Turkey, Cyprus and Patriarchy

Turkey, Cyprus and Patriarchy

At the beginning of this week, Turkey had yet another political controversy that was expected by probably no one. It began with the statements of the newly elected president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), Mustafa Akıncı. A moderate leftist, Mr. Akıncı promised to press for a peace deal in the ethnically split island of Cyprus (That is an ideal that both Ankara and the Cypriot Turks supported in 2004, but the Greek side on the island rejected, only to be welcomed to the European Union soon after, leaving the north in limbo. So much for EU justice).  

The controversy arose not from Mr. Akıncı’ commitment to peace, but his effort to redefine the relationship between Turkey and the TRNC, a state recognized and supported only by Ankara. “It should be a relationship of brothers, not a relationship of a motherland and her child,” he said, at his victory speech. This was a clear reference to the terms “motherland” and (literally) “offspring-land” that Turkish political language has used since the early 80’s to define the relationship between the Republic of Turkey and the TRNC.

This emphasis on a “brotherly relationship” sounded fine to me, but apparently not to President Tayyip Erdoğan. “Do his ears hear what he says?” President Erdoğan said during a press conference on April 27, in reference to President Akıncı’s statements. He then went on to explain why Turkey and the TRNC are not “brothers,” because the latter is the “offspring.” 

He said, “Even working together as brothers has its conditions. We paid a price for northern Cyprus. We gave martyrs and we continue to pay a price. For Turkey, northern Cyprus is our baby. We will continue to look at it the way a mother looks at her baby.”

I see the basis of what Erdoğan said. Turkey and the TRNC are really not equal; Turkey is both the founder and the sponsor of the latter. But is this something we need to emphasize, probably making the Cypriot Turks feel subdued and humiliated? Or should we rather be modest and generous, treating them as if we were equals, at least in our language and symbolism?

Erdoğan obviously prefers the former option. And this is very much in line with his overall conceptualization of politics: a very hierarchical universe where the big father at the top of pyramid makes sure that all his subordinates know their place. No wonder one of the most frequent warnings Erdoğan makes to other people (not just his party members, but journalists, businessmen, even foreign diplomats and statesmen) is: “Know your limits!” (In Turkish, “haddini bil!”) In his universe, everyone has to know their limits, which are defined by their superiors. If they know that, they will be treated nicely and magnanimously. If they do not, they will be first reprimanded, and then punished.

This highly patriarchal universe must be a suffocating place if you are not used to it. But if you know the rules and play by them, it can be rewarding. That is perhaps what one of Erdoğan’s closest advisors, Yalçın Akdoğan, tried to explain last week in an interview. When asked, “What do you do when Erdoğan is angry?” by a HaberTürk reporter, Akdoğan said, “Well, sometimes you have to approach him as his brother, sometimes as his child.”

This image of the overbearing father, I believe, is what lies at the core of President Erdoğan’s view of the world. And those who don’t get it, like the new president of Cyprus, are likely to either clash with the father’s iron fist, or give themselves in to its warm, embracing arms.