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.
On the other hand, failure to unify will result in the admission of only the Republic of Cyprus, perpetuating instability and putting Turkey, with some 35,000 troops in the North, in a tricky position: It will apply to the EU while at the same time maintaining an occupying army in an existing member. Unilateral withdrawal might antagonize the military, still a potent political force in Turkey, but keeping the troops there assures a Cyprus veto on any future acceptance–with potentially divisive effects on the entire EU. Once again, Cyprus finds itself in a vortex of competing forces.
According to a timetable set earlier this year in New York with Kofi Annan, Denktash and Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos agreed to intensive talks to produce a unification plan, with Greece and Turkey stepping in to resolve unfinished issues in mid-March, and Annan himself filling in the gaps by the end of the month. It is this document that will be put up to a referendum on April 24, just in time–it is hoped–for a unified Cyprus to join the EU on May 1.
While the so-called Annan Plan does a remarkable job of balancing the impossibly conflicting demands of both sides, it is unfortunately very much the creation of Annan, since the negotiating parties were never able to produce a document they could agree on. Thus, it is widely seen (particularly in the South) as lacking legitimacy. It calls for the creation of a new United Cyprus Republic with two separate, equal constituent states (Greek and Turkish) linked under a weak federal government. It also provides for gradual demilitarization of the island, a redrawing of the Green Line to allow return of more than half the displaced Greeks and a property board that will, on a case-by-case basis, give restitution or recompense to all displaced Cypriots for their lost land. On top of this, there’s the promise of international aid to facilitate the whole process.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the TRNC’s Talat have come out in favor of the plan, while Denktash has predictably announced his opposition. More troublingly, Cypriot President Papadopoulos and his party have rejected the plan, and while other parties have been more positive, their support has come about only in the last few weeks.
The result of their delay is that a powerful negative energy has built up that may well discharge itself in ano vote. There have been large nationalistic demonstrations against the plan, and its few supporters are branded as traitors. Predictions are that the referendum will pass in the North, but fail in the South.
Greek Cypriots, still bitter about the 1974 invasion and the relative lack of international concern (particularly by the United States, whose cold war agenda demanded close ties with Turkey), have a right to question a plan supported by everyone but themselves. At the same time, they are closer to a workable solution now than they ever have been, and both Annan and the EU have made it clear that there will no better plan available down the road. The real tragedy will be if, in their first chance to vote on their future, Cypriots remain mired in their past.