Feature

Rauf Denktash, 1924–2012

The intransigent leader of Turkish Cyprus

Rauf Denktash was a hero for Turks, a villain for Greeks, and an immovable rock for the procession of international diplomats whose peace initiatives he repeatedly dashed. The former leader of Cyprus’s Turkish minority—who for decades blocked the Mediterranean island’s reunification in pursuit of a separate state for his people—knew he would be remembered as a divisive figure. “Whatever I do, I will be known as Mr. No No, the one who is always intransigent,” he said in 1997. Denktash insisted that he had no choice, as reunification would lead to a massacre of Turkish Cypriots by the majority Greek Cypriots. “We are like little candles in a sea of Greeks,” he said. “One storm and we are all snuffed out.”

Born into a wealthy family in the southern town of Paphos, Denktash attended the English school in the capital, Nicosia, before winning a scholarship to study law in London, said The New York Times. He returned to Cyprus to work as a lawyer in 1947, and found the island riven by sectarian rivalries, said the Financial Times. The Greek-Cypriot Eoka movement was waging a violent campaign against the island’s British rulers, in favor of union with Greece. Fearful of Greek domination, Denktash helped found the Turkish Resistance Organization, which pushed for closer ties with Turkey.

Those communal tensions exploded into violence when Cyprus won independence, in 1960, and U.N. peacekeepers were sent to the island. A formal division was set up in 1974, when Turkey seized the northern third of the island following a short-lived coup by supporters of a Greek takeover. Denktash was appointed president of the new puppet state, and in 1983 proclaimed independence for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. “But the breakaway state failed to gain recognition from any country other than Turkey, which maintains some 35,000 troops there,” said The Washington Post.

International isolation ravaged the republic’s economy. But Denktash, who served four terms as president, clung to the idea of partition, telling Greek-Cypriot leaders and U.N. envoys that there was no such thing as a “Cypriot nation”—just Greeks and Turks forced to live side by side. “The only thing that is truly Cypriot,” he would say, “are Cyprus donkeys.”

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