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Cyprus: No More Last Chances

23 April 2010

Cyprus: No More Last Chances

By Gwynne Dyer

“The real problem in Cyprus is not that the status quo is unsustainable,” said Phedon Nicolaides of the European Institute of Public Administration in an article in the “Cyprus Mail” last September. “On the contrary, it is that it’s virtually impossible to move away from the (status quo).”

He didn’t need the word “virtually”. The outcome of the recent election in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus means that the status quo that has prevailed on the divided island for the past 36 years will become permanent – but it also means that the broader strategic realities in the region will start to change. The changes will not be to the long-term advantage of the Greek-ruled Republic of Cyprus.

If there is no political settlement that reunites Cyprus in some sort of loose federal arrangement, then Greece’s veto on Turkish entry into the European Union will become permanent. And if Turkey loses all hope of joining the EU, then it will no longer feel bound by the standards of behaviour that are expected among EU members.

Most of Cyprus’s people have spoken Greek for three thousand years, but there has also been a Turkish-speaking minority since the Ottoman conquest in the 16th century. The seeds of inter-communal conflict were already there under Ottoman and British imperial rule, but they only grew into a full-scale confrontation when the EOKA guerilla movement launched its campaign to drive the British out in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, EOKA was not actually seeking independence, which the Turkish minority on the island and Turkey itself would have accepted. Its goal was “enosis”, union with Greece, although the Greek mainland was 800 km (500 miles) to the west and the Turkish coast was only 75 km (50 mi) away. Neither the Turkish-Cypriots nor Ankara would accept that, and the Turkish-Cypriots began to arm themselves too.

Turkey, Greece and Britain were all much more concerned about the Soviet threat in the region, however, so in 1960 they imposed a deal on Cyprus that gave the island independence as a binational republic. The Turkish-speaking minority got 30 percent of the seats in parliament and a veto on any changes in the constitution.

Britain, Greece and Turkey all guaranteed the settlement, but it only lasted three years, mainly because EOKA remained a strong force in the island and was still determined on “enosis”. Fighting broke out in 1963, and the Turkish-Cypriots were driven into enclaves that were effectively besieged by Greek-Cypriot forces.

The United Nations sent in a peace-keeping force that froze the situation for the next eleven years, but in 1974 the Greek military junta sponsored a bloody military coup in Cyprus. The elected government was replaced by a band of former EOKA fighters who promised to unify the island with Greece, and Turkey called on Britain (which still had military bases in Cyprus) to fulfill its duty as guarantor and intervene.

When Britain refused, the Turks invaded. 150,000 Greek-Cypriots fled or were driven south before the advancing Turkish forces, while 50,000 Turkish-Cypriots living in the south sought safety behind the Turkish lines. When the fighting ended, all the Turkish-Cypriots were in the north, and all the Greek-Cypriots were in the south.

The Greek-Cypriots had brought disaster upon themselves by ignoring strategic realities and bidding too high, and that pattern has continued down to the present. A UN-backed proposal to reunify the island as a federal republic (with a limited right of return for the refugees) was supported by the Turkish-Cypriots but rejected by the Greek-Cypriots in parallel referendums in 2004.

Negotiations between the president of the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which is recognised by nobody but Turkey) continued down to last month, but yielded no result. The Turkish-Cypriots were no longer dramatically poorer than their Greek counterparts, and they were losing interest in reunification.

On 18 April Dervis Eroglu, who opposes reunification, was elected president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and for all practical purposes the long story reached its end. The island will remain permanently divided along the current lines, although it may be many years before other countries acknowledge that fact by formally recognising the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

This fact will have far-reaching consequences, for it means that Turkey will never join the European Union. Without a settlement in Cyprus, the Greek veto on Turkish membership is permanent – but Greece’s leverage over Turkey will vanish once Ankara abandons its quest to join the EU.

There is no reason to believe that the present Turkish government would do anything to disturb the status quo in Cyprus. Perhaps no Turkish government ever will. But Turkey is re-emerging as the dominant regional power after a century-long gap: Greece is no match for it, and the EU is not a military organisation.

Greek-Cypriots may believe that their own EU membership is an adequate guarantee of their security, but it is not. In a future where Turkey is no longer constrained by the prospect of EU membership, their security will depend mainly on Turkish good will.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. “If…members”; and “Negotiations…reunification”)

Cyprus: It’s Over

20 November 2009

Cyprus: It’s Over

By Gwynne Dyer

The window of opportunity actually slammed shut in 2004, when Greek-Cypriot voters overwhelmingly rejected a United Nations plan to reunite the divided island of Cyprus. A week later the Greek-Cypriot government was allowed to join the European Union anyway, while the Turkish-Cypriots, who had voted in favour of the reunification plan, were frozen out. But some people just won’t give up.

A year ago, with new leadership on both sides, the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots embarked on another round of talks aimed at reunifying the island. As late as this September, Alexander Downer, the UN secretary-general’s special adviser on Cyprus, said that “what you have here are two leaders who are very committed to a successful outcome.” But good intentions are not enough.

Dimitris Christofias, the Greek-Cypriot president, and Mehmet Ali Talat, his Turkish-Cypriot counterpart, are old friends, and they both genuinely want to put the country back together, but they have made little progress and after fifty meetings time is running out. There will be elections in the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) in April, and the new president there is likely to be hostile to reunification.

Last time, in 2004, it was the Greek-Cypriot president who persuaded the voters on his side of dividing line to reject the UN proposal. There are bound to be times when one side or the other is led by somebody who wants to die in the last ditch. But there are also bound to be intervals, like the present one, when the leaders on both sides are in favour of unification.

So why talk of windows of opportunity shutting? Even if it doesn’t happen now, surely it will happen sooner or later. Alas, not necessarily.

Geopolitical realities normally change as slowly as the continents drift, but the tectonic plates are now moving fast in the eastern Mediterranean. The chance of Turkey ever joining the European Community is now shrinking rapidly towards zero – and without the incentive of that goal, why would Ankara ever force the Turkish population of North Cyprus back into a union with the Greek-dominated “Republic of Cyprus”?

The current obstacle to EU membership for Turkey, which first applied to join twenty-two years ago and has been an official candidate for the past decade, is the opposition of the German, Austrian and French governments. They are all conservative governments that believe a Muslim-majority country has no place in what they still see as a “Christian” Europe.

That is ugly nonsense, but not necessarily a deal-breaker: those governments will probably be replaced one day by others that take a more relaxed view of religious differences. After all, a clear majority of EU citizens are not interested in religion at all. Greece and the Republic of Cyprus would also veto Turkish membership today, but a deal between the two Cypriot communities would obviously remove that roadblock.

If anti-Muslim prejudice were the only obstacle to Turkey’s entry, then it could still become a EU member one of these days, but the tectonic shift is not driven by whoever is in power today in Paris, Berlin or Vienna. It is driven by a growing concern in the EU that global warming is going to generate huge numbers of desperate refugees in Africa and the Middle East – “climate refugees” who will end up trying to get into Europe.

Never mind if this is just, or even if it is an accurate vision of the future. If this view comes to prevail in the EU, the main question becomes: where do we hold the line against waves of climate refugees? Should we try to control the current frontier along the eastern borders of Greece and Bulgaria (about 300 km, 175 miles), or bring Turkey into the EU and try to control 1,100 km (750 miles) of borders with Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Georgia? Not rocket science, is it?

Unless it is overwhelmed by climate change, Turkey will be all right outside the EU. It will overtake Germany in population within a decade, and it already has a higher per capita income than several Eastern European members of the EU. Turkey was a second-rank great power until the end of the 19th century, and it is likely to be back in that role by the mid-21st.

But if that is the role Turkey will be playing in another generation, why would it want to withdraw its troops from North Cyprus and push the Turkish-Cypriots into a single state with the Greek-Cypriots now? Why would the Turkish-Cypriots themselves want to resume their place as an unloved minority in a Greek-run state, rather than retain their own state in close association with the rising regional great power?

The reply to that question ten years ago would have been: because Turkish-Cypriots are so poor. But the past decade has seen very rapid economic growth in North Cyprus. The gulf in living standards between the two parts of the island has dramatically narrowed, so reunification no longer seems the only escape from poverty to Turkish-Cypriots.

This is not the last chance for the reunification of Cyprus; 2004 was. Greek-speaking Cyprus is prosperous and secure, Turkish-speaking Cyprus is approaching the same state, and Turkey itself no longer has an incentive to support the creation of a reunified, federal state in Cyprus. Partition is permanent. It’s over.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 13. (“Last…necessarily”; and “The response…Turkish-Cypriots”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

New Start in Cyprus

19 February 2008

New Start in Cyprus

By Gwynne Dyer

To call Tassos Papadopoulos a dinosaur is a slur on the entire Cretaceous era, but at least the age of the dinosaurs has ended in Cyprus. Running for re-election as president last Sunday, Papadopoulos, the man who almost single-handedly scuttled a peace settlement in Cyprus four years ago, came third and was eliminated from the race. Both the remaining candidates want to reopen negotiations for a peace deal.

The Greek-Cypriot newspaper Simerini was slightly more generous about the 74-year-old Papadopoulos, calling him “the last of the Mohicans,” but the sense that his defeat marks a turning point in the affairs of Cyprus is widespread. For more than half a century Cyprus has been a divided and heavily militarised island kept quiet by a UN peacekeeping force, but there is hope on the horizon.

Papadopoulos, who founded his presidency on resistance to a UN-backed plan to end the division of Cyprus, trailed only a few thousand votes behind his two adversaries, former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides and Communist Party leader Demetris Christofias, each of whom took almost exactly one-third of the vote. But that means that two-thirds of Greek-Cypriots are now ready to reconsider the final settlement that they rejected in the 2004 referendum.

Nobody in Greek-Cypriot politics will admit that, of course. Both Kasoulides and Christofias insist that the UN-brokered 2004 deal is dead, and the UN says that the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots should sort it out for themselves this time round. But everybody knows that the 2004 UN deal is the template for a final settlement, just as everybody knows that the documents from the Taba summit in January 2001 contain the outline of the final Israeli-Palestinian settlement (if and when everybody is ready for it).

What we have here, only sixty years late, is the dawning of strategic realism in Cyprus. According to old census figures, almost four-fifths of the Cypriot population spoke Greek and only one-fifth Turkish, so if the island had been located somewhere off the west coast of Greece, it could just have joined Greece when it got its independence from Britain in 1960. If the Turks didn’t like it, they could leave.

But Cyprus is not an island off the west coast of Greece. It is a large island off the south coast of Turkey, and the Turkish mainland is ten times closer to Cyprus than the Greek mainland. Moreover, Turkey is a militarily competent country with about seven times Greece’s population. The Greeks may love the Greek-Cypriots, but they were never going to wreck their country by going to war with Turkey for them.

It’s not about historical justice, if such a thing exists; it’s about strategic realities. The Greek-Cypriot majority COULD NOT drag its Turkish compatriots into union with Greece, it could not expel them, and there was even a limit to how badly it could mistreat them. Turkey would not stand for it, and Greece would not intervene militarily.

That was why Cyprus’s independence constitution was a document of Byzantine complexity, dividing every aspect of the government between the Greek and Turkish communities and creating interlocking vetoes over every decision. By 1963 frustrated Greek-Cypriots were trying to change it, mutual suspicions flared, and within a year almost all Turkish-Cypriots were living under siege in barricaded quarters of villages and towns all across the island.

That was when the UN peacekeeping force arrived, and froze the situation for a decade. Then in 1974 the military junta in Greece backed a military coup against the Greek-Cypriot government and installed a new regime that promised to unite the entire island with Greece. It was a miscalculation on a par with the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, but it wrecked many more lives.

Turkey invaded the north of the island to create a safe haven for Turkish-Cypriots, and the Greek armed forces, predictably, did nothing. Almost half the Turkish-Cypriot population, some 90,000 people, lived outside that Turkish-controlled enclave, but they abandoned their homes to seek safety there. About 200,000 Greek-Cypriots, forty percent of that population, fled south to escape the Turks. And for the next thirty years, nothing much happened.

By 2003, however, with Cyprus about to join the European Union and Turkey negotiating its entry terms, a new effort was launched to clear up the mess. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan came up with the terms after consulting both sides, and the deal was put to a referendum in 2004. Two-thirds of Turkish-Cypriots voted yes; over three-quarters of Greek-Cypriots, at the urging of President Papadopoulos, voted no. It was one last outing for Greek-Cypriot strategic fantasy.

Admittedly, the UN-brokered deal was not perfect from their point of view. It mandated a bi-zonal, bi-communal republic in which the Turkish-Cypriots largely run their own affairs, not the unitary state of today in which Greek-Cypriots would automatically dominate. It allowed Greek-Cypriot refugees to return to some parts of the north, but not to most. But it sent the Turkish troops home, and it conformed to strategic realities.

In 2004, Papadopoulos persuaded Greek-Cypriots to reject this deal. In 2008, they have rejected him. Whether Kasoulides or Christofias wins the run-off election next Sunday (probably the former), the new president will soon open talks with the Turkish-Cypriot government. With enough realism, there could be a deal within a year.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Nobody…it”; and “It’s not…militarily”)

Kosovo: Partitions Without End

11 December 2007

Kosovo: Partitions Without End

By Gwynne Dyer

“In one hundred days we’ve explored almost every humanly known option for squaring the circle of Kosovo’s status,” said German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger last month, admitting that his three-person mediation team (one American, one Russian, and one from the European Union) had not been able to find a future for the territory that was acceptable both to Serbia and to the Kosovars themselves. Last Monday (10 December), the team reported to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that it had failed, and the count-down began to Kosovo’s independence.

It will be a bumpy ride, and many fear that it may end with renewed war in the Balkans. “Serbia will encourage a mass exodus from the (Serbian minority’s) enclaves (in Kosovo),” predicted Dukagjin Gorani, chief aide to Kosovo’s newly elected prime minister, Hashim Thaci. “They want to win over world opinion, and they know how bad it will look for Kosovo if BBC and CNN are showing convoys of Serbs on tractors leaving home.”

We have seen those pictures before, in 1998-99, although that time it was the Kosovars (Albanian-speaking Muslims) fleeing from Serbian army atrocities. Even then the Kosovars accounted for 90 percent of Kosovo’s two million people, but they had suffered decades of repression by the government in Belgrade. Serbs see Kosovo as the cradle of their nation, so when Kosovar guerillas attacked the local army garrisons in 1998 they reacted savagely, trying to frighten the majority population into flight.

About half the Kosovars did flee, but after two previous rounds of Serbian ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia the West had had enough of the Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia in early 1999 that ultimately forced Milosevic to concede. The Serbian army withdrew from Kosovo, NATO troops took control, and the Kosovar refugees came home – but almost half of the province’s 200,000-strong Serbian minority fled instead.

Now there are only about 120,000 Serbs left in Kosovo, and it is virtually certain that the Serbian government, which vehemently opposes Kosovo’s independence, will tacitly encourage the Serbs living in the more isolated enclaves in Kosovo to flee. Tragic images will fill the television screens once again, and the Balkans will be lucky to escape another round of violence.

But why is there a crisis over independence now? After all, the war was eight years ago. It’s happening because the pressure from Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority to break the province’s remaining legal link with Serbia was growing, and the West misjudged Russia.

The United States in particular assumed that the Serbs could be forced to relinquish their claim to Kosovo – President Bush hailed Kosovo’s impending independence on his visit there last June – and that the Russians would reluctantly accept the West’s lead as usual.

Wrong. The Kosovars, strongly backed by the United States, felt no need to compromise on their demand for early independence, but the Serbs turned out to have equally firm backing from Russia and were unwilling to compromise either. Moreover, the Serbs and the Russians have international law on their side.

Foreign military intervention to prevent a genocide, which is what NATO said it was doing in 1999, can be defended on moral grounds, and may even be legal if backed by the UN Security Council (which the 1999 intervention in Kosovo wasn’t, due to Russian and Chinese opposition). But partitioning a sovereign state without its permission, which is what is being done to Serbia now, is against the UN Charter, and would not be legitimate even if the Security Council did approve.

And if you can partition Serbia, then why can’t you also partition the province of Kosovo so that the northern bit around Mitrovica, where almost half of the remaining Serbs live, stays in Serbia? Why can’t you partition Bosnia, so that the 40 percent of the population who are ethnically Serbian (and live on lands that have now been “cleansed” of other ethnic groups) can unite with Serbia itself?

Why can’t you partition Cyprus, so that the Turkish minority get their own country? Why can’t you partition Spain or Romania or Russia, or anywhere that has a restive minority somewhere on its territory? This is why not only Russia, but also European Union members like Cyprus, Spain and Romania, are deeply unhappy about present US and EU policy, and at least in Cyprus’s case will refuse to back it.

There is no good answer. Should the West leave the Kosovars in perpetual limbo, administered by UN bureaucrats and guarded by 16,000 NATO soldiers? No. Force them back under Serbian rule? Unthinkable and undoable. Partition Serbia and give Kosovo its independence, leaving the NATO soldiers there to protect what’s left of the Serbian minority and to stop Serbia itself from intervening? Maybe that’s the least bad option, but it’s still a thoroughly bad one.

And by the way, what the Kosovars, or at least a great many of them, really want is not independence. It is union with Albania. As a Kosovar student leader said this week at a pro-independence demonstration in the capital, Pristina, “independence is itself a compromise.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Now…violence”; and “Why can’t…back it”)