CYPRUS – Rauf Denktash, who has died aged 87, was a hero among Turks, an archvillain to Greeks and, for the army of international diplomats and policymakers who dealt with him, an irritant par excellence. As the leader of a state recognised by no other country but Turkey, he will forever be the subject of such split assessments.
A one-man show almost from day of its birth on 15 November 1983, the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus came into being thanks to the sheer obstinacy, determination and chutzpah of Denktash, a British-trained barrister who prided himself as much on his in-depth knowledge of the “Cyprus problem” as his ability to push the parameters of international law.
For the generals in Ankara, with whom he kept excellent relations, he was a political heavyweight on whose hawkish views they could always depend. But for the countless UN secretary generals forced to deal with him at the negotiating table, his uncompromising support of a “two-state” solution to the island’s division – in defiance of international support for a federation – made him an immovable rock against which peace initiatives were repeatedly dashed.
Denktash was born in the southern coastal town of Paphos, 10 years after the island was annexed by the British in 1914. The son of a judge, he attended the English School in Nicosia before winning a scholarship to study law in London. He returned to Cyprus in 1947 to work as a solicitor, soon becoming a member of the consultative assembly set up by the colonial administration. In the 1950s, during the struggle for independence, he helped found the TMT, the Turkish Resistance Organisation, a paramilitary group even then promoting partition of the island in reaction to the Greek-Cypriot Eoka guerrillas’ fight for enosis – the union of Cyprus with Greece.
After independence in 1960, Denktash was elected chairman of the Turkish-Cypriot community council. Four years later, with the island in the throes of inter-ethnic strife, he travelled to attend a UN security council meeting, but when he tried to return to the island found himself banned by the Greek Cypriot-dominated government. With the Turkish-Cypriot community forced into ghettoes, a UN peacekeeping force was allowed in and has remained ever since.
Denktash tried to return to Cyprus again in 1967, but was captured and sent to Turkey. The following year he was permitted to return and take over as representative of the Turkish-Cypriot community at negotiations called to rewrite the island’s constitution and put an end to the conflict. The talks lasted for six years, making little progress, before being brought to a halt by a coup engineered by the junta then ruling Athens against Archbishop Makarios, the island’s first post-colonial leader, in 1974.
Denktash welcomed the Turkish armada that soon arrived to “save” his community. Although the Turkish minority represented just 18% of the island’s total population, the army seized 37% of the land – creating 200,000 Greek-Cypriot refugees almost overnight. But military intervention was necessary, Denktash said, to persuade the Greek side that a bicommunal, bizonal independent Cyprus was the only answer to stopping further bloodshed.
It was a position that Denktash was to maintain ever after, arguing with fierce eloquence that Turkish Cypriots would become a footnote in history if the island were allowed to revert to exclusive Greek rule. To the array of Greek-Cypriot leaders, UN envoys, US presidents and UN secretary generals who would come and go, he would argue that there was no such thing as a “Cypriot nation”, but Greeks and Turks who were forced to live side by side. “The only thing that is truly Cypriot are Cyprus donkeys,” he would say.
In 1975, as a prelude to the full-scale independence he so craved, Denktash was made head of the Turkish federated state of Cyprus hoping to give the north equal billing with the recognised government in Nicosia. But this administration and the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus were never accorded the legitimacy of the Greek Cypriot-controlled south, angering him into further intransigence and ultimately the slow ossification of settlement attempts. “We are not subjects of the Greek Cypriots,” he said in 1994. “The Greek-Cypriot side never intend to have a federal solution with us.”
As the impasse continued, a whole generation grew up in the north never having met a Greek Cypriot nor having seen the south. Denktash saw himself as the only person who had experienced the Cyprus problem since its genesis and therefore the one most likely to have the key to a solution. But international isolation also brought resentment and ultimately anger. Exhausted by years of being embargoed by their fellow Europeans, even in the arena of sports, Turkish Cypriots increasingly hankered for a solution. Ankara, too, appeared to waver, seeing the advantages of a settlement in easing the growing economic hardship in the north. It was indicative of the mood that the one-time strongman failed to win his third presidential election in April 1995 at the first time of asking, having to make do with a second-round victory.
The Greek Cypriots’ successful bid to enter the EU, representing the island’s internationally recognised southern sector, further stoked local fury. But Denktash remained resolute, preferring the option of partition to reunification. His rejection of a peace plan assembled by the UN secretary general Kofi Annan was the tipping point. In 2003 thousands took to the streets waving placards that demanded a settlement and his removal from office. Many complained that the man who had personified Turkish-Cypriot politics for over half a century had turned the north into a “vast prison camp”. At first, Denktash brushed off the protests as the acts of “marginal traitors.” But under pressure he soon agreed to free “cross-border” travel allowing Turkish Cypriots a glimpse of the much richer south for the first time since 1975.
As demand intensified for a more flexible approach, Denktash declared that he would not seek office again. In 2005 he left politics. “Whatever mistakes we committed, the result is a 23-year-old young, dynamic, small republic which is necessary for the security and strategic location of Turkey,” he said in 2006.
A dog lover and keen amateur photographer, Denktash withdrew from public life but behind the scenes continued to exert an influence on Turkish Cypriots who support the notion of a two-state solution to a dispute that still shows no signs of being resolved. He is survived by his wife, Aydin, a son, Serdar, two daughters, Deger and Ender, and 11 grandchildren.
• Rauf Raif Denktash, political leader, born 27 January 1924; died 13 January 2012