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”)