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Turkish Cypriots

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Reunification of Cyprus?

It was not so much a straw in the wind as a cheese in the wind. It’s a chewy, salty cheese that is delicious grilled: halloumi, as they call it in the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, or hellim, as it is known in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

This week, the island’s two rival governments jointly applied to the European Union to give halloumi/hellim “Protected Designation of Origin” status, like French champagne or Greek feta, so that no other producer can use the name. It was a small miracle.

Cyrus has been divided since 1974, when a bloody coup backed by the generals’ regime in Athens, intended to unite the island with the “mother country”, was answered by a Turkish invasion to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority. Turkey ended up holding the northern third of the island, and Greek-Cypriots who lived in that part of Cyprus fled south while Turkish-Cypriots in the southern part of the island fled north.

When the dust settled, there were two Cypruses: the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, now almost exclusively Greek-speaking, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised by nobody except Turkey. Forty-one years later, Cyprus is still divided – but maybe not for much longer.

The Greek-Cypriots have done much better since the split. With a legitimate state that is now a member of the European Union, they can trade and travel freely, and per capita income on the Greek side is twice what that of the Turkish side. But it hasn’t all been roses: the Greek-Cypriot banks ran wild during the boom years, and the country is just emerging from an EU-backed bail-out that hurt a lot.

For the Turkish-Cypriots, time is running out. There are only 120,000 of them, and they are already outnumbered by the Turkish immigrants, most of them ill-educated and unskilled, who have flooded in since 1974. In the past ten years, with a conservative Islamic government in Turkey, they have also been facing the creeping Islamisation of their traditionally secular society.

So the Turkish-Cypriots have good reason to seek a deal that gives them their own state within a reunited, federal Cyprus. For Greek-Cypriots a deal is less urgent, but with 30,000 Turkish troops still on the island and neighbours whose identity is becoming more Turkish and less Cypriot their future is uncertain. The problem is that presidents come and go, and there are rarely presidents on both sides willing to make a deal at the same time.

Now there are. Mustafa Akinci was elected president of the TRNC in April, and immediately asked to start reunification talks with his opposite number, President Nicos Anastasiades – who immediately agreed. “The passage of time is not helping a solution,” said Akinci. “The more time passes, the more the division becomes consolidated.”

After three months of talks, including seven personal meetings between the presidents, the talks seem to be going well. Well enough, in fact, that they both showed up on Tuesday night, together with 700 guests from both sides of the divide, for an evening of Cypriot music performed by the bi-communal group ‘Kyprogenia’ at the Othello Tower in Famagusta.

There was a lot of symbolism in this, because Famagusta was a Greek-Cypriot city, famed for its beaches, that ended up empty and on the wrong side of the ceasefire line in 1974. It has been quietly crumbling away ever since, but the Othello Tower, a 14th-century fortress, has just been renovated by a group of Greek and Turkish Cypriots working together to restore the island’s shared heritage.

There is much optimism about these talks, because both leaders understand that there can be no going back to the good old days before 1974 (good for the Greek-Cypriots, at least, although many Turkish-Cypriots were living under siege in barricaded ghettoes). Most of the refugees of 1974 (or their descendants) will not be going “home” again. Too much has happened, and even now Turkish-Cypriots would not feel safe in a unitary state.

But a federal republic with two states, each largely but not exclusively communal, is perfectly possible. It would free Turkish-Cypriots from their long isolation, and expand economic opportunities for people in both communities. The Turkish army would go home, the barbed wire and entrenchments of the “Green Line” would vanish, and Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital, would be one city again.

It is just good sense, and Presidents Akinci and Anastasiades will probably make the deal – Akinci reckons they will be there before the end of the year. There is just one problem. A very similar reunification was negotiated in 2003-04 with the help of the European Union and the blessings of both the United Nations and the United States.

In the 2004 referendum, the Turkish Cypriots voted for it by a two-to-one majority, but the Greek-Cyriots rejected it by a crushing three-to-one majority. After all, they greatly outnumber the Turkish-Cypriots and they are far richer. Things are peaceful right now, so why should they compromise?

Because Cyprus lives in a very dangerous neighbourhood, and it’s a really bad idea to keep the old domestic hostilities going as well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“The Greek…lot”; and “After…heritage”)

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.

Cyprus: Freezing Turkey Out

21 April 2004

Cyprus: Freezing Turkey Out

By Gwynne Dyer

“Life would not be the same, and that everyone has to know,” said Javier Solana, head of foreign policy for the European Union, as he contemplated a Greek-Cypriot vote against reunification of the island on the eve of Cyprus’s entry into the EU on May 1st. The leader writer in the Cyprus Mail, the island’s English-language daily, was less diplomatic: “In the highly likely event that the No vote wins, on May 1 we will be the first police state to become a full member of the EU….We are witnessing the state engaging in open suppression of information, blatant lies, and the imposition of its views on the citizens.”

The UN-backed deal for the creation of a federal government in Cyprus, divided between hostile Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities since 1974, is, in the words of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, “the best and fairest chance of peace, prosperity and stability that is ever likely to be on offer.” Neither side gets everything it wants, but both sides get a lot. In the referendum this Saturday (24 April), however, the Greek-Cypriots will probably vote No.

The Turkish-Cypriots will vote Yes to reunification — but that won’t help them if the Greek-speakers vote No, because only the government on the Greek side of the Green Line has international recognition. It will join the EU on May 1 anyway, while the Turkish-speakers languish in poverty north of the barbed wire and trenches that still divide the island. It doesn’t seem reasonable, but then not much of Cyprus’s recent history is.

Greek-Cypriots never fully accepted that the 18 percent Turkish-speaking minority had a right to be there, so the power-sharing constitution that Britain left behind in 1960 never worked. By 1964 Turkish-Cypriots were living in besieged enclaves — and in 1974 the same EOKA terrorists who had waged a guerilla war against the British in the 1950s, backed by the colonels who then ruled in Athens, carried out a coup aimed at achieving ‘enosis’ (union with Greece). Turkey invaded to stop it, and by the end of the fighting all the Turkish-Cypriots had fled north, 200,000 Greek-Cypriots had fled south, and 37 percent of the island’s land was in Turkish hands.

There it has stuck for thirty years. The Greek south has prospered, while the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognised only by Turkey, has sunk ever deeper into isolation and poverty. So Turkish-Cypriots are eager to reunify the island, join the EU, and enjoy free movement and prosperity — while the Greek-Cypriots, guaranteed entry to the EU no matter what they do, don’t feel compelled to be reasonable.

Under the UN deal, each community would run its own affairs, but a federal government would handle financial affairs and foreign and EU relations. About a quarter of the Turkish-Cypriot zone would be handed over to the Greek-Cypriots, including the port of Famagusta. The 38,000 Turkish troops in the north of the island would shrink to 6,000 by 2008, and eventually to 650. And there would be over $2 billion in foreign aid to rebuild infrastructure and compensate refugees who can’t return to their old homes.

But the refugees are the deal-breaker. If all the Greek-Cypriots who fled in 1974 went back to the north, the Turkish-Cypriots would be swamped, so for the next twenty years (or until Turkey joins the EU), the number of Greek refugees who can return is restricted to 18 percent of the Turkish-Cypriot population. It is not just, but it could not be otherwise.

Tassos Papadopoulos, the new Greek-Cypriot president elected in February, is the hardest of nationalist hard-liners. He was a leading EOKA member in the 50s, and in the 60s he was second-in-command of the Akrotiras organisation, whose goal was to rid the island of Turkish-Cypriots in the 60s. In a tearful speech on April 7, Papadopoulos warned that the Turkish government could never be trusted and told Greek-Cypriots to reject the deal — and EU spokesmen trying to explain the deal are being kept off Cypriot television.

It’s working: opinion polls predict that about two-thirds of Turkish-Cypriots will vote Yes to the deal, but two-thirds of Greek-Cypriots will vote No. Former Cypriot president George Vassiliou said: “People need correct information about the details of the plan, but they’re not getting it. The media are giving out half-truths and misleading interpretations…. The current mood is one of nationalist hysteria, but when people wake up, it will be a painful reckoning.”

It will, but not just for the Greek-Cypriots, who will lose $2 billion in promised aid and probably never see their country reunited. Turkish-Cypriots will lose too, even if Europe tries to make it up to them with aid, and even if some countries now recognise their breakaway state. Above all, Turkey and Europe will lose: the Greek-Cypriot government, once it becomes an EU member in May, will very likely use its veto to prevent Turkey from beginning entry negotiations, promised for next year, in an attempt to blackmail everybody into changing the deal.

So Europe will show itself to be anti-Muslim, and the brave attempt by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make his country a full European-style democracy worthy of EU membership will be punished by disillusioned Turkish voters, and much that is of value will slowly slide off a cliff. If the EU had any guts, it would respond to a Greek-Cypriot No vote by suspending the island’s entry until they re-think their answer. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Under…otherwise”)

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.


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