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Rauf Denktash: Politician who fought to establish the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus


Rauf Denktash was the first president of the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). His consistent purpose was to destroy for ever the concept of a single Cypriot nation state, common to both Greeks and Turks.

He believed it should be replaced by two ethnically cleansed "statelets" linked only by a very weak confederal authority. Otherwise, he threatened from time to time, he would either merge the TRNC with Turkey or declare it fully independent and put an end to the periodic reunification talks.

He made no secret of his intentions. As he wrote with brutal directness in his book The Cyprus Triangle (1982), "There is not and there never has been a Cypriot nation. That may be the misfortune of Cyprus and indeed the root cause of its problem, but it is a reality which has to be faced." He retained the view that the Greek Cypriot community had not abandoned its desire for Enosis (union with Greece), or its determination to treat the Turkish Cypriot minority as second-class citizens.

A big man, physically, psychologically and politically, Denktash dominated the "state" he had done so much to create, just as he had dominated Turkish Cypriot politics for two decades. He came from that final generation of pre-independence, British-trained lawyers. He was born the son of a judge in Paphos, southern Cyprus. He attended the select English School in Nicosia. After being called to the Bar he returned to the island and opened a practice in 1947. Within two years he was a junior Crown Counsel and by 1956 acting Solictor-General of the colony during the worst of the EOKA (Greek Cypriot National Liberation movement) atrocities.

He was President of the Federation of Turkish Cypriot Organisations from 1958 to 1960 and President of the Turkish Communal Chamber and Vice-President of the Republic of Cyprus from independence in 1960, until 1974, when he led his own people to his form of independence. He was regularly re-elected to the presidency of the statelet which he ruled courtesy of Turkey.

In February 2004 he embarked on UN-sponsored talks with the Greek Cypriots aimed at re-uniting Cyprus, but opposed the settlement proposal drafted under the authority of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (the Annan Plan), which was voted on in a referendum in April 2004. The plan was accepted by 65 per cent of the Turkish community but rejected by a vast majority of the Greeks. In May 2004, he announced he would not be standing for a fifth term as president, and in 2005 Mehmet Ali Talat was elected.

This flat account does less than justice to the man who for years slept with a pistol under his pillow. He helped found the terrorist group TMT (the Turkish-Cypriot counterpart of EOKA) in 1957. Already he favoured partition, perhaps to be followed by "double enosis" – union with Turkey and Greece.

After independence in 1960, (granted in a form which ruled out double enosis) he encouraged his people to move into ghettoes, insisting that they had to do so to avoid atrocities. Then, in 1967 George Grivas, the Greek Cypriot leader of the anti-British Enosis fighters of the 1950s, slipped back into independent Cyprus and, backed by the military junta then ruling Greece, set to work to undermine the central government led by Archbishop Makarios.

Like Denktash, Grivas wanted double enosis. It is still not clear how much collusion there was between the two apparent enemies. A botched coup in 1974, organised by Athens, led to the collapse of the Greek junta. But it gave Turkey the excuse Denktash had long sought for military intervention in Cyprus. This led to de facto partition, and eventually to Denktash's goal – the TSNC (Turkish State of Northern Cyprus) of which he became president.

Denktash was a generous host, an enthusiastic cook and a fine photographer and, like most foreign journalists, I enjoyed visiting him, although we argued constantly. By the standards of the region his was a benign autocracy.

He exercised personal clout, and it was wise not to cross him. I remember accompanying him as he drove from the stunning "presidential" palace on the Venetian walls of old Nicosia to deal with a politically sensitive row over a refugees from the population exchanges of 1974. They were squatting on land which belonged to a powerful Islamic foundation which had been leased to developers who wanted to drive out the squatters from their makeshift hovels.

Denktash sat in informal judgement. It was, he reflected, an Islamic duty to help the poor and homeless. How long, he asked, did the developers' lease have to run? A few months, was the reply. Denktash mused. How could the foundation renew the lease if the developers had failed to fulfil their religious obligations, he asked threateningly? But then, how could the foundation NOT renew the lease – under the most generous of terms – to developers who had rehoused the refugees on, say, that vacant land across the road?

He departed, having imposed a deal – with both sides promising him support in the forthcoming presidential election. Once we were in the official Mercedes he turned to me and said with a cynical grin, "That is what you can do if you don't have to worry about the law of the land, the Town and Country Planning Act or the commercial courts."

I first met him shortly after the Turkish "invasion" in 1974. I told him I had come to look at "the Cyprus problem" – a neutral form of words, or so I thought. "What Cyprus problem?" he demanded. "There has been no Cyprus problem since the island was divided. Only a solution. Before partition we were killing each other. Now we are at peace."

Denktash devoted the rest of his life to ensuring that partition was retained, and that all the efforts of the UN, the US and the EU to impose some form of federal unity came to naught. A bleak memorial perhaps. But one he would have been proud of.

Rauf Denktash, politician: born Ktima, Paphos 27 January 1924; President, "Turkish Federated State of Cyprus" 1975-83; President, "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" 1983-2005; married 1949 Aydin Munir (one son, two daughters, and one son deceased); died 13 January 2012.