On Friday, the TRNC celebrated its 30th year of independence. Since the beginning, this beleaguered state been consistently hindered in its attempts at self-determination. It has since suffered embargos, broken promises of easing embargos by the EU and constant negative attention by the South, particularly when it tries to lift itself out of the economic doldrums. For example some years ago Italian airline, Alitalia was thinking of flying to the North, immediately creating a furore in the South.  More recently, advertisements for tourism in North Cyprus displayed by UK airports came under the South’s gimlet eye and brought, once more, vociferous complaints from the South. The TRNC, this year, even had to fight for the right to maintain geographical status and production control of its own cheese – Hellim when the South wanted to register the name Halloumi in the EU.

Living with political oblivion in international circles, only aided and supported by Turkey, which is still evolving politically and currently moving away from a more secular society, where does the TRNC lie in terms of independence?

Recent preparatory talks about reunification of the island with two separate states, which would give international recognition to the TRNC, have ground to a halt because neither side can agree on the basics. With prospects of a settlement diminishing, what happens to the hopes and dreams of true independence and self-determination for the North?

There are those who already view the TRNC as an outpost of mainland Turkey with calls for the North to be given similar status as Taiwan, or to have it completely subsumed by Turkey. Nevertheless, by whatever means, the TRNC desperately needs to be able to trade freely and also have direct flights since one of its main revenues comes from tourism. Currently, this appears to mean more hotels with casinos and satellite “nightclubs” which ‘service’ the gambling population and heralds corruption and human tragedy that follows in its wake.

According to Salahi Serakinici, vice-president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, around 70% of GDP comes from two sectors, tourism and higher education. Lamenting the TRNC’s failure to diversify, he said: “We should have exerted more efforts to generate a competitive private business sector”. He also complained about the international sanctions imposed on them, asking: “How will we trade? We can’t even sell a bottle of water in southern Cyprus. Trade sanctions on us do not help us to increase the competitiveness of the Turkish Cypriots business community.”

A journalist writing in Turkish national daily ‘Hurriyet’, asks how can the TRNC be truly independent when it takes great chunks of cash from Turkey. So with the money comes attempts to influence. At the last general election, Turkey wanted the CTP to form a coalition with the UBP whose former leader Irsen Kucuk was, essentially, Turkey’s spokesman. However, that suggestion was disregarded and the CTP, in fact formed a coalition government with the DP led by Serdar Dentash, much to the displeasure of the current Turkish government.

In addition, as part of Turkey’s economical reform package, a Turkish fiscal advisor, who is also ambassador to the TRNC has been appointed to monitor economic policy there. Clearly, Turkey has long intended to shape and influence the North in order to reflect its own values. Not all negative by any means but hardly contributing to the principle of independence.

A much-heralded scheme is under weigh to supply the TRNC with water and electricity from Turkey. Two vital commodities upon which the North will be increasingly dependent, particularly in view of forthcoming prices rises in electricity. These commodities, although welcome, again make the TRNC even more dependent on motherland Turkey.

Turkey’s economic package for North Cyprus includes privatising state run enterprises such as KIBTEK. Ercan has aready been privatised; notably the major investor in the airport is a mainland Turkish company. Meanwhile, the head of Turk-Sen union, Arslan Bicakli says that he fears that the government is attempting to privatise the Telephone Office because it has not received government investment for years.

Another ploy has been that, since the Turkish peacekeeping mission in 1974, thousands of mainland Turks, many from Anatolia, have been afforded TRNC citizenship, so altering the political balance and outnumbering the native TRNC population. Other dimensions of the Turkish government’s interventionism are moves to socially restructure the Turkish Cypriot state by emphasising the Muslim identity of the Turks living on the island.

“We are Muslim but we are ‘loose’ Muslims. Secularism is a well-established notion here,” a TRNC official has said, on the condition of anonymity.

“No one is against the building of mosques, but the priority of the Turkish Cypriots is renovating school buildings”, the official said. The number of mosques has risen to 190 recently while the number of schools is 160 in North Cyprus, according to local press reports.

It is also alleged that the Turkish government has demanded a change to the curriculum in TRNC schools to provide more religious education so that future generations will be more pious. This move and the lack of funding for the upkeep of school buildings has been a source of concern for the national teachers’ unions.

“Who is it going to benefit making Turkish Cypriots resemble Turkey? Our culture, mentality and lifestyles are different from the mainland. We are of course Turkish and Muslim, and we are proud of it. But we are also proud of our independence. And if unification plans fail, the TRNC will continue to be our home,” another high-level government official added.

So in the absence of the reunification of Cyprus, which event appears to be rapidly fading into the distance, the TRNC may well continue to benefit from Turkey’s patronage but at what cost to its independence, to its social and cultural identity?

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