Reflections on Cyprus

I am not a Cypriot, so whatever I have to say about UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposals to reunite the island is irrelevant in the face of the emotions that are running high there. The intensive negotiations of the past week in Switzerland held out the hope that a solution could be near. The end of the talks, without a solution, means that it will be the people of Cyprus – the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots – who will decide their common fate in referenda on April 24. An end to the island’s division means both the return of many refugees to the homes they lost in the invasion of 1974 and the knowledge that most of northern Cyprus will remain off limits to many other refugees, giving legitimacy, in other words, to the Turkish invasion and occupation. For the Turkish-Cypriot minority, an end to division means both an end to their international isolation and the anticipation of living in the shadow of the richer, Greek-Cypriot majority whom they have been brought up to fear due to the ethnic unrest of the 1960s and early ’70s. For both sides, the compromise proposed by Annan means an end to dreams of an absolutely perfect solution that has been cultivated as an ideal over the past three decades – a solution which, in each case, would be to the detriment of the other community on the island. So, aside from the practical and physical changes that a solution will bring, it is also understandable that people on both sides of the Green Line will be anxious that a solution is at hand. This is when reality asserts itself after years of being able to coast along without really doing anything. For three decades, the Turkish-Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash, had allowed the Greek side to hold the moral high ground without actually achieving anything. This was either by accident (by Denktash’s being the intransigent old goat that he likes to present himself as) or by design, according to which the 30 years that passed since the Turkish invasion were aimed at cementing Cyprus’s division and turning the breakaway Turkish-Cypriot state into a de facto separate republic independent of the Republic of Cyprus. On the face of it, neither side won. The Greek Cypriots had the world on their side but only to the extent of receiving verbal support. The Turkish Cypriots got away with running their own breakaway state for 30 years, watching it become inundated by settlers, while at the same time going into deep economic decline. And, in the end, they did not receive international recognition. Time could have kept still, with the Greek Cypriots enjoying the fruits (and being enticed by the abuses) of financial globalization and mass tourism, and the Turkish Cypriots watching the paint peel off the buildings in their jealously guarded sector. All this began to change in 1995 when, with coordinated American and EU effort, Greece softened its objections and allowed Turkey to enter into a customs union with the EU in exchange for the eventual accession of Cyprus to the EU. For years, Greece had been blocking any closer ties between Ankara and Brussels. The power of inertia and the easy political gain of playing up nationalist sentiment were a mighty obstacle to progress, which allowed decades to pass without any apparent hope of ending Cyprus’s division and, consequently, improving relations with Turkey. But when Costas Simitis became prime minister in early 1996, he inverted the equation and initiated a step-by-step improvement of relations between Athens and Ankara. In the wake of the Imia incident, in which Greece and Turkey nearly went to war in early 1996, this initiative was much maligned by the forces of nationalism and conservatism that are so at home in parties across the political spectrum. The need to improve ties with Turkey got another boost after Greece’s disastrous attempt to find a refuge for the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan in early 1999. But all this time Cyprus appeared to be frozen in time, as one mediation effort after another ran aground on Denktash’s demand for international recognition of his breakaway state. The Greek Cypriots and Greece could coast along, demanding a solution for the Cyprus issue without really having to imagine what the end to the island’s division would look like. Then two major events took place: Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Turkey with a comfortable majority in late 2002 and Cyprus took its final steps toward joining the EU, with its accession slated for the beginning of next month. Erdogan’s first step after his electoral victory was to declare his desire to help solve the Cyprus issue and he came to Athens to repeat this. As leader of Turkey’s Islamist-inspired party, Erdogan found himself in a bitter struggle with his country’s «deep state,» the military and foreign affairs establishment which saw Cyprus as the jewel in its surreptitious crown. As the establishment had agreed (perhaps half-heartedly, perhaps fatalistically) to go along with Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, a strange situation ensued. The military, the guardian of Turkey’s secular republic, had to stand aside and allow its power to be curtailed by legislation demanded by the EU while at the same time seeing Ankara’s willingness to help solve the Cyprus problem become a criterion for Turkey’s closer ties with the EU. Even as nothing seemed to change, the basis on which the Cyprus issue rested had begun to change. And now, after Buergenstock, we can say that even if nothing changes, nothing will be the same. Whatever the merits or problems of the Annan plan in its final form, and every side’s arguments are valid and worthy of respect, it has changed the way in which Greece, Turkey, Cypriots and the rest of the world will see Cyprus from now on. Greece is the one that has always pressed for a solution to be based on UN resolutions and EU principles. Now we have a compromise that has been shaped through UN mediation in interminable rounds of negotiations, and we have the EU pushing for and agreeing to a 15-year limit on the clause limiting the number of Greek Cypriots who will be able to acquire property in the Turkish-Cypriot state (they cannot exceed 18 percent of the Turkish-Cypriot state’s population). Another derogation, regarding the number of Greek Cypriots who can live in the northern part of the island, will be in effect for 19 years. In both cases, if the per capita income of the Turkish Cypriots rises to 85 percent that of Greek Cypriots, the exemption will end before the time limit. The issue of permanent derogations had been presented by Turkey as non-negotiable. Conversely, the Greeks demanded that the EU acquis be respected. Given that this was the sine qua non of an agreement by both sides, one wonders why the Turks are upbeat about an agreement and the Greeks skeptical, as if they did not get what they wanted from the EU. It will be very difficult for Greece and the Greek-Cypriot leadership to advise a «no» vote on the plan, as this will be seen as a rejection of the efforts of the UN, the EU and everyone else involved in the effort. The Greek side may console itself with the heroics of rejection and the argument that it is the victim of international indifference if not injustice, but this will not get it anywhere nearer a solution. Now that everyone is back from the outer space of the Swiss Alps and in touch with their electorates, all parties involved will sit down and do the complicated mathematics of territory, time, legal issues and political costs and gains. What the political leaders say now will be crucial in influencing the outcome of the referenda to be held on both sides of Cyprus in just over three weeks, on April 24. A week after that, on May 1, something unbelievable may happen, a roughly united Cyprus may join the European Union. From then on, the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, the Greeks and the Turks, will undertake the huge responsibility of drawing up inconceivable reserves of good will to make the marriage work. After all the dreams of utopian solutions, after getting used to living apart, the two partners whom Annan will have brought together will have to work so that no one will be able to tear them asunder. It will not be easy and, finally, we will see if the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots can live together. At least this time they will not be living in the shadow of the conflicting interests of Greece and Turkey but in the gracious and secure home provided by the European Union. This is something no one should forget in these difficult days. Without having a right to pontificate about what the Cypriots should vote, the only thing that I can say from this corner is that movement, calculated risk, leaps of faith – faith based on hope – and constructive relations with our neighbors have always worked in favor of the Greeks. Anger (even well-justified anger), self-pity and fear of change can offer consolation. But being right doesn’t always make one happy.

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