Cyprus in the world: beyond conflict

Costa Carras
5 February 2008

"Who's to blame?" is a stupid game. In Cyprus, after six decades of conflict, it has lost the audience's patience. At each stage, there has never been a shortage of candidates to blame for political instability in the Mediterranean island: the British colonial government that took over Cyprus in 1878 and denied central representative institutions from 1931 until independence in 1960; the inter-communal leaders during the troubles of 1958 and 1963-64; the Greek junta's coup and Turkey's partition of the island in 1974; the rejection by the Greek Cypriots of the disputed "Annan plan" in 2004, just before the Republic of Cyprus joined the European Union.

Despite this six-decades' old "blame game", however, Cyprus also displays many positive features. The relationship between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is perhaps closer than that between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland - certainly than that between Palestinians and Israelis. Both are people of the land and probably share a great deal of genetic stock. As farmers they shared common customs and ways of life: as city folk they are equally careless of the environment.

Costa Carras is a businessman who has worked with the Greek-Turkish Forum since its inception

Moreover, personal relations are usually good: only in periods of communal strife are there individual problems. Even after the troubles of 1963-64 about 50% of Turkish Cypriots continued to live in mixed communities; and even after a total division of twenty-nine years, the 2003 opening of the buffer-zone led to an impressive re-emergence of widespread and notably civilised contact.

Today, new ideas are gradually emerging - one each has recently been proposed to the United Nations by Tassos Papadopoulos (on behalf of the Greek Cypriots) and Mehmet Ali Talat (on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots). Papadopoulos proposed a civil-society consultative body to create an opportunity for the airing of fresh and creative ideas; Talat a "reconciliation commission" to promote understanding, tolerance and mutual respect. Both ideas were endorsed at a meeting of the Cyprus chapter of the Greek-Turkish Forum, held in Athens on 28-29 November 2007.

Towards a settlement: four issues

It is worth examining four central issues that the present condition of Cyprus raises - issues that, indeed, are also critical to the future of many other countries.

First, how can two communities live together in a land all of whose territory was traditionally settled by both, but with neither the umbrella of a state committed to maintaining equity (as in Northern Ireland) nor a common political allegiance stretching back across generations? Belgium demonstrates that even where this last factor once existed, the democratic process encourages fissiparous tendencies, so long as politicians appeal for votes solely to "their own" communities.

The solution, long ago worked out by the London-based "Friends of Cyprus" in meetings between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, is to acknowledge that sustainable democracy in a bi-communal state demands that politicians in each community should be obliged also to appeal for votes in the other. How? Through separate communal lists (already required in Cyprus) and an equal percentage input by each community in the choice of the other's elected representatives: "cross-voting" suddenly means voters from the other community also count!

Such a system could be incorporated into many different constitutional structures, including that of the Swiss conciliar system proposed by the UN. Without cross-voting, even a genuine federation would serve as a preparation either for partition or for normal majority rule - both of which were excluded by the three high-level agreements reached between the communities in 1977, 1979 and (most constructively) on 8 July 2006.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Cyprus:

Alex Rondos, "Cyprus: the price of rejection" (22 April 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Cyprus's risky stalemate" (28 August 2007)

However, might not partition be achieved far more directly - via the presence of a Turkish occupying force? Yes, and here is the second central issue. There are several countries in the world that can only be genuinely independent if their defence is ensured regionally rather than nationally. In 2004, Cyprus became not just a member of the most important regional organisation, the European Union, but also the EU's outpost in the world's most dangerous area. In this light, a regional force under EU command, but including a Turkish contingent, would provide the most effective and impartial guarantee for all Cypriots' security. A Cypriot force, drawn equally from the two communities, would serve the EU exclusively outside Cyprus. Thus, in a world where security must increasingly become collective, Cyprus can serve not as a problem but an example.

The third issue concerns population. The ratio at independence was 82% Greek to 18% Turkish. Since 1974, Ankara has encouraged large-scale settlement from Anatolia to such a degree that those of Turkish Cypriot origin may now be a minority among those commonly described as Turkish Cypriot. The valid argument that this infringes the fourth Geneva convention is met by pleas for the human rights of settlers' children born and brought up in Cyprus.

Here as elsewhere, new approaches are needed which balance respect for traditional demographic ratios (in justice to established populations) with respect for individuals who have had no other home. Fortunately, the first census after British rule began in 1878 found Turkish Cypriots to be 24.5%. Perhaps then, citizenship should be given to Turkish settlers' children born and brought up in Cyprus, up to this overall percentage. Their parents might remain in Cyprus as residents but not as citizens, or be subsidised to return.

The fourth issue concerns the challenge to international legality represented by two developments, one long-standing and one more recent: the Turkish Cypriot unilateral declaration of independence in 1983, which was condemned by the international community; and the British government's efforts since autumn 2007 to upgrade the political status of the Turkish Cypriot administration vis-à-vis the Republic of Cyprus, while downgrading it vis-à-vis Turkey (in order to subordinate it to London's strategic relationship with Ankara).

This is the exact opposite of what the situation requires. The looser a federation is to be, the greater the need to emphasise international legality. This entails a determined reiteration that Ankara's military occupation is contrary to the United Nations charter and undermines her European vocation. The local Turkish Cypriot administration should rather be seen as a future partner in a federation already agreed in principle and gradually evolving from the existing Republic of Cyprus, but whose detailed constitutional terms remain to be elaborated. The current British policy provides poor service indeed to the UN and many Greek and Turkish Cypriots currently striving for a viable, just and politically creative settlement.

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