From Alexander the Great to Henry Kissinger and beyond, the small eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus has been the pawn of greater forces. Now, for perhaps the first time in its troubled history, the island is being given a chance to decide on its own future. In separate referendums on April 24, Greek Cypriots in the south and Turkish Cypriots in the north will vote on a plan to re-unify their divided country. The question is whether, after centuries of divisive misrule and three decades of ethnic partition, the two sides can still find enough common ground to enter that future together.
The island has been divided since 1974, when a nationalist coup backed by Athens sought to annex the nation to mainland Greece. Though short-lived, the coup triggered a Turkish invasion that displaced nearly 180,000 Greeks and continues to occupy the northern third of the island.
Yet even before the nation’s 1960 independence, Britain’s divide-and-rule tactics had pitted the two sides against each other, and by 1963 ethnic violence had driven tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots into armed enclaves for self-protection. In many ways, the partitioning of the country merely re-inscribed in a violent hand the linguistic, religious and cultural lines that have always quietly existed between the two communities.
Despite this, the Republic of Cyprus in the South has never recognized the legality of the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (only Turkey does so), and it has continually sought re-unification.
Attitudes on the other side have been mixed. TRNC leader Rauf Denktash has persistently obstructed all attempts at reconciliation, but there have been increasing signs that he is out of touch with most Turkish Cypriots. Tired of their economic isolation, resentful of their subservience to Turkey and threatened by the influx of nearly 100,000 mainland Turks–mostly impoverished farmers from the Anatolian interior–they voted in large numbers this past December for the moderate party of Mehmet Ali Talat. There have been openly anti-Denktash and pro-unification demonstrations, which come on top of a decade’s worth of steady work by citizens’ groups to build bridges to the South.
As is usual for the island nation, however, the real engine driving change has come from the outside. On May 1 Cyprus joins the European Union, and a host of interested parties–not least of which are Greece and Turkey themselves–want to see it enter as a single, unified state, stabilizing the region and providing a boost to Turkey’s entry talks later this year. Turkey’s westward integration also fits well with Bush’s need to position himself as a supporter of moderate, democratically styled Islamic nations, and there have been persistent (though officially denied) rumors that the United States is already angling for military bases in the North.