More than 40 years after the Turkish occupation of the north of Cyprus, negotiations intended to re-unify the country have made progress. Talks this this week in Geneva stalled – but there are reasons to be hopeful.
The Mediterranean island is situated just south of Turkey, and west of Syria and Lebanon. It is consequently of geo-strategic important and will always attract the attention of foreign powers.
The Ottoman Empire, which conquered Cyprus in 1570, leased the island to the British at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. The British established a major port in the island, at Famagusta, which opened in 1906. This made easier the projection of British naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean, which was essential to its ability to protect the Suez Canal, which in turn help guard the jewel in the British Empire’s crown – India.
Cyprus was formally incorporated into the Empire in 1914 upon the outbreak of WW1 in which the Ottomans joined the Central Powers and became an independent state in 1960. The British still maintain 2 Sovereign Base Areas in Akrotiri and Dhekelia, but the rest of the island was turned over to the Cypriots with Greece, Turkey and the UK acting as official guarantors of the new constitution.
For more than a century prior to this many Greek-Cypriots had been attracted by the concept of enosis (‘union) with the Greek motherland an idea promoted by the Greek Orthodox Church. It was the intellectual basis for the Megali Idea (‘Great Idea’) – the desire by the newly independent Greece (1830) for those ethnic and linguistic Greeks who still lived under Ottoman rule to come under Greek sovereignty.
For some Greek Cypriots, the 1960 constitution was insufficient. It gave them independence, but not enosis. The workability of independence was proven to be false in 1963; when serious communal strife broke out between the Turkish and Greek Cypriot populations which share the island.
The Turkish government considered intervening to protect the Turkish Cypriots but Cold War realpolitik intervened. President Lyndon B. Johnson made it clear to the Turkish government, that if they invaded Cyprus, they could expect no protection from the U.S.A in the event of a Soviet invasion of Turkey even though Turkey was by then a member of NATO.
The current situation is a legacy of July 1974. When a Greek military junta invaded the island, to incorporate it into the Greek state. Within days, the Turkish government had seized the north of the island, to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. Ankara’s claim that it was guaranteeing the 1960 constitution, in response to a coup, was not accepted by the UN. In 1983 the north declared the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus but the only country to recognise it a sovereign state is Turkey. The Greek claim to Cyprus was also rejected and it the 1960 constitution was upheld.
However, because of the fighting approximately 180,000 Greek Cypriots had moved from the north into the majority ethnically Greek region, with about 50,000 Turkish Cypriots moving the other away. In both cases many people were forcefully evicted from their homes. It is estimated that since 1974 about 150,000 Turkish citizens have moved across the Mediterranean to northern Cyprus.
A major issue in the current negotiations is the question of whether those Cypriots who were moved can return to their homes. If not, are they to be compensated, and if so by whom?
The Turkish government wants protection for the Turkish Cypriot minority, which would involve a power-sharing agreement. This would include Cyprus having a rotating Presidency, in which every 3rd President (as is wished by the Turkish Cypriots) or every 5th President (as is wished by the Greek Cypriots) is a Turkish Cypriot.
Discussions hit a barrier already on Friday. The Turkish government said it was unwilling to withdraw its 30,000 troops unless the Greek government’s troops were withdrawn also.
There are several complex problems to be resolved in these negotiations, and they are occurring within the context of the recent Turkish failed coup, and the migrant crisis which requires Turkish co-operation.
If the talks had collapsed then a deal would probably be out of reach for another decade, as they have only stalled, there are still reasons for guarded optimism. The talks are set to resume next week albeit on a technical level with the intention of agreement to hold a second international conference later this year.