Cyprus: Is Reconciliation Near?

Cyprus: Is Reconciliation Near?

  • 20 May 2003

Cyprus stands at a vital crossroads. Over the course of 2003, the two sides on the island, cleaved into Turkish and Greek entities, edged closer to an agreement to solve their long-standing dispute, only to see talks aimed it its resolution collapse. Next, in an unexpected development, large number of Cypriots from both the north and the south were allowed to cross the border to visit the other portion of the island. In order to better grasp the current situation, one must examine the nearly three-decade-long era of division on the island and recent currents that may trigger large-scale change. A British crown colony since 1914, Cyprus was divided between Turkish and Greek communities.  

Upon independence in 1960, the two groups shared a constitution, although tensions between them lingered. In 1974, in the wake of a failed Greek-sponsored coup that aimed to unite the island with Greece, Turkish soldiers invaded the northern half of the country to protect the Turkish community there. In the aftermath, 160,000 Greek Cypriots fled to the south of the island, while 50,000 Turkish Cypriots sought refuge in the north. Moreover, the island was divided along ethnic lines, with Turkey controlling the northern third. The "Green Line" between the two political entities in Cyprus has been patrolled by UN "blue helmets" ever since.

Beginning in 1980, the UN sponsored talks between the two communities. Solidifying the divide on the island, in 1983, the Turkish-ruled half, where 35,000 Turkish soldiers are currently stationed, declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which only Turkey recognized (the Greek portion is officially known as the Republic of Cyprus — ROC).  Tensions remained throughout the 1990s. However, in 1998 a critical event took place when the EU listed Cyprus as a potential member. Nonetheless, in 2000 TRNC President Rauf Denktash walked out of peace talks.  In June 2001, the UN Security Council renewed its 36-year peacekeeping mission in Cyprus.  Matters worsened in November 2001, when Turkey threatened to annex the northern Cyprus if the ROC  joined the EU before reaching an settlement.

In November 2002, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan presented a comprehensive peace plan entailing a two-part federation with a shared presidency. Under this initiative, the island would be formally reunited, but administered in two Swiss-style cantons, and large-scale demilitarization would occur. The Turkish community would relinquish some of its land, but only some of the Greek Cypriots who were displaced in 1974 would regain their homes in the north. Under the approaching shadow of this plan, and buoyed by personal amity and ties stretching back into the 1950s, ROC president Glafkos Clerides and Denktash dined in December 2001 at the house of the former in an unprecedented meeting wherein the two leaders agreed to resume negotiations in January 2002. In January 2003, Denktash and Clerides began thrice-weekly meetings to strive for an accord. The UN and the EU have been eager for a resolution of the deadlock on the island. In December 2002, EU members, at their Copenhagen summit, invited Cyprus to join in May 2004 under the condition that both parties agree to the UN's reunification program by a February 28, 2003 deadline. In the absence of such an agreement, only the southern part of the island would be admitted into the EU. For its part, Turkey, long a supporter of the TRNC, is now changing its stance as it strives to gain admittance into the EU and curry favor with EU members. 

For Turkey, it appears that the benefits of EU membership are far greater than the cost of relinquishing control over the TRNC. Moreover, should the ROC enter the EU on its own, Turkey will be considered an occupying power — a label it wishes to avoid. In light of this situation, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Turkish ruling party, has urged Denktash to give more ground in the negotiations.

In addition to such outside pressures, the respective Cypriot communities themselves hold considerable sway in the situation. For Turkish Cypriots, the prospect of EU membership is a considerable lure for a community that has suffered from poverty, political isolation, UN sanctions, and economic and political turmoil in Turkey. The overriding hope there is that, under a reconstituted Cyprus in the EU, living standards would rise and the flow of young people leaving the TRNC would cease. Denktash himself, who has threatened to resign rather than accept the plan in its present form, is perceived by some to be out of touch with public sentiment on the issue, as he has been labeled a "dinosaur." Evidence of resentment of his presidency was clear during a demonstration on January 14, 2003, when 50,000 Turkish Cypriots — approximately a third of the population of the TRNC –marched in support of the UN plan and against Denktash.

In an election in the ROC on February 17, 2003, challenger Tassos Papadopoulos defeated the veteran Clerides. While agreeing in principle with the UN plan, Papadopoulos aimed to renegotiate certain portions; he also sought  to allow dislocated Greek Cypriots to return to their homes in the north. Subsequently, on Thursday, February 27, 2003, tens of thousands of Turkish Cypriots marched in support of the UN plan, many of them voicing their demands for Denktash's resignation. Despite the presence of major incentives for the sides to reach an agreement, eventually, the talks between the two sides collapsed in March 2003.

However, this breakdown did not mean the end of the story. In April 2003, the Turkish Cypriot leadership lifted a long-standing travel ban on TRNC citizens traveling to the south. In kind, ROC officials allowed their own citizens to travel to the north, although for a short period only. In the latest move, Turkey, the longtime patron of the TRNC, allowed ROC citizens to enter its borders.

Although the media coverage of these events has not been great, they clearly remind observers of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 — and carry a potentially colossal psychological impact for the two groups on on island who have not had direct contract for twenty-nine years.  Yet undetermined political and social trends may emerge as a result of this exchange. "We need peace. We no longer gain anything from quarrelling," said Turkish PM Erdogan in reference to the conflict.