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Turkish Cypriots

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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”)

Re-United Cyprus in United Europe?

4 May 2003

Re-United Cyprus in United Europe?

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Cyprus problem has to be seen as part of the struggle between pro-European forces and those who resist democracy in Turkey,” explained Izzet Izcan, one of the organisers of the mass demonstrations on the Turkish side of Nicosia last December that began the avalanche of change now sweeping the island. After 38 years of armed confrontation, Turkish-speaking Cypriots and their Greek-speaking fellow-citizens are finally speaking to one another again.

They are even visiting across the Green Line that has divided the island since 1974, when the colonels who ruled Greece backed a coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the whole island with Greece. Turkey replied with an invasion that linked up most of the besieged Turkish-Cypriot communities in the north and turned 200,000 Greek-Cypriots into refugees (together with about 90,000 Turkish-Cypriots who fled their homes in the now solidly Greek south). But since the Green Line crossings were opened on 22 April, at least 15 percent of the entire Cypriot population has crossed, often to visit the homes they lost in 1974.

Frequently the Greek refugees who fled south in 1974 find Turks who fled north at the same time in their former homes, but there is much more regret than anger. The younger generation of Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots are more curious than hostile, and can be found drinking together in the bars and communicating in halting English. The whole island is living through a kind of epiphany, and people even dare to hope that the long nightmare may be over.

Whether this is really the beginning of the end of the ‘Cyprus problem’ depends mostly on the outcome of the struggle between Turkish-Cypriot President Rauf Denktash and the Turkish general staff on one side, and Turkey’s new Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the other. Erdogan has already successfully defied the Turkish army on the issue of letting the United States use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq, and he is equally iconoclastic about Cyprus.

“If 30,000 people demonstrate at the same time in northern Cyprus, it means something is going on in northern Cyprus….We have to think hard about this business,” Erdogan said at the time of the December demos. “I am not in favour of following the Cyprus policy that has been followed for the past 30 or 40 years,” he announced a couple of weeks later. “This is not Mr Denktash’s personal business.” And with that, he began to apply the screws to the 78-year old Denktash, a stubborn autocrat who has ruled over the Turkish-Cypriots for more than half his life.

In Erdogan’s eyes, the future of 70 million Turks is far more important than one stubborn old man, and Erdogan believes that future lies with the European Union. Turkey got a promise from the EU last December to begin negotiations for entry “without delay” once it passes a progress review on its human rights reforms late next year, but if Cyprus stays divided everything could go horribly wrong. Cyprus would join the EU next year under its internationally recognised government (which in practice only rules over Greek-Cypriots), and the 35,000 Turkish troops based in Denktash’s ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ would then end up occupying what is legally European Union territory.

Nobody wants the mess that would cause, so United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan went in last year with a peace plan for a reunited Cyprus with two highly autonomous provinces under a weak central government. Greece and Turkey, the two mother-countries, backed it; President Glafcos Clerides of Cyprus backed it — and Denktash rejected it. His power is based on the old fear and hatred between Greeks and Turks, and he even discourages informal contacts between the two groups. “What’s the point of such contacts?” he asked two years ago. “I’ve heard the only thing people seem to do at these meetings is have sex.”

Greek-Cypriots, frustrated by Denktash’s eternal stone-walling, elected hard-line nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos as president early this year, but that setback to re-unification was more than counter-balanced by the fact that time suddenly ran out for Denktash. Most of the Turkish-Cypriot opposition parties, unions and NGOs got together in the ‘Group of 41’ and launched the demonstrations that challenged Denktash’s power at home — and in Ankara, Erdogan began to break the stranglehold of the Turkish military on policy towards Cyprus.

Denktash’s sudden decision last month to open the border was initially just an attempt to release some of the pressure from Turkish-Cypriots for change, but it is rapidly transforming the siege mentality that kept him in power for so long. Papadopoulos’s government has responded intelligently, ending the economic blockade of the Turkish north that has done so much to keep Turkish-Cypriots poor. From now on, Turkish-Cypriot products may be sold freely in the south and even exported abroad — which means that from next year, they will have duty-free access to the whole European Union.

That is a benefit that few Turkish-Cypriots, desperate after three decades of isolation and ever-deepening poverty, will want to lose again. Turkey will not allow the Cyprus problem to wreck its hopes for EU membership, and Greece will back Turkey all the way. (Athens clearly understands that it is safer with the EU’s eastern border a long, long way east of Greece.) So Denktash will probably be dealt with one way or another, and Cyprus will probably join the EU next year as a reunited country.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 5. (“Frequently…over”;and “If…life”)