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”)