Turkey has initiated a three-day mourning period in memory of Rauf denktaş, the founding father of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) who, at the age of 88, passed away on Friday night after a year-long health battle triggered by a stroke he suffered last year.
Turks all over the world relayed their condolences to Turkish cypriots, who were shaken by the news of the death of Denktaş, who fought for an independent Turkish state on the island of Cyprus his whole life. In his memory, flags flew at half-staff all over Turkey and the KKTC, and Turkey's foreign missions also followed suit.
Denktaş, a leader respected for his devotion to his country even by those who vehemently rejected his policies, will be laid to rest on Tuesday at Lefkoşa Republic Park after a lengthy consideration of where the beloved leader should be buried. Final prayers before the burial will be held on Tuesday at Selimiye Mosque in Lefkoşa. As life halts for Turkish Cypriots, multiple memorial services will be held in the KKTC, and the country is awash with pictures of the late leader.
The KKTC has seen the arrival of flocks of Turkish politicians since Denktaş's death on Friday, and leaders from various parts of the world have sent their condolences to the Denktaş family. Turkish President Abdullah Gül lamented the loss of the KKTC leader, saying this was a loss not only for Turkish Cypriots but all Turks around the world. Denktaş became a leader of the masses in his fight for the survival of Turkish identity on Cyprus after an Athens-backed coup in 1974 tried to unite the island with Greece, which caused a Turkish intervention, and eventually led to a unilateral declaration of the KKTC, nine years later.
Gül urged Turkish Cypriots to safeguard their state, which he said was Denktaş's greatest legacy while striving for "success in the half-century-long struggle for a fair and lasting peace" in Cyprus, the AP reported.
Denktaş's death was also acknowledged by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said he was saddened to hear of the loss, adding that Denktaş was “a historic Turkish Cypriot leader with whom the UN had a long relationship.” Until Denktaş's leave from politics in 2005, the leader remained opposed to uniting with the Greek Cypriot administration, after a life trying to mobilize Turkish Cypriots to claim their own sovereignty since the 1960s.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç also commemorated Denktaş as “a big leader who put up a fight for the existence of a nation that was ignored” as his counterpart Bekir Bozdağ noted that Denktaş engaged in a life-long fight for “the honor and dignity” of Turkish Cypriots and a national battle for the KKTC.
In the decade before his death, Denktaş drew criticism from the EU as well as “motherland” Turkey for his commitment to a partitioned Cyprus and an independent KKTC, a long-time goal that was abandoned when it created one of the largest obstacles to Turkey's EU accession process. Denktaş's last words, in Greek, to his daughter were “tell them, this is an independent state,” a message that proves the Cypriot leader was still very much a supporter of what was once a national cause, even on his deathbed.
Denktaş's insistence on a partition was also voiced by President of Greek Cyprus Dimitris Christofias in a condolence message he delivered on the strong-minded politician's death. Christofias said it would be the wrong time to criticize Denktaş right after his death but noted that he had a vision that Greek Cypriots naturally could not agree with, since “Denktaş was steadfast to his vision for partition,” the AP reported.
However, a twin referendum held in 2004 to define the fate of reunification of the island revealed an overwhelming majority of Greek Cypriots rejected the idea of a unified state, while most Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of unity. At the time, Denktaş said he would also reject the reunification, called the “Annan Plan” after Kofi Annan, the UN chief who initiated negotiation talks between the separated communities on the island and led them to a stage where it was put to a vote of the people. The Annan Plan was the closest the two side have ever come to a unified statehood that would grant certain equal rights to both communities.
Ever since Denktaş' rejection of the reunification plan, he was cited as a trigger in the Greek Cypriot accession to the EU, which was done hoping a solution could be found more easily once the country entered the EU bloc, but this desired result wasn't achieved. Turkish officials frequently claim that the EU acceptance of a community that has serious domestic challenges and a territorial dispute brought a serious disadvantage to the negotiations rather than motivating a solution.
Almost a decade after Denktaş announced he would oppose a reunification of the island, Turkish and Greek communities are still trying to negotiate a way out of the ethnic division of the island, but the prospect does not have strong backing from the Greek Cypriot community, who are already in the EU and enjoy recognition from the rest of the world as the sole representatives of the island of Cyprus.