Coronavirus aid controversy in the spectre of Turkish-Cypriot elections

    Turkish Cyprus debates whether the country’s leader politicised aid from Greek Cyprus.

    As with other controversies that have erupted concerning government performance with regard to the pandemic across the world – as well as the extension of medical aid – the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) has experienced its own rather more minor share of contention; one that still reveals how readily such matters become the subject of political difference.

    With presidential elections that were meant to take place in April now deferred until October, accusations were made that a request for medical supplies from the Greek-Cypriot South was ‘political’ in nature. President Mustafa Akinci’s office was also perceived to have highlighted the comparatively paltry supplies acquired from the South, without directly acknowledging the lion’s share of aid sent from Turkey.

    President Akinci expressed disbelief at the critiques against the move, lamenting the spite and animosity at play at such a time, pointing out the humanitarian connotations of the event, but also that in normal conditions cooperation on health-related matters existed before between Turkish-Cypriot and Greek-Cypriot authorities.

    Though Akinci added elsewhere that “wherever help comes from we thank them”, and later that the Turkish-Cypriots were always thankful for Turkey’s help over the decades, his comments did not placate those who felt Turkey’s overtures were intentionally under-emphasised on this occasion.

    The apprehension regarding the development seems to have partially carried over from a more raucous controversy that erupted in February, emanating from what Akinci asserted was a misreported interview given to The Guardian, the polemics of which nonetheless touched nerves in Cyprus and Turkey. The issue then was quite complex, but revolved largely around what was seen as an undue fear expressed about the prospect of North Cyprus being incorporated into Turkey (which is not the desire of the latter).

    Prime Minister Ersin Tatar of the North’s National Unity Party (UBP) – who is running against incumbent Mustafa Akinci in this year’s election – asserted that though there was a humanitarian motive, the move also carried political undercurrents.

    Alongside a number of medical professionals in the TRNC, Tatar saw the aid that was procured from the Greek-Cypriot South as unnecessary in light of the aid Turkey had sent, as well as the stockpiled medicines already found in the North. In total, 2,000 chloroquine tablets (alongside 4,000 pieces of protective garments), arrived from the South. Reportedly, there were 26,410 chloroquine tablets in stock in the TRNC (not including those in pharmacies and hospitals), with 1,600 tablets being used thus far.

    Dr. Necmi Bayraktar affirmed the view that the materials were unnecessary, arguing: “[…] If it was not the Presidency that decided what to request, then the Turkish bi-communal committee members should resign for enabling advertising (politics) to be conducted over what we already have enough of!”

    Tatar argued along similar lines, citing the Ministry of Health in the view there was no need for supplies from the South, coupled with the fact that there were only a few dozen patients in care at the height of the outbreak. The TRNC has been successful in its efforts to ‘flatten the curve’ as reported by T-VINE, with only four deaths to speak of and no new reported cases for nearly three consecutive weeks now. In contrast, the Turkish-Cypriot community has been rocked by over 90 deaths abroad; a dynamic also relayed in the New York Times.

    Tatar also expressed reservations about the presidency bypassing the Government and the Ministry of Health, that if any aid were needed it would have arrived quicker from Turkey anyway. A further contention was that if the relevant Turkish-Cypriot public health authorities such as the Ministry of Health were consulted, then at least other materials that may have been lacking in the north could have been requested from the south.

    The relevant bi-communal committee that deals with health-related matters (and has cooperated on similar issues in the past), is said to have decided amongst itself first as to what was needed, before the office of the Presidency of Mustafa Akinci approved the move. Other reports seem to miss this detail, expressing that Akinci had requested the move from his Greek-Cypriot counterpart in a phone call first.

    Nicosia Turkish Municipality then became involved in its delivery, which also had tough words for Tatar when the latter asserted that official customs regulations were not considered. Akinci deflected criticism by expressing ridicule at the possibility of being charged with smuggling. In turn, Former President Mehmet Ali Talat came out against both the chauvinism of the idea against working with the Greek-Cypriots, and a Presidency unaware of the procedures of bringing medicine into the country.

    What the fiasco has highlighted in Turkish Cypriot politics is a heightened awareness regarding the extension of gratitude and cooperation, with the extreme of one side of the political spectrum viewing gratitude expressed at Turkey in a more cynical and utilitarian vein in enabling Turkey to ‘power-over’ the Turkish-Cypriots, whilst the same apprehensive gaze can be cast against those who push for undue or unnecessary cooperation with the Greek-Cypriots for their own political gain. Turkey has sent pandemic-related aid and supplies to over 60 countries, which has again been seen by some in wholly utilitarian terms, forgoing the humanitarian perspective themselves.

    There are also certain expectations that also come with the notion of cooperation between the two communities at play. In fact, Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots have dealt with each other on a number of occasions across a multitude of domains before, especially since borders between North and South opened in 2003.

    How exactly to foster cooperation for the benefit of the intermittent and thus-far failed settlement talks to reunite the island as a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation, has always been a curious hallmark of the island’s politics. Though cooperation does exist, there has been no paradigm-shift in the island’s status quo. In some domains, cooperation is in fact viewed as anathema, namely the Greek-Cypriot view towards the offshore natural gas exploitation process. More so, the decades-long formal UN-sponsored settlement talks have been guided by the paradox of solving the ‘Cyprus Problem’ first before high-level cooperation can take place, as well as ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.

    The various binary perceptions that have emerged as of late such as: Akinci versus Tatar, Akinci versus Turkey, or left versus right, tend to obscure more than they reveal about Turkish Cypriot politics and, more worryingly, aid and abet polarisation amongst fellow Turkish-Cypriots instead of fostering cooperation between the community itself first. In any case, perhaps credit should be given where credit is due, without imbuing humanitarian aid with inflated political expectations. What has (rightly) escaped controversy is the Stelios Philanthropic Organisation’s gracious donation of 20,000 GBP ($25,000) to the Nicosia Turkish Municipality, 15,000 GBP ($19,000) for the Association for the Improvement of Lefkosa Burhan Nalbantoglu Hospital, 10,000 GBP ($12,000) to the Cyprus Turkish Municipalities Alliance, and 5,000 GBP ($6,000) to the Cyprus Turkish Medical Doctor’s Alliance.

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