After gently snoozing at the bottom of the international agenda since the failed UN-sponsored effort at re-unification in 2004 why has the small Eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, bitterly divided between the majority Greeks and minority Turks, suddenly started to get more attention? Within the last six months the Republic of Cyprus has received visits from Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. French President Nicholas Sarkozy is due to visit soon. This is a lot of attention for an island associated mainly with tourism, low tax rates, and offshore bank accounts.
One answer probably lies deep beneath the eastern Mediterranean Sea in potentially very large gas fields. Cyprus is a member of the European Union and other EU members would be delighted if natural gas was found in EU territorial waters and they could reduce their reliance on Russia.
All this activity has re-focused international attention on the fundamental problem of Cyprus: how to get the Turks and Greeks on the island to co-exist peacefully. The island has been sharply divided since 1974 when the Turkish army invaded to protect its fellow Turks from what it called ethnic cleansing by bands of marauding Greek Cypriot nationalists. As far as the Greeks are concerned it was an invasion pure and simple. The Turkish army succeeded in occupying only the northern third of the island, and thousands of Greeks fled their homes to the safety of the southern side that was internationally recognized as the Republic of Cyprus. The Turks established a micro-state called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that so far is recognized only by Turkey.
Despite sporadic efforts since 2004 at finding common ground between the Greek and Turkish sides of the island very little has been accomplished. Why would either side want to continue seemingly pointless talks?
The reasons for Turkish support for a Cypriot solution are fairly straightforward. Cyprus is an expensive distraction from the main event of reshaping Turkey itself according to the ruling party’s (AKP) policies. The Turkish part of Cyprus relies on annual hand-outs of $400 - $500 million from Turkey to stay afloat. In addition Turkey has stationed 30,000 troops on the island.
Cyprus also remains a diplomatic albatross around Turkey’s neck at a time when the country is working desperately to raise its international profile. Despite major efforts over the years Turkey has been unable to convince any other country, including its new friends Iran, Sudan and Syria, to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Given its recent anti-Israel rhetoric Turkey may be able to convince Hamas in Gaza to recognize the breakaway state. But even that is unlikely.
Cyprus continues to be a major roadblock to Turkey’s already faltering bid to join the European Union. Many EU countries disguise their antipathy to Turkish entry by hiding behind the Cyprus issue. They piously point out that it would be impossible to accept into the EU a country whose military occupies a large part of another EU member. At the very least, resolution of the Cyprus issue would inject a little honesty into the debate about Turkey’s EU entry. In short, Turkey needs to move on from this stalemate.
Turkey has always portrayed itself as the protector, the benefactor of the yavru (baby) state of Turkish Cyprus. Nationalist politicians loudly and frequently declaim about Turkey’s ‘duty, honor and pride’ in supporting its ‘oppressed’ brethren on Cyprus. Alas, this passion is not always reciprocated by the Turkish Cypriots. Recently there was an anti-Turkish demonstration in Northern Cyprus. Turkey wants to impose an austerity program on Turkish Cyprus and has proposed wide ranging pay cuts. The demonstration was against these cuts, but there were also a few banners hoisted telling Turkey to stop interfering in Cypriot affairs.
This ignited the permanently short fuse of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who blasted the Turkish Cypriots for daring to criticize the very people who feed them. Needless to say this did not go down well with the Turkish Cypriots. The exchange between Erdogan and the Turkish Cypriots underscores another problem. Cyprus is a fairly sophisticated place, and for years Turkey has been shipping unsophisticated Anatolian villagers to Cyprus in an effort to even the numbers with the Greeks. This mini-culture clash upsets the Turkish Cypriots as much as it does the Greek Cypriots. One wonders what would happen if the Turkish Cypriots decided to do a deal with the Greek Cypriots regardless of what the ‘mother country’ Turkey wants.
Despite holding the upper hand with a strong economy and EU membership, the Greek Cypriots could also benefit from a solution. Cyprus assumes the presidency of the European Union in 2012, and some fear this could turn into a farce if the island is still divided. There are some in the EU who think it was a mistake to accept Cyprus before re-unification, and they could make embarrassing noises during the Cypriot presidency. Second, major oil companies may be reluctant to spend a great deal of money exploring the sea offshore Cyprus unless the political conflict is resolved. Even though Turkey’s legal position seems to be very weak, it could make life difficult for the exploration companies. And more important, Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias is rumored to want a solution, unlike his predecessor the late President Tassos Papadopoulos who did everything he could to make sure the Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan in 2004. There are reports that he is willing to work to change Greek Cypriot public opinion about the benefits of a deal.
Nothing will happen until the Cypriot parliamentary elections this spring and the Turkish national elections expected in June. If Christofias’ allies do well in the parliamentary elections and Erdogan emerges even stronger in the Turkish elections the chances for a solution improve. The issues are well known and could include removal of the Turkish army, free movement throughout the island, restitution for people whose homes were lost, protection for the Turkish minority, and a plan to re-integrate the Turks into the island’s economy. The Turkish Cypriots get EU membership and better economic prospects. The Greek Cypriots get access to the whole island and an end to the Turkish military threat. They might also get their homes back, or at least financial restitution. Turkey gets a major headache removed. Greece, once a major player in this conflict, is absorbed by its own economic problems and plays a much reduced role in the current Cyprus talks.
All this sounds obvious, but if the potential negotiations are to have any chance at all they will have to avoid being drowned out the wails of anguish from the mega-nationalists in Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus about ‘selling out’. One can only hope the fact that the Turkish Cypriots may actually benefit from being ‘sold out’ will not be obscured in the loud debate.