Aphrodite’s divided island

February 12 2003 | by

The Russian atomic physicist Andrei Sakharov is reputed to have said that the people of Cyprus made more history than they could consume locally. The evidence for it is still scattered all over Aphrodite’s island. In no other place in the world have the centuries left their imprint so memorably, from pre-history to the Bronze Age, through Greece, Rome and Byzantium to Richard Coeur de Lion and the Third Crusade. Cyprus became the headquarters of the Knights Templar, and Guy de Lusignan, once king of Jerusalem, began what Colin Thubron (see Messenger, January 1998) calls a long and eccentric dynasty there. It later belonged to the Venetian Republic, with Caterina Cornaro, whom the Cypriots hailed as Aphrodite rediviva, as its queen. By the end of the 16th century, however, the Ottomans had captured the great fortresses of Nicosia, Kyrenia and Famagusta, and killed or expelled the defending Venetians. Three hundred years of Ottoman rule were then followed by the arrival in 1878 of the British, who annexed it officially on the outbreak of war with Turkey in 1914. From 1925 to 1960 it was a crown colony.


EOKA and Turkish invasion

Already in the 1950s a campaign launched by the political party EOKA was calling for enosis (union with Greece), and for five years their guerrilla fighters were locked in a bitter struggle with British security forces. Finally, Britain agreed to grant independence to the island, with effect from August 1960. Sadly, the constitution drawn up in the accord, which acknowledged the division of the island into Greek and Turkish communities, proved unworkable, and fighting soon broke out between them. In 1964, after a particularly fierce outbreak of warfare at Kokkina on the north-west coast in which Turkish Air Force jets were used to attack home-made Cypriot Greek armoured cars, it became necessary to call in a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNFICYP) to keep to keep the peace between the communities. From that time onwards the communities were divided by a Green Line drawn between them, policed by UNFICYP. Throughout this time. Archbishop Makarios, the mercurial apostle of enosis, was president, in spite of Turkish objections. In 1974, however, mainland Greek army officers tried to impose their own candidate, Nikos Sampson, a former member of EOKA to replace him. This was more than Turkish Cypriots could stand, and Turkish forces swiftly invaded and occupied the northern part of the island, in which most of the Turkish population lived. The two parts of the island have been separated ever since.

The republic of Cyprus is governed from the southern, Greek Cypriot, part, which has its capital at Nicosia. The northern third, recognised by Turkey, but no one else, as the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, is financed, controlled and protected by Ankara. Turkey is a member of NATO, and both Turkey and Cyprus are members of the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, Both are also candidates for membership of the European Union. Progress with Turkey’s application has been held up by a number of factors, including an indifferent human rights record, while Cyprus must first sort out the status of the Turkish population in its occupied northern zone before it can become a member.

Impeded by the past

When Richard Holbrooke, the US diplomat now serving as US presidential envoy to Cyprus, made his first visit to the island for talks on re-unification in January he was not expecting miracles. At the end of his visit he commented ruefully that public positions on both sides seemed incompatible and differences profound. Both sides, he asserted, continue to talk about the past. The past is, indeed, a stumbling-block to progress, and face-to-face talks have often broken down in a babble of mutual recrimination and accusation. One side or the other always finds a justification for breaking off talks, particularly when they are showing some sign of progress. The treaties of 1960, on independence, have never been observed, and the guarantor states, Britain, Greece and Turkey, have been unable to do anything about it.

When, for example, the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash declared independence for the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983, it was thought that this illegal act would swiftly lead to a new round of increased animosity, inter-communal fighting, greater dependence of Turkish Cyprus on Turkey, formal partition or the eventual incorporation of Turkish Cyprus into mainland Turkey. It was hoped, at least, that it would break the stalemate in inter-communal talks and impel both sides to return to the negotiating table with a greater sense of urgency. In fact, nothing happened then, or since, and nothing changed. Even the protagonists are the same: Rauf Denktash still threatens to unleash the Turkish Air Force on the hapless Greek Cypriots, as he did more than 30 years ago, while Glafcos Clerides recently won his re-election as President of Cyprus by maintaining that his 40 years experience in negotiating with Turkish Cypriots made him indispensable to the coming talks on re-unification. Reading the reports of inter-communal talks over the past 40 years is like watching flies becoming trapped in amber.

Hopes of breaking the stalemate are higher since the re-election of Clerides, particularly as he was not expected to win. Greek Cypriots argue that his broad-based national unity government is what is needed both for the re-unification negotiations and for accession talks with the European Union. David Hannay, envoy for both Britain and the EU on Cyprus, is looking for a formula which will allow Turkish Cypriots to take part in the accession talks alongside Greek Cypriot ministers and officials, but has so far had no success. Rauf Denktash has demanded full diplomatic recognition of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus as a condition for the participation of Turkish Cypriots in the talks, a demand which the EU has rejected.


Different aims

The aim of the United Nations, the European Union and the USA is the re-unification of Cyprus as one entity with a single sovereignty, having two separate local communal administrations and two separate zones. Denktash and the Turks have so far rejected this, preferring a two-state formula giving the Turkish Cypriot republic (recognised only by Turkey) equal status with the internationally-recognised Greek Cypriot republic of Cyprus. According to the Turkish formula, the two states would live side-by-side until they could decide whether to remain separate or join together under a federal or confederal roof. But there is always the danger that if Turkish patience runs out Turkey will take steps to absorb the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Such an act could lead to war between Greece and Turkey, the weakening of NATO’s southern flank and escalation of the conflict.

The threat of a sudden outbreak of war is always present. On the Turkish side of the Green Line are 35,000 mainland soldiers with accompanying armour and artillery. Within ten minutes flying time are a number of Turkey’s military airfields, some of them with a NATO capability. Turkish aircraft already fly regularly over the island, although it is forbidden to do so: their intervention against Greek Cypriot forces in both 1964 and 1974 is indication enough that they are prepared to go into action. The Greek Cypriots, on the other hand, cannot call for nearby Greek forces to help them, have no air force, only a few naval patrol boats, and a National Guard that numbers less than 20,000, not much more than half the Turkish garrison.


The missile crisis

In January 1997 the Cyprus government signed a deal with Russia for S-300 ground-to-air missiles, which are to be stationed at a newly-constructed military airfield alongside the civil airport at Paphos on the west coast. The missiles will be purely for defence, according to the foreign minister, Ioannis Cassoulides, but the airfield could be used by military aircraft from mainland Greece wishing to re-fuel in the event of an attack by Turkey. The Greek Cypriots deny that their shopping for missiles is an exercise in brinkmanship. We think that by creating a credible deterrent we will avoid the use of the military option (by Turkey) said the foreign minister, and he rejected the Turkish claim that the Turkish occupation forces were a stabilising factor. In his view, the Turkish invasion caused the instability, and he called for the total demilitarisation of the island. Denktash, predictably, has told the British and American ambassadors that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot republic will take immediate steps if the Greek Cypriots go ahead with their plan to install missiles.


The Turkish point of view

There is a tendency in Europe to cast the Turks and Denktash as the villains in this Mediterranean drama. They too recognise this, and are accustomed to being blamed for the failure of efforts to set up inter-communal talks. But they feel that international opinion does not take into account the discrimination and humiliations from which they claim to have suffered in pre-independence Cyprus, and they fear that with re-unification these would be repeated. They are convinced that re-unification would work against them, and are apprehensive that they would have to return lands and villages expropriated from Greek Cypriots during the 1974 invasion. At present the Turks, who are less than a fifth of the 800,000 population, control a third of the territory. Their part of the island has been severely affected economically by a political and economic embargo, and neither agriculture, nor light industry nor tourism have prospered in the north as much as in the south. They are not impressed with the arguments that with re-unification the poorer north would stand to gain economically from the more advanced and commercially active south, or that the Greeks in the south would have to make concessions to the Turks in the fields of government and administration.

The Turkish government is just as anxious as the Cypriot to be accepted as a member of the EU. At the Luxembourg summit in January they were given assurances, they claim, that if they cleaned up their human rights record serious consideration would be given to their application. Using their influence to persuade Turkish Cypriots, and Denktash in particular, to help with the Cyprus government’s application would certainly count ion their favour. It does seem, therefore, that the Turkish Cypriots may not always be able to count on unqualified mainland Turkish support for all their actions in future.

Gleams of hope

There have been a few, very few, signs of rapprochement between the two communities: exchange of information on people missing after the 1964 and 1974 fighting, pilgrimages to holy sites or shrines in each other’s zones and an EU-sponsored all-Cyprus trade union forum in March 1997. But the Turkish Cypriot administration, taking its line from Denktash and, some people say, a number of Turkish generals, is not in favour of improved inter-communal relations. On the other hand, however, relations between Ankara and Athens have recently been better than for some years, and this could rub off on their clients in Cyprus.

In his humorous description of Greece, Eureka, published in 1965, the writer George Mikes noted that realising they would never be a world power, the Cypriots decided to settle for being a world nuisance, a judgement that was probably less unkind in the tense years immediately before and after independence than it is now. Cyprus has frequently had a propensity for being at the centre of the storm, where it is at present. The Cyprus question is as explosive now as it ever was in the days of enosis, and much hangs on the outcome of the three interlocked and interrelated problems that Cyprus, her neighbours and international organisations have to solve in the next few months: the missiles, accession to the EU and re-unification. Much depends on their being handled wisely and sensitively.

One thing, however, is certain. Nothing will be solved, or changed, so long as the present attitudes of community leaders, and of the communities themselves, remain as they are. While they continue to rely on support and reinforcement from Ankara and Athens when they get into difficulties or face periods of tension they will never be re-united. It is only by relying on themselves, on their pride in being Cypriots, on their love for their fellow countrymen, whatever their ethnic origins, that they will one day bring unity back to Aphrodite’s divided island.


Dida 1) Greek Cypriots protest at the funeral of a fellow countryman killed by Turkish Cypriot forces

Dida 2) The wall which divides Nicosia, Cyprus’ capital, into Greek and Turkish sections

Dida 3) A demonstration of Greek Cypriots forced from their homes following the Turkish invasion

Updated on October 06 2016