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Politics

Cyprus At Last

25 January 2004

Cyprus At Last

By Gwynne Dyer

After thirty years of armed partition, the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus will probably enter the European Union as a reunited, bi-communal republic next May. Only days before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visits President George W. Bush in Washington, the Turkish army finally ended its long opposition to a settlement that eliminates the illegal Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ on 23 January. Exactly what bribes and threats were deployed is not yet clear, but the biggest issue was clearly the prospect of Turkish membership in the European Union.

For decades, joining Europe has been Turkey’s main foreign policy goal, and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party shares that goal despite its strong Islamic roots. It recognises that the best protection for the rights of Muslim believers is a secular, democratic state with the firm rule of law, so it has been more active than any of its predecessors in rewriting Turkey’s laws to conform to EU norms on human rights and democracy. Nevertheless, Brussels told Ankara quite bluntly that Cyprus had to be reunited before Turkish membership could be seriously discussed.

Erdogan wanted to comply, but he couldn’t deliver because the Turkish army wouldn’t let him. It mistrusted him because of his Islamic roots, and it wouldn’t let Cyprus go because that had been its one undisputed military success in a very long time. Stubborn, truculent and stupid — but then, those words describe the entire Cyprus situation.

Cyprus has had a Turkish minority (currently about 18 percent of the population) ever since it was part of the Ottoman Empire. After the island passed into British control in 1870, the Turks collaborated with the new imperial rulers – which put them on the opposite side from the Greek majority, who eventually backed a guerilla war that drove Britain out of Cyprus in 1960. The deal at independence was that Greeks and Turks would share power in the new republic, but it only lasted fourteen years.

Greek-Turkish fighting in the early 1960s ended with the Turkish-Cypriots besieged in various enclaves and the arrival of a United Nations force. The Greek-Cypriot militia, secretly backed by the military dictatorship in Athens, carried out a bloody coup against its own government in 1974 with the intention of uniting the island to Greece — and Turkey invaded to stop that. By the end of the war, the Turkish army controlled almost two-fifths of the island and 200,000 Greek-Cypriots had become refugees. And that is where everything still sits today, thirty years later. Crazy.

Crazy because none of the major players wants Cyprus to stay like that. The European Union does not want one of its new members next May to be a country divided by barbed wire and minefields, with the Turkish army sitting on the northern third of it. Greece has promised Turkey not to block its EU membership if Ankara will only sort out the Cyprus nonsense. And the Greek-Cypriot government also wants a deal: last March, it accepted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s peace plan that envisages a republic of two largely autonomous communities in which the Turkish-Cypriots would have to relinquish less than a third of their current territory.

A majority of Turkish-Cypriots wants the same deal: 52 percent of them voted for parties that backed it in last December’s election. The Turkish government supports the deal, because it wants to get into the EU — and the United States backs it too, because it wants Turkey in the EU. So what’s the problem?

Apart from the Turkish army, the only problem is the president of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Rauf Denktash. Now 80, Denktash has ruled the TRNC since partition, and he really cannot imagine living in a united Cyprus again. As younger Turkish-Cypriots dream of a peace settlement that will end what amounts to a Turkish military occupation and give them access to all the benefits of EU membership, Denktash only remembers the sieges and the atrocities of the 60s. Last spring, however, popular pressure force him to open the border and allow Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots to visit the other side for the first time in a generation.

“Our problem is not like Bosnia or the Palestinian-Israeli troubles; both sides have reconciled already,” explains Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of northern Cyprus’s biggest opposition party. “But this free movement (across the Green Line’) is not a substitute for a solution, as Denktash would like. What we have to solve are the political issues…” In the December election Talat and his allies got only half the parliamentary seats (though they won a majority of the votes), but the coalition government he now leads is formally committed to getting a deal by May.

Which left only the Turkish army blocking the door — and last Friday they stepped aside. After a four-hour meeting of the National Security Council in Ankara, the generals agreed that Cyprus should be reunited before it joins the EU on May 1, and that the UN peace plan is the right way to do it. What finally made the Turkish army move? Some arm-twisting from the United States, no doubt, but also probably some carrots, particularly in terms of a promise that the Kurds of northern Iraq will not end up with an independent state.

Delivering on such a promise depends on the US keeping control of the chain of events it has unleashed in Iraq, which is far from certain. But the Kurds won’t seize their independence by this May, so Cyprus will probably get settled.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Cyprus…years”; and”A majority…problem”)