Watch Turkey from a distance – nothing else
THE CONFLICT between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish Army is now an undisputed fact. The crisis, however, has its roots in the past and dates back to the day when Erdogan changed his policy on the Cyprus issue immediately after his AKP party gained power. The difference was that in Cyprus the prevailing view at the time was that this change was nothing more than a communications ploy, staged with the army’s agreement.
Once the AKP won the elections, Erdogan announced his commitment to the modernisation of the country with the ultimate objective of joining the European Union. Moreover, he adopted an unprecedented moderate approach on Greek-Turkish affairs and Cyprus. He announced a new dogma of Turkish foreign policy, which held that “a non solution is not a solution,” only to receive in return the derogatory comments of outgoing foreign minister Sukru Sina Gurel who said that he had no idea of what he was talking about.
Erdogan, after vacillating for a time, adjusted to the spirit of the 1999 Helsinki Accord, which visualised: a solution of the Cyprus problem, accession of the whole of Cyprus to the EU and start of accession negotiations with Turkey.
The current crisis surrounding the election of a new President in Turkey is one that has been postponed for a long time. A clash between Erdogan and the army should have erupted in 2004, when Turkey faced a choice between either resolving the Cyprus issue or forgetting its EU aspirations. In a speech to the War Academies on March 16, 2007, General Yasar Buyukanit stated that the Turkish Army disagreed with the Annan Plan.
Moreover, the Nokta magazine recently published pages from the diary of Admiral Ozden Ornek according to which on February 5, 2004 general staff officers were discussing the staging of a coup against Erdogan because of the latter’s support for the Annan Plan.
On exactly the same day that the army in Turkey was talking of a coup, President Tassos Papadopoulos in Nicosia was claiming that the Erdogan initiative to solve the Cyprus problem was merely a “move to impress”.
The Cypriot President believed what was in progress was not a serious attempt to reach a solution but merely a procedure that “could only lead to the allocation of responsibilities.” Based on this naive analysis, Papadopoulos brought about the 2004 initiative.
Believing that Turkish policy on Cyprus was the exclusive prerogative of the army and Denktash, and that Erdogan’s change of stance was a “public relations trick,” – as he declared on January 28, 2004 – he tried to expose the Turkish Government by begging the UN Secretary General to call for the resumption of negotiations with the aim of having the whole of Cyprus accede to the EU on May 1, 2004. As he anxiously wrote to Annan on December 17, 2003 “we deserve another effort” and categorically assured him that he would accept his plan.
The Papadopoulos strategy to accept the plan solely as a means of allocating responsibility on Turkey collapsed in New York on February 12, 2004, when Erdogan imposed his own policy on Denktash. The time to settle the outstanding accounts between the army and Erdogan arrived in April 2004, when Turkey faced a dilemma: either to follow the Helsinki procedure or to accept a divorce from Europe.
In the end, Turkey was spared this dilemma. It was absolved through the handling of Papadopoulos, not so much because he rejected the plan but rather because of the way he did it. In the game of political poker, the President of Cyprus lost his credibility. The price was paid by Cyprus when, on June 6, 2004, Tassos Papadopoulos put his signature to the conclusions of the EU Council, relieving Turkey from all responsibility for the failure to find a solution.
Cyprus put on its own shoulders a considerable burden that until then was carried by Turkey. The relief felt by the Turkish Army from this change in developments was best described in the recent interview given by Rauf Denktash: “I thank Papadopoulos (. . .) he saved us.”
The events of 2004 proved to be opportune both for the army and for Erdogan. After Athens also abandoned Helsinki, the army retained its own policy on Greek-Turkish affairs and on Cyprus. Erdogan gained additional time to settle his accounts with the army and today he is fighting his battle from a more advantageous position.
As far as Nicosia is concerned, it has failed in its policy to check Turkey’s accession course because with the abandonment of Helsinki it has lost not only its credibility but also its allies. It is now being restricted to uneasily watch developments. When asked a relevant question, the only thing that Papadopoulos could say was: “What we are interested is to see a change in Turkey’s policy as regards the issue of Cyprus. Nothing else.”
So Turkey has to change its policy, but how? The theory on which Cypriot political analysis was founded, which held that all developments inside Turkey were remotely controlled from a central panel controlled by the army, has now being refuted.
It was the Helsinki Accord that gave Cyprus a role and a say on the course that Turkey aspired to follow. This role was lost in 2004 and the combination of historical events existing at the time has gone for ever. The only thing that Cyprus can now do is to watch developments from a distance. “Nothing else.”