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Cyprus’s risky stalemate

About the author

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday's many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

On the three-and-a-half-hour flight eastwards from Rome to Larnaca, I re-immerse myself in the details of the "Cyprus question". As I read again the half-truths, self-indulgent rhetoric and bogus history that accompany most discussion of the island's modern politics and its associated massacres and invasions, my heart sinks and uneasy memories return.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Cyprus:Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection" (22 April 2004)The last time I had been in Cyprus was in July 1974, on holiday but in time to have a ringside view of the dramatic events of that time: the growing tension on the island as the Greek nationalist right sought, with the help of the military junta in Athens, to undermine Archbishop (and president) Makarios; the dramatic events on that Monday morning of 15 July when I went to buy fresh yoghurt at the village shop to find the owners in tears and the radio announcing that Makarios was dead; the realisation that a fascist coup had taken place, but that Makarios was alive and that his people were resisting; the days of tightening military control, the arrest by a group of paramilitaries of the socialists from the Edek party who were holding their summer school in the hotel next door. In Nicosia itself there was chaos at the airport, but all seemed sure that the Turks would not attack: "the Russians will make sure it never happens", I was told.

On the morning of Saturday 20 July, there was the sound in Nicosia of artillery shells being fired from nearby and the sight of Turkish paratroopers, their parachutes like puffs of smoke across the dawn sky, dropping on the northern part of Nicosia. Messages on the BBC World Service instructed us to assemble at the Hilton hotel, from where we were evacuated to a British base in the south of the island, then in transport planes to somewhere in Wiltshire.

Much leftwing analysis of these events exaggerates United States responsibility in identifying the hidden hand of a US-inspired conspiracy masterminded by then secretary of state Henry Kissinger, a reprise of the coup in Chile in September 1973. In any event, and somewhat in contrast to Chile, Cyprus gradually slipped from the news. (Years later, at a Royal Institute of International Affairs meeting in London, I told the visiting Bülent Ecevit - the Turkish prime minister who ordered the 1974 invasion - that, in addition to the other burdens of history he carried, he had also once interrupted my breakfast...)

The crossing-place

The 1974 crisis indeed marked the most dramatic turning-point in the history of the Cyprus question. It led to the occupation of 40% of the island by Turkish troops and - in effect, and despite the proclamation in 1983 of a "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", the annexation of this area to Turkey. It also involved what, two decades later in the context of disintegrating Yugoslavia, would be termed "ethnic cleansing", the forced reallocation of population into a wholly (with a marginal exception in the northeast of the island) Turkish north and wholly Greek south, and the establishment of a militarised frontier between the Greek and Turkish regions.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI).

His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.The recent articles include:

"A 2007 warning: the twelve worst ideas in the world"(8 January 2007)

Sunni, Shi'a and the "Trotskyists of Islam"(9 February 2007)

"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared"(25 March 2007)

"The Malvinas and Afghanistan: unburied ghosts"(4 May 2007)

"Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse"

(4 June 2007)"Crises of the middle east: 1914, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Eternal Euzkadi, enduring ETA" (3 August 2007)

Both sides share responsibility for the outcome (not forgetting the British colonial inheritance that allowed the "question" to be posed at all). If the Turks certainly acted without justification in occupying as much of the island as they did and in remaining intransigent for so many years thereafter, the Greeks are also to blame for provoking the crisis in the first place, and for years of indulgent calls for enosis (union with Greece) from the 1950s onwards.

In the ensuing decades many attempts were made to overcome this partition, with the aim of restoring the unity of Cyprus (even minimally) as a single state with common citizenship, and of finding a means of resolving the many property disputes and personal abuses on both sides that accompanied the 1974 events and which political and religious leaders have done much to keep alive.

In April 2003 it seemed as if a breakthrough had finally been achieved, following a change of policy in Ankara by the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) government (elected in November 2002), and the emergence within the Turkish Cypriot community of a new leadership under prime minister (later president) Mehmet Ali Talat that was more flexible than the previously unbending one associated with Rauf Denktash. When the Turks unilaterally (and to the great surprise of many) opened the frontier, tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots drove north to visit the towns and properties they had once known, and later visited the casinos of the north that have no counterpart on the Greek side; at the same time, many Turkish Cypriots, who remained under Cypriot law citizens of the once united island, found work in the south and, reclaiming citizenship, took advantage of health and other facilities available to them there.

Many Greek Cypriots I met said they they refused to make the trip, as it would mean having a foreign state, in this case Turkey, stamp their passport on the territory of their own country; but they nonetheless welcomed the reduction of tension and the new mingling of populations, albeit on only a daily basis, that had followed. At a slower pace, but with broadly positive intent, the Greek Cypriot government removed some of the guard-posts and other obstacles erected in 1974 along the "green line" through the heart of Nicosia itself. Most surprisingly, given the violence and bitterness of the past, and some lethal incidents in the years prior to 2003, there have been no serious incidents of conflict of any kind reported since then in either the north or south of the island.

Today the crossing at the checkpoint in central Nicosia beside the restored Ledra Palace hotel is a relaxed, even somewhat surreal, affair: a desultory guard on the Greek side checks your papers, you then walk a few hundred metres along a dusty road that skirts the old Venetian defensive walls of the city on the right, and the hotel (alongside a United Nations building) on the left; once around the corner, you encounter a Turkish guard beside a few faded propaganda posters. Apart from the odd tourist, many of those trudging between frontier-posts are Turkish Cypriots who have been on shopping visits in the south. There is little sign of military occupation, or menace, at least on this sunny weekend afternoon. This is not Panmunjom, the Allenby Bridge or cold-war-era Friedrichstrasse.

The referendum switchback

The optimism generated by the opening of the frontiers in 2003 was compounded by the decision of the European Union to agree to the accession of Cyprus to the EU. It was expected that in return for this agreement, both sides would make concessions: the Greeks to ensure that the entry actually took place, the Turks to ensure that their part of the island was given access to the benefits of European Union membership, and that flexibility on their part would help in the overall negotiations with Brussels on Turkish entry to the EU.

Moreover, responding with renewed diplomatic enthusiasm to events in Cyprus, the United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan sought in a series of meetings inside the island and at international venues to broker an agreement between the two communities. This would have restored a confederal Cyprus, reduced the level of Turkish and Greek forces on the island, provided a mechanism for settling property and other issues arising from 1974 and given all the citizens of the island access to the European Union. A major obstacle to Turkish entry into the EU, an irritant in relations between the Islamic and western worlds, and one of the last remaining intractable conflicts in Europe, would have been resolved.

The international community, i.e. the EU and the UN, certainly believed things were going well. It was widely assumed that everyone involved would come to their senses: the incentives were simply too great. But such optimism was to hit the rocks of political reality, within the island and within the two externally involved states: when it was put to a referendum in both parts of the island in April 2004, the Annan plan was rejected by a great majority of Greeks, even as it was supported by a majority of Turkish Cypriots.

The manner of the Greek rejection was another example (if one were needed) of the folly, self-indulgence and international irresponsibility of nationalist politics. Greek Cypriot leaders wilfully and frenetically misrepresented the terms of the Annan proposals; Greek Orthodox bishops piled in with menacing sermons; the Greek press engaged in weeks of invective and scaremongering; soldiers doing their military service were simply ordered to vote no. But pride of place for irresponsibility and mendacity must go to the president of Cyprus, Tassos Papadopoulos, a conservative politician with a less than stellar record over inter-ethnic violence who had long opposed UN reconciliation efforts and. His speech calling for a "no" vote, delivered just before the referendum, was a masterpiece of ingenuousness.

The Greek refusal

The underlying reasons for the Greek rejection, however, require closer attention and are of a more substantial character. The veteran socialist politician and leader of Edek, Vassos Lyssarides - one of the Greek Cypriot politicians who always sought to include Turks in his party - gave me a detailed account of the ways in which he found the agreement unworkable. In a discussion at his home, whose front door is still marked by bullet-marks from the 1974 events, he told me that the UN negotiating process (involving closed meetings between top officials) failed to bring Greek Cypriot opinion with it; and that the effort to raise support for the proposal referendum process was hampered by the distribution to voters of an unwieldy and unreadable volume documenting the statements and laws.

Greek Cypriots also objected to the fact that the agreement would have left large numbers of Turkish troops on the island, that immigrant from mainland Turkey since 1974 and who did not count as Cypriot citizens could stay, and that the process for settling property disputes and compensation was protracted and almost certainly unworkable.

However, beneath these specific points, and all alarmism and distortion apart, were three other important and deeply embedded factors.

First, while in recent years the Turks have been much more reasonable than the Greeks, and deserve support from Europe for this, Ankara simply waited too long, left it too late, in effect three decades, before making serious concessions to the Greek side.

Second, and equally on the negative side, was the issue of insecurity, the sense that the Turkish army could, if included within any unitary agreement, occupy the whole of the island, and that, in effect, the Greek Cypriots were safer inside the EU and with the Turks remaining outside.

Third, on the incentive side, the fact that the Greek part of Cyprus has, since 1974, and with the integration of tens of thousands of Greeks who fled the north, become a much more prosperous country, enriched by tourism, services, and, at least until EU membership imposed tighter controls, the inflow of large quantities of questionable Russian money.

Many Turkish Cypriots feel increasingly uneasy in their own region, and resent the newly arrived central Anatolian and other immigrants. An informed local observer, whose own landlord lives in north London, tells me that about half of all Turkish Cypriots live outside the country. As any visitor can see, the north is much poorer than the south. There are far fewer ATMs and no Starbucks, in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. By the same token, it is safe to walk the streets at night.

The cost of illusion

The international consequences of the Greek "no" vote are serious indeed (see Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection", 22 April 2004). In the years, decades, perhaps centuries to come it may be seen as one of the decisive moments in that short-sighted, and bigoted, European rejection of the middle east and of the Muslim world that will lead to centuries of conflict. It is will certainly not be counted as the only such event. The French and Dutch votes on the European constitution were equally problematic, and the Islamic world plays its own due part in this mutual incomprehension: yet as an act of parochial self-indulgence, the Greek Cypriot vote of April 2004 has few equals.

The Cyprus question has come to embitter Turkish negotiations with the EU and to be one of those questions - along with treatment of the Kurds and recognition of the Armenian genocide - which are used by opponents of Turkish accession to block progress. Yet while on the latter two issues the Turkish case is indeed a weak one, and open to much criticism, the use of the Cyprus issue and the Annan plan's failure against Turkey is partisan: a one-sided campaign by the Greek Cypriots, a complacent government in Athens and other European states (with France in the lead) that has little justification. For whatever else Ankara can be blamed, Cyprus is not a leading item on the list.

In the aftermath of the April 2004 rejection, the island therefore remains divided; the Turkish mood has hardened; and the diplomats and well-wishers of the international community will require a lot of reassurance to spend even more time and credit to get involved once again in the affairs of Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots cling to the idea that the world will in the end come to them and on their terms.

The Nicosia press is full of stories about new international initiatives. When I asked a Nicosia taxi-driver what he thought of Tony Blair, he regaled me with a stinging denunciation. Blair, he told me, was a "complete failure". Why? Not because of Iraq or any such triviality. "The man never set foot in Cyprus", he told me, "and he never came up with new proposals...on the Cyprus question". Needless to say, this same taxi-driver told me that the whole Turkish invasion of 1974 was organised by the British and that captured British pilots flying Turkish planes had been captured.

The expectations of a major new international initiative may prove illusory, not least because of impending parliamentary elections in Greece (16 September 2007 - unless delayed by the fallout of the forest-fire disaster) and presidential elections in Cyprus itself (8 February 2008) that are sharpening the political atmosphere in both countries. But the apparently more realistic view, echoed in much international coverage of the island, may also prove to be unfounded: that Cyprus in effect has been partitioned, and that the situation of today will now last, with a partially independent Greek protectorate in the south, and an almost wholly dependent Turkish colony in the north.

An unstable stability

In some ways the change of heart in Turkey under the AKP and the increased contacts between the two communities on the island itself do mark a significant and welcome step forward. However, the Cyprus situation is rarely straightforward, and the path ahead is unlikely to be smooth. This was brought home to me in discussion with an astute former Greek Cypriot diplomat I first met in 1974. He had voted "yes" in the 2004 referendum, but, as he put it, "only when I was sure it would lose". As he argued, the situation in Cyprus is in some respects unstable:

  • Turkey and Greece have far from settled their overall regional rivalry, which can flare up at any time, as the death of a Greek air-force pilot in a mock dogfight over the Aegean sea in May 2006 demonstrated
  • the mood of nationalist self-assertion in Turkey may have consequences for Cyprus (as it may, for different reasons, in northern Iraq)
  • international (United Nations), European and bilateral (United States, United Kingdom) capacity for controlling local events and the actions of their local allies is less than ever.
Meanwhile, and on the island itself, with the initiative perhaps passing to a new generation of more nationalist politicians, there has since 2003 (and probably will continue to be) almost no progress on the practical issues of property, compensation, territorial readjustment and commercial freedom of movement. Some see hope in the fact that Dimitris Christofias, the leader of Akel, the Greek Cypriot communist party, has now broken with Papadopoulos and has announced he will run for president in the next Cypriot elections; but no one can be sure this is more than a tactical gambit, and in any case Akel itself has sunk (its progressive veneer notwithstanding) into a mire of clientilism and dogmatic verbiage such that few can believe it is capable of taking a decisive initiative.

To students of other inter-ethnic and regional disputes - from Kosovo to the post-Soviet "frozen conflicts", this may sound all too familiar. In Cyprus too, the risks that remain, not least those caused by neglect and diplomatic complacency, may be as great.

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