Reunification of Cyprus: Views from the north of the island and from Turkey
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 03/17/2003
Cyprus has one of the longest histories of civilisation, being an important source of copper (from which it derives its name) during the bronze age. The island has experienced domination by Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Hellenes, Byzantines, English (for a few months under Richard I), Franks, Venetians, Ottomans and, finally, the British before gaining independence as the Republic of Cyprus in 1960, guaranteed by the governments of Greece, Turkey and UK.
The island was divided in 1974 when with support from the Greek military Junta, attempts were made to remove all Turkish Cypriots from the island. Despite the fact that both Turkey and Greece were members of NATO, Turkey intervened with military force and occupied about 40% of the island. The ceasefire line has been maintained by the UN ever since, and no country other than Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus, known by them as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Crucially, the British have long established signal intelligence bases on the island, and the (southern part of the) island is, currently, important as a logistics base for the Middle East, being close to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt by sea and close to Jordan. Saudi Arabia and Iraq and the Gulf by air.
Turkey has long been anxious to become a member of the European Union, and was a highly valued member of NATO against the Soviet Union and a good ally of the USA in particular. However, successive Turkish governments have been accused of human rights violations, it has for a number of years conducted punitive military action against the Kurds and is opposed to any development of a separate Kurdish State. The powerful and competent military are defenders of the secular constitution, but a majority of the population are followers of Islam (mostly Sunni), and this is especially true as you travel eastward from Istanbul. The rather large population of over 67 million is not immediately welcomed by the overwhelmingly non-Islamic Europe. The per capita GNP is around $3,000, the growth rate has recovered to 4% after a period of negative growth and the inflation rate runs about 35% per annum. In terms of ethnicity and religion as well as in economic terms it would be a biggish pill to swallow for a European Union that has grown in a quite different direction from the one originally envisaged.
After 27 years of division, the South, aided by Greece, has experienced rapid growth as far as its general economy is concerned and tourism in particular. The economy in the North, despite considerable assistance from Turkey, immigration from the mainland and 35,000 soldiers north of the Green Line, has languished. While there is near full employment (which hides a high degree of underemployment), opportunities are limited and all goods and people have to gain access to the island via the Turkish mainland. Mainland Turks are, in effect, colonising the island causing problems between Turkish-Cypriots and Turks. Cypriot culture, held in common with Greek Cypriots is under pressure and is dying out. The ethnic differences were always somewhat minor.
“There are two main ethnic groups living in Cyprus: The Christian Orthodox community of Greek-speaking Cypriots nd the Muslim Sunni community of Turkish-speaking Cypriots….But the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots have similar customs, and are indistinguishable in looks (e.g. colour, complexion, height, and attire). Nevertheless, there are small differences that symbolize emotional obstacles preventing emotional cooperation amongst them. Although they both wear the same baggy trousers and shirts in the rural areas, the Greeks have black sashes, the Turks red ones. In cities, the Greeks smoke tobacco from blue and white packages, the Turks from red and white packages, their respective national colours. Such minute differences become even more important when relations are bad. No Greek wears a red sash, no Turk smokes from a blue packet.” (Turkkaya Ataov, Professor of International Relations, University of Ankara). This is sometimes labelled the “narcissism of small difference”. We now found that in the North, the Turkish Cypriot and the Turk distinguish themselves with similar “small” differences. Like the English and the US citizen, for instance, they are divided by a common language. Some Turks almost openly laugh at the diminutives in the Cypriot Turkish dialect. There is pressure to Turkify the language of the TV and Radio media in North Cyprus. Students come from the mainland to study at one of the several universities, but Turkish Cypriots prefer go away to study if they can, and there are many low-level clashes between young Turks and Cypriots.
While there is a generation that remembers, and remembers only too well, the fight to survive what was, in effect, an attempted holocaust, time is changing the circumstances in many ways. The new generation in the North feels isolated; entrepreneurship, banking, tourism and other activities are all circumscribed; only the development, ironically, of casinos and universities have progressed in an out of the ordinary way, but both have been aided by government (Turkish and North Cypriot) intervention. On Thursday February 27 nearly one third of the entire population of the North attended a rally in Lefkosa (Nicosia) to call on its government led by the veteran Rauf Denktas to reunite the island. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was personally on the island to attempt to achieve a settlement, but the deadline, February 28, had to be extended.
The key personalities identified in the press are: Rauf Denktash, Tassos Papadopoulos who recently replaced Glafkos Clerides, and of course, their mainland counterparts Simitis and Erdogan. The other key player is Kofi Annan who has placed this settlement high on his list of personal priorities. There are also a great number of television programmes (especially by the channels whose broadcasting policies are openly in favour of the European Club) hosting politicians and young Turkish Cypriots who declare in favour of a united Cyprus. Breaking the taboos is a sure sign that Turkey is prepared to make more compromises than the Greek side. The war in Iraq, which involves high stakes for Turkey, continues to obscure the news and progress of the Cyprus talks. As we go to press on this issue, personalities continue to play a part even though the problem has defied all personalities over the last 29 years and longer: secretary-generals, military junta, prime ministers, UK prime ministers and US Presidents and their envoys, all have come and gone with absolutely nothing achieved.
Rauf Denktash, now in his eighties, has been the firm choice of the Turkish Cypriot population since 1974. He was trained as a barrister in London, and spent much of the troubles preceding 1960 as a prosecutor on behalf of the British colonial rulers.
Ironically he was always a close friend of the recently defeated Glefkos Clarides in the South of the island. Like Denktash he trained as a lawyer in London where they knew each other well. During the Second World War he was a pilot in the RAF and spent several years as a prisoner of war in Germany after his aircraft was shot down. It was always assumed that if any two people could come to an agreement Denktash and Clerides could.
However, Clerides lost the (South) Cyprus presidential election to Tassos Papdopoulos who will lead the latest negotiations. The Turkish press gave a muted response to this result, probably so as not to be too provocative. Papadopoulos was a member of EOKA the “terrorist” organisation dedicated to the unification of Cyprus with Greece, and a strong proponent of hellenisation of the whole island. The Turkish press argue that his line on unification may have softened, but there is no real indication of this judging from what Papadopoulos has himself intimated.
The current Turkish government does want a settlement of the issue because of its own urgent interest in joining the EU. If that offer is denied to Turkey, their main option would be to annex the island. One model for this is the strange UK arrangement between the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man is completely independent, including having its own tax laws but the UK is responsible for foreign policy. Much of the prosperity of the Isle of Man derives from its position as a tax haven and is, thus, similar, to the Channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
The Turkish government would regard such a move as being a last resort, however. There is considerable pressure for a settlement, once and for all of this issue, but there is considerable bitterness to overcome. Many people on both sides disappeared during the troubles and the bodies have never been recovered; old people remember rather than forget. Both sides keep “atrocity” museums, and keep alive the worst stereotyping of the other. The Turkish population were mainly the “working class” under British Colonial rule, and they and their language were regarded as somehow inferior. Few want to return to this but the Greek prosperity in the South appears as a permanent indictment of the “failure” of the North, reinforcing the unfavourable stereotyping of the Turkish side by the Greeks.
This settlement requires external pressures for progress, good-will and short memories. The former is there, the rest is lacking. While some influential Turks have reflected on the once unthinkable suggestion of giving up land for a settlement, it is certain that unless there is a proposal for a strong independent and essentially separate state for the North, there is unlikely to be an agreement.
The reaction of the Turkish parliament in refusing military assistance to the USA, will more likely hinder the Cyprus settlement as the US will not lend its weight so willingly to the reunification of the island.
Deadlines change and votes change. One way or another, we’ll know in a couple of weeks whether Kofi Annan has scored a victory or whether he’ll have to wait a while longer. All peace negotiations are cliff-hangers.
Some recent books:
Andrew Borowiec, A Troubled Island, Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc, 2000, ISBN 027596533
Thomas Dietz (Editor), The European Union and the Cyprus Conflict: Modern Conflict, Postmodern Union, Manchester University Press, 2002, ISBN 0719060796
Laurence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Marlowe and Compnay, 1996, ISBN 1569248397 (First published 1953, and is generally pro-Greek Cypriot but interesting insights into both sides).
Turkish news sources in English:
This report was compiled with the help of Professor Nurcay Turkoglu, Professor of Communications, University of Marmara, Istanbul; and Professor Ahmet Cakmak, Professor of Economics, University of Marmara, Istanbul.