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Tuesday, January 01, 2002


Cyprus: Peace At Last?

The resumption of negotiations between the two old warriors of Cyprus – Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash – has again raised hopes of a sudden breakthrough in the decades-long impasse that has effectively partitioned the island. Expectations might be elevated, too, by the urgency that accompanies this new round of seemingly endless talk: the European Union (EU) will soon admit the republic of Cyprus to full membership, the fulfillment of a long aspiration of President Clerides. But the republic, now a Greek Cypriot government, does not control the Turkish Cypriot north, and there’s the rub. The Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, and his sponsors in Ankara do not wish to enter the EU, and this disagreement – like so many others over the years – is a stubborn obstacle blocking a solution to the mistrust, division, and bitterness that has beleaguered Cyprus since the 1950s.

If the new face-to-face negotiations produce a breakthrough, it would be due to Turkey’s own EU candidacy, and perhaps the understandable desire of the elderly Clerides and Denktash to leave something positive behind. The question for all Cypriots, of course, is what that “something positive” is. No one quite knows; is it a loose confederation and dual sovereignty, as Denktash insists, or a more tightly integrated federation and single sovereignty, as Clerides proposes? The alternatives are surely less agreeable: a gradual absorption of Turkish-held Cyprus by the larger and more prosperous Greek Cypriots once both are operating under EU rules, if ever; or annexation of northern Cyprus by Turkey, which would divide the island formally and likely end Turkey’s chances for admission to Europe for decades. The status quo, with the renegade Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, unrecognized by anyone except Turkey, holding 37 percent of the land under the watchful eye of 35,000 Turkish army regulars, is likely untenable. So the sense of something happening, whether positive or not, is in the air, although the climate in Cyprus has been thick with rumor and expectation before, only for it all to be swept away by an ill Mediterranean wind.

The clash of histories
The division of the island was the result of one of the most tragic episodes of civil strife in recent memory. Greek Cypriots date the cataclysm to July and August 1974, when Turkey invaded to protect its ethnic brethren, 20 percent of all Cypriots, from possible genocide at the hands of the nearly comic figure of Nicos Sampson. The Greek government in Athens, in the death throes of the harsh military dictatorship that ruled Greece after the coup d’etat of April 1967, engineered a coup against President Makarios and installed Sampson in July. While the coup was reversed rather quickly, Turkey struck the northern coast by the time the Makarios government was re-installed (led by acting president Clerides). As Sampson – a notorious member of the terrorist group, EOKA-B – might very well have carried out a violent campaign against Turkish Cypriots, the Turkish response was plausibly warranted. But negotiations to reconstruct a unified island in the wake of these multiple traumas were unsuccessful, and Turkey struck for a second time in mid-August, seizing the northern tier of the island and driving out nearly 200,000 Greek Cypriots, while some 6,000 people died in the fighting.

Turkish Cypriots tell a different tale. The division, in their view, began, not in the fateful summer of 1974, but with the outbreak of intercommunal violence in December 1963, when the young republic was still functioning (though barely) as a single state. A brutal campaign of violence was primarily organized by EOKA, the 1950s “freedom fighters” that forced Britain to grant independence in 1960. This terrorism, answered in kind by Turkish Cypriot militias, quickly drove Turkish Cypriots into enclaves for the better part of a decade. These enclaves, often the scene of considerable deprivation and isolation, were the beginning of the island’s division, Turkish Cypriots explain, although the indistinct lines of what was “Turkish” or “Greek” Cyprus in 1964-74 do not conform to today’s boundaries.

This history is essential to grasping the impasse of the last 27 years. Greek Cypriots see their victimization in the harrowing invasions of 1974 and the dispossession of one-third of their population. The period before 1974 is regarded as a time of troubles, and of political argument and some unfortunate violence, but nothing more. For Turkish Cypriots, however, the period of the enclaves is decisive, a time of deep humiliation and hardship – while the arrival of Turkish troops in 1974 was seen as a liberation.

The impasse in negotiations for a “unified” Cyprus harkens back to those difficult times, and not only because Denktash and Clerides were major participants then as well. Turkish Cypriots do not want to be in a position in which they can again be dominated by Greek Cypriots; hence, they insist on a loose confederation with dual sovereignty – essentially, a few interlocking island-wide institutions, but continuing separation. Greek Cypriots see the mainland Turks as pulling the strings, resent the presence of a conquering Turkish army, and believe that Turkish Cypriots have nothing to fear from a more unified state. The two clashing “solutions” stem directly from differing interpretations of history, or, more precisely, from the different forms of “social amnesia” that afflict the two communities.

The common history is tragic because the two communities were, more than once, very close to a resolution of their tangled political relationship. Clerides and Denktash bargained in the 1960s and early 1970s to reforge a polity that would guarantee Turkish Cypriots some autonomy – local self-government, in essence – within the state. Makarios, a hero of independence and president until his death in 1977, failed to grasp that this carefully crafted solution (which Clerides favored) was the only feasible path to peace. But he may still have been won over had the Greek colonels not intervened and provided an excuse for Turkey to move into northern Cyprus.

The new equation
The fitful negotiations over nearly three decades since de facto partition have failed in part because first the Greek Cypriot side and then the Turkish Cypriot side rejected or balked at previously tenable positions. For the last 15-20 years, the culprit appears to have been Rauf Denktash, who seems actually not to have wanted a settlement, hoping perhaps to be head of his own state and therefore hailed throughout the Turkish (and Muslim?) world as a nation-builder. It is likely, however, that Ankara also did not want a settlement, for reasons that are somewhat more difficult to divine. Atatürk, a true nation-builder, largely did not have designs on territory outside what was granted to Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne, but he did bequeath an exceptionally strong sense of nationalism to his countrypeople, and it may be a point of pride in Turkey to “keep” northern Cyprus.

Whatever the reasons for the long impasse, each side now calculates according to the rules of EU entry, but even this is a game with a hard edge, as events late last year demonstrated. The veteran prime minister of Turkey, Bulent Ecevit, has threatened to annex northern Cyprus if the European Union accepts Cyprus as a member. (Ecevit was prime minister in 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus, the second time weeks after the Greek junta’s buffoonish coup had collapsed and during the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency.) He also apparently cut a deal in late November with EU officials to approve the use of NATO troops in the new EU defense force. Early reports indicate that Cyprus was the linchpin of the deal since Ecevit insisted on EU forces being excluded from any action relating to the island nation.

Ecevit’s bluster is particularly risky because Turkey itself is an EU candidate. While actual membership is a long way off – and has many opponents in Turkey, not least the dominant military – the secular, West-leaning parties all favor membership. So Ecevit’s bumptiousness on Cyprus is a major obstacle in the way of Turkey’s own European course, and includes not only the absorption threat but the ongoing presence of the Turkish army, charges of army-led repression, rigged elections, an ongoing resettlement of Turkish peasants in the north, and international court decisions against Turkey relating to the invasion and occupation. The actual financial cost to Turkey for this behavior is incalculable if it forfeits its seat at the European table.

The refusal of politicians in the north to join the negotiations for EU membership is more understandable. American diplomats in particular believe EU candidacy to be a clever way of forcing Turkey and the Denktash regime to negotiate constructively for a federation, but this has backfired into a raucous rejection of the EU. The Turks argue that EU membership would subsume northern Cyprus into the dominant Greek polity, a return to the abhorrent pre-‘74 conditions. Fears of reprisals from Greek Cypriots to avenge the ‘74 invasion are also realistic: the Church of Cyprus is particularly vitriolic regarding the Turkish north, and has been nurturing the seeds of vengeance for three decades. One assumes that government officials in the republic would exercise restraint, and would in any case be held in check by Greece, which is supportive of their Cypriot cousins, but has been far less meddlesome since the disaster of 1974. However, the Church is fomenting a confrontation that could easily turn violent. Hence, the insistence on separation by Denktash and indeed most Turkish Cypriots. But the EU – indeed, the raison d’etre for the EU – mandates open borders. It is difficult to imagine a simple or near-term solution that could honor the norms of Europe and cope with the still-divisive sentiments on the island.

One reason the island is not ready for any such change is that the social forces on both sides are stuck in the paralyzing history of the 1960s and 1970s. Educational institutions and the news media reinforce the respective self-interested versions of history and preach distrust of the other. Each side harkens back to the long and difficult relationship between the ethnic “motherlands.” The politicians are scarcely more conciliatory: in the south, the EOKA leader and terrorist George Grivas is honored routinely; in the north, the 1974 invasion is called a “peace operation” and the Turkish flag is emblazoned on the hillside overlooking Nicosia for all Greek Cypriots to see. The security apparatus on both sides reinforces the sense of betrayal and paranoia. Virtually nowhere is there a civil movement for peace; all public sentiments are channeled toward revenge or separation. This stands in stark contrast to places where peace agreements have been successfully engineered – and where they have always been encouraged by citizens’ movements tired of hostilities and open to a political space for compromise and agreement. No such space exists in Cyprus, and no viable citizens’ movement has appeared.

Possibly the most encouraging phenomenon in this regard are the outbreaks of Turkish protest in the north. Thousands of people have demonstrated in the last 18 months, mainly against the chronically weak economy, but also against the rigidity of Denktash’s regime and his slavish devotion to Turkey. Indeed, Turkish Cypriots are thrice punished for their status: they live in a militarized state and lack basic democratic rights; the economy is a fragile hodgepodge of subsidies and the black market (and, noteworthy nowadays, alleged money-laundering); and they are isolated from the rest of the world. If given the choice – and protected from Greek Cypriot revenge – most of them would eagerly join Europe. These sentiments are strongly generational; it is older Turkish Cypriots who recall the desperate days of the enclaves and EOKA brutality. The younger generation harbors no such memories (apart from those passed down), but does yearn to be connected to the vitality of Europe. It may be this “détente from below” that breaks the impasse, but Turkish leaders are notoriously impervious to popular movements.

Faint glimmers of hope
What can untangle this snarled situation? Surely, the major powers could use the opportunity of EU accession more creatively and forcefully. Regrettably, the “war on terrorism” may prevent adroit diplomacy, particularly from the United States. Ecevit’s threat to annex northern Cyprus seems timed to take advantage of this. Turkey extracted numerous financial and military advantages for its role during Desert Storm. Now, Ankara appears again to be seizing a moment in which the United States will register only weak complaints against Ankara’s bad behavior in Cyprus, particularly since Ecevit gave highly visible support to the war in Afghanistan. As with Desert Storm, the Turks will gain a financial windfall: another $10 billion via a US-engineered IMF bailout of Turkey’s chronically rickety economy. While IMF officials deny the link to Turkey’s role in the war against terrorism, others – including former IMF officials and the Turks themselves – reportedly say the link is obvious.

But Ecevit might only be playing the “bad cop” to Denktash’s “good cop.” The latter invited Clerides to dinner, is opening up a face-to-face dialogue, and has apparently floated an idea for single sovereignty. Now, Clerides must adeptly respond by acceding to some form of confederation idea (although calling it something less onerous) to pave the way for an all-island accession to the EU. That, in the long run, will serve reunification; the alternatives certainly look worse for both communities. Clerides, however, must act with sharpened leadership skills, bringing his own people along what will be a challenging process of reconciliation. He and Denktash have been close to a solution before, but this may be their last dance together. Their chances of success hinge not just on their own ingenuity, of course, but on the political cultures of their people and the outside powers who have so long played a role in Cyprus’s fate.

John Tirman was Fulbright Senior Scholar in Cyprus in 1999-2000 and is editor of the Website, Now a program director at the Social Science Research Council, he is the author, among other books, of Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade and Making the Money Sing: Private Wealth and Public Power in the Search for Peace.
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