Missing the point!
EARLIER this week, the press in North Cyprus and Turkey were in a frenzy following news that a TRNC minister had flown out from an airport in the South using a Greek Cypriot-issued passport. A photo of Labour and Social Security Minister Zeki Çeler and his cousins at Paphos airport was posted on social media, prompting a flurry of comments, many critical, about the minister’s actions.
While thousands of Turkish Cypriots travel abroad using Republic of Cyprus (RoC) documents and airports, it is believed Çeler, who is an MP for the left-wing Social Democratic Party (TDP), is the first serving TRNC minister to do so.
The 37-year-old politician issued a statement defending his actions, claiming his decision to fly out from an airport in the South was due to the “exorbitant” prices charged by airlines in the North. He maintained he had done nothing wrong, nor did he have anything to hide, hence the post on Facebook. He argued he would have made the same travel plans whether he was a government minister or not because after the TRNC’s national airline had gone bust in 2010, airlines flying to Ercan airport had taken advantage of the situation to “rip off” Turkish Cypriots.
Many will sympathise with Çeler’s view. Flying from Ercan, especially at this time of year, can be hugely expensive. But airlines ripping off customers during peak seasons are not peculiar to North Cyprus.
Naturally, the slump in the Turkish lira has made North Cyprus residents wary of their diminishing spending power, so any opportunity to avoid not only extra travel time, but also additional costs is welcome. It’s why last year 30 per cent of all TRNC holidaymakers flew out from South Cyprus airports. For different reasons, bookings from Britain to the TRNC via Larnaca have also soared: one leading UK tour operator said one in five Britons now travels to North Cyprus via Southern airports.
Calls by the British diaspora for urgent action from Lefkoşa on the UK-imposed security measures forcing passengers to disembark in Turkey for additional screening fell on deaf ears. For reasons still unclear, the TRNC government chose not to hire an independent international security firm to do a comprehensive audit of Ercan airport to demonstrate it was up to international standards. They also failed to press Pegasus Airlines and the Turkish authorities to allow a touchdown on the UK-to-Ercan leg, as this fell outside the UK’s transit rule. Instead for the past 14 months, the elderly, disabled and those with young children in particular have faced tortuous journeys in both directions.
That position is set to change, according to TRNC Deputy Prime Minister Kudret Özersay. He said last week that discussions with Pegasus — the largest carrier to the island — were positive, and he thanked the airline and Turkish officials for supporting plans to return to a simple touchdown procedure for flights from London to Lefkoşa.
Does this excuse Çeler’s behaviour? No. I am not one for vilifying people for their choices, but I do expect public figures to set a better example. Yes, money matters and so does Çeler’s point that if we expect the Greek Cypriot authorities to lay off their community for crossing to the North to purchase cheaper petrol, we cannot then condemn Turkish Cypriots for seeking good deals in the South. But Minister Çeler doesn’t have the luxury of being just an astute consumer; he is a senior representative of the government of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, which brings significant responsibilities.
Zeki Çeler is not alone in holding a Greek Cypriot passport. Former prime minister Hüseyin Özgürgün does, as do the children and grandchildren of former presidents Rauf Denktaş and Derviş Eroğlu. One of the most humiliating moments of Eroğlu’s term in office was when the Greek Cypriot authorities returned to him — in full view of the media — his daughter’s lost RoC passport.
It is embarrassing, to say the least, for any senior TRNC official to be carrying the passport of a government which has hijacked the fundamental rights of Turkish Cypriots. Not satisfied with that, the Greek Cypriot authorities are hell-bent on obstructing our lives at every given turn, whether it is preventing global aviation body ICAO from recognising Ercan airport as open to international traffic, or objecting to us playing friendly international football matches against Fifa-registered clubs and countries.
There is zero good will to us from the Greek Cypriot authorities. If anything, attitudes are hardening, as we have seen with the return in 2017 of longexisting rules to prevent non-EU citizens entering Cyprus from Southern ports if their aim is to cross into the North. Middle Eastern tourists have been deported after being open about their plans to holiday in the TRNC, while a party of 13 Serbian schoolchildren and their adult chaperones were blocked from participating in our April 23 Children’s Day celebrations.
These hypocrites claim it is to check the “illegal use” of hotels formerly owned by Greek Cypriot refugees. Yet they have no qualms about using Larnaca and Paphos airports, both built on Turkish land! They also conveniently ignore the fact that huge swathes of Larnaca, Limassol and Paphos were once the property of Turkish Cypriots who still await any form of legal remedy to their losses.
In every communication about us, it is “illegal” this, or “so-called” that. We do not exist as their equals. Indeed, the Greek Cypriot authorities spend millions each year to keep us internationally isolated, while their part of the island remains visible and accessible to the world.
Using RoC travel documents and airports means we not only bolster the South’s position against North Cyprus, but also give them our hard-earned cash to use against us. It is why neither I, nor any member of my immediate family, nor a great many of my Turkish Cypriot friends, will travel via the South.
Principles matter, Zeki Çeler. Yes, you do have a choice, but if you sincerely think as a TRNC government minister you are helping your people by using a Greek Cypriot passport at Paphos airport, you are completely missing the point.
Labour and Social Security Minister Zeki Çeler