Rauf Denktash

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Rauf Denktash

The Turkish Cypriot politician and statesman Rauf Denktash (born 1924) began his working life as a lawyer but became engaged in the struggle for his community's rights. In 1975 he became head of the "Turkish Federated State of Cyprus" and in 1985 president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He served in this office for three terms.

Rauf Denktash was born January 27, 1924, in what became the British Crown Colony of Cyprus the following year. He came from a comfortable middle-class family, the son of a judge who worked in the British administration. After graduating from the English high school in Nicosia in 1941, he worked as an interpreter in the courts, taught for a year in the English school, and began to write articles on the problems of Cyprus' Turkish community for Halkin Sesi (Voice of the People). In 1944 Denktash went to London to study law and was called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn in 1947. He returned to Cyprus in 1948 and was appointed to the governor's "Constitutional Council." The following year he began to work in the prosecutor's office, where he remained until 1958.

These years coincided with the mounting Greek Cypriot agitation led by the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, better known by its Greek acronym EOKA. This movement fought for self-determination and enosisor union with Greece, which the Turkish-Cypriot minority resisted strenuously. Denktash, now a respected figure in his community, realized that he must play an active role in the resistance movement. He therefore resigned from government service in February 1958 and was elected president of the Federation of Turkish Associations of Cyprus. He was also one of the founders of the Turkish Resistance Organization (TMT), the Turkish counterpart of EOKA. At the same time he continued his political journalism and published a weekly edition in the Voice of the People in order to present the Turkish thesis to the English-reading public.

International Spokesman

By the late 1950s Denktash had become the spokesman for the Turkish case in the international arenas of London and New York. He led Turkish delegations in the constitutional talks and defended his community's interests in conferences in Athens and London. As a result of his activities his position within the community continued to grow and he became the second most important leader after Dr. Fazil Kuchuk.

Cyprus was declared an independent republic within the British Commonwealth on August 16, 1960. The constitution stipulated that political power would be shared proportionately between the two communities, each having its own legislature. Denktash was elected president of the Turkish Cypriot communal chamber as well as president of the executive committee. But the constitutional arrangements failed to work smoothly and President Makarios shelved the constitution in 1963. As a result, fighting broke out between the two communities in December. Denktash went to London in January 1964 to defend the Turkish case in the five-power conference in which the two communities and the three guarantor powers (England, Greece, and Turkey) participated. In February Denktash went to the United Nations to present his case, the first of many visits.

Denktash was declared persona non grata by President Makarios and was therefore unable to return to Cyprus. As a result, he was forced to reside in Turkey until 1968, though he entered the island secretly from time to time to engage in the struggle against the Greek Cypriot government. He was caught by Greek forces in November 1967 and expelled again to Turkey. But Denktash was allowed to return to Cyprus in April 1968 and again became the president of the communal council and the deputy leader of the administrative council. From June 1968 onwards he led his community's team in the bilateral negotiations with the Greeks. These negotiations continued for the next six years but with no results. Time seemed to favor the Greeks; the Turkish community declined dramatically as a result of economic stagnation and emigration from the island.

The deadlock in negotiations was shattered in July 1974 by the Greek National Guard coup against President Makarios. Backed by the military junta in Athens (in power since 1967), their objective was to overthrow Makarios and bring about enosisby force. But the coup led to intervention by Turkey and the occupation of about two-fifths of the island in the north. In this area, the "Cyprus Turkish Federated State" was created on February 13, 1975, with Denktash as president of the Assembly. In the elections of June 20, 1976, held under the new constitution of June 8, 1975, Denktash was elected head of state for five years by a large majority. But he resigned from his office when he founded the National Union party, whose leader he became. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Greeks were again underway, Denktash proposing a two-state federal solution for the island. But this proposal proved unacceptable to the Greek Cypriot leadership.

President of Breakaway Republic

Denktash was again elected his community's head of state in 1981. With negotiations between the Greek and Turkish communities at an impasse, the Turks proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on November 15, 1983, and Rauf Denktash was elected president on June 9, 1985. He was reelected president in April 1990. The new state was recognized only by Turkey but has acquired roots over the intervening years. Denktash won a third term in 1995 when he was 71. He defeated right-wing rival Dervish Eroglu. The same year, Denktash said Turkish-held parts of Cyprus would integrate with Turkey should the Cypriot government press its bid to join the European Union (EU). "We are not against accession to the EU … we were never against accession to the EU. We will have full integration with Turkey as the south will have full integration with Europe, I think it is the only alternative we have," he told reporters.

The following year, Denktash rejected calls by Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides for demilitarization talks. "Demilitarization on its own cannot be discussed. It should come up in the discussions of the Cyprus problem as a whole," he said at the time. Denktash accused the Cypriot president of trying "to deceive the world" by offering demilitarization. A Cypriot government decision to buy Russian ground-to-air missiles to defend air and naval bases under construction in Paphos further strained relations, said Denktash. However, in the first half of 1997 preparations were being made for direct talks between Denktash and Clerides. The two leaders had not met since 1994 when they talked informally under the auspices of the UN. In July 1997 the leaders met in New York City; however, a quick resolution was not in the offing. The Cypriot government rejected a Denktash proposal to set up a special bicommunal police force to assist UN peacekeepers in the island state's buffer zone. The Cypriot government also called on Denktash and Turkey to abandon attempts to seek recognition for the Northern Cyprus breakaway state.

Apart from being a politician and statesman, Denktash was also an accomplished photographer and author. Most of his publications are in Turkish but The Cyprus Triangle is in English and presents the Turkish-Cypriot perspective on the struggle for the island of Cyprus.

Further Reading

There is as yet no English-language biography of Rauf Denktash. He is listed in such biographical dictionaries as Who's Who in the World, International Yearbook and Statesmen's Who's Who, and International Who's Who of Intellectuals. Therefore, to find more information on this Turkish Cypriot leader the reader will have to turn to the numerous books on the history of modern Cyprus. Recommended amongst these are the following: Pierre Oberling, The Road to Bellapais (1982); Tozun Bahcheli, Greek-Turkish Relations since 1955 (1990); and Kyriacos Markides, The Rise and Fall of the Cyprus Republic (1977). If possible, the reader should try to find Rauf Denktash's own writings, especially The Cyprus Triangle (London, 1982). □