Shifty Lines: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

After the binge that was Shifty Lines: South Asia, a smaller helping of international relations is in order.  And as Ukraine and Russia still have some sorting out to do before their situation makes enough sense to summarize in this space, we will visit a less grandiose conflict: the Cyprus crisis.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire set up many of the conflicts explored in the Shifty Lines series, in particular those in the Persosphere, the Caucasus, the Arab world, and the Balkans.  The wholesale revolt of southeastern Europe against Ottoman rule took place in large part because of the emerging ideas of ethnic nationalism and self-determination, which prodded the long-suffering peoples of the Balkans to expel this latest empire and make their own way in the world.  At the same time, similar sentiments elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire had little chance to develop before they were commandeered and squelched by older European powers, in particular the French and British.  Where southeastern Europe divided into new nation-states that have mostly held steady (what became Yugoslavia being a notable exception), the re-colonized Ottoman possessions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant remain divided along colonial lines that serve as persistent sources of conflict.  The island of Cyprus is at the intersection of these two patterns.

Distal Greece

Cyprus has been inhabited by Greeks since at least the Bronze Age, assimilating a previous indigenous population.  Its position as a large island off the coasts of Syria and Anatolia placed it at the easternmost fringe of various Greek polities, and made Cypriot culture a fusion of pre-Greek, Greek, and Phoenician elements.  Cyprus spent many centuries under other masters, including the Hittites, Assyrians, Ptolemites, Romans, and Byzantines, during which its Greek cultural attributes became even more ascendant.  During the Byzantine Empire’s decline, Cyprus fell under partial or full Arab, Frankish, Crusader, Genoese, and Venetian control.  Many other islands of what is now Greece had similar situations, including Crete and the Dodecanese, creating a further sense of unity with the Cypriots’ kin to the northwest.

Eventually, the large Greek island was conquered by and incorporated into the Ottoman Empire.  The Empire granted Cypriot land to Turkish soldiers, beginning a long process of colonization that would eventually make Turks approximately 18% of the island’s population.  At the same time, Cyprus’s Greek, Latin, Maronite, and other non-Muslim populations received the Ottomans’ standard discrimination, meant to encourage conversion to Islam and adoption of the Turkish identity as their own.

Turkish mismanagement of the island’s affairs, combined with these intentional insults to the Greeks, incited dozens of small revolts between 1572 and 1668.  Various changes to the island’s status within the Empire and steady increases in the prominence of Greek Orthodox clergy as recognized leaders of the Greek population did little to stem revolutionary sentiments.  In many cases, the Greeks had the sympathy of the Turkish peasantry, who also suffered under Ottoman rule.  These agitations culminated in the spread of the Greek war of independence to Cyprus, and shortly thereafter, with wartime atrocities.  Turkish authorities executed any Cypriot caught aiding the Greek war effort, in Cyprus and elsewhere.  In 1821, Pasha Küçük Mehmet sealed the walls of Nicosia and began executions, starting with prominent Cypriot bishops accused of inciting “patriotic sentiment.”  In keeping with Mehmet’s declaration, “I have in my mind to slaughter the Greeks in Cyprus, to hang them, to not leave a soul…” the Ottomans’ rampage across Cyprus resulted in at least 2000 Greek Cypriot deaths, a substantial fraction of the island’s population.  Turkish mobs pillaged and leveled entire villages and attacked Greek churches, and the Greek leaders importuned numerous foreign powers for aid.

One More British Colony

While the initial nucleus of the growing Greek state gained independence in 1830, Cyprus and much of the rest of the Greek world remained Ottoman until much later.  The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 led to many parts of the Ottoman periphery being assigned to other European powers.  Cyprus came under British control, as part of Britain’s plans to control outside access to the Mediterranean via Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.  Greek Cypriots at first welcomed the British, hoping that the foreign power would formally end their subjection to the Ottomans and speed them toward long-awaited enosis (union) with the growing state of Greece.  Unfortunately, the British simply maintained the island as a protectorate, imposing high taxes to pay the Ottoman Sultan for the privilege and excluding the Cypriots from any sense of control over their own affairs.  This situation worsened in 1914 with the onset of World War I, in which the United Kingdom formally annexed Cyprus as a wartime provocation to the Ottomans.  Britain offered Cyprus to Greece as an incentive to attack Bulgaria, but Greece declined.  The Ottoman Empire formally ceded sovereignty over Cyprus to Britain with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, after the war, and Cyprus became a Crown colony in 1925.  The new constitution explicitly prevented Cypriot participation in government.  In the meantime, various other Greek-inhabited territories, including Crete, Thessaly, Macedonia, and East and West Thrace, were realizing their own enosis (temporary, in the case of East Thrace and North Epirus), increasing pressure for the British to allow the Greek Cypriots the same privilege.

Pro-enosis sentiments turned violent in the 1930s, including riots and the destruction of the Government House, and became more and more strident as the British government imposed more and more restrictions on the functioning of Greek schools and the formation of trade unions and other associations in Cyprus.  Numerous compromise measures attempted by the British fell flat against this demand for freedom from colonization and union with Greece.  In 1948, King Paul of Greece expressed interest in Cypriot accession, followed shortly by an Orthodox Church of Cyprus referendum claiming that 97% of Greek Cypriots desired for the island to join Greece.  The UK once again rejected the demand, interested in maintaining Cyprus as a base for keeping an eye on Egypt and the Levant.  This involvement by Greece turned the Cypriot enosis question from an intra-empire to an international issue, getting Turkish attention and increasingly alarming Turkish Cypriots.  Riots morphed into an organized resistance movement, the Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston (EOKA), which began a campaign of police station attacks and distribution of leaflets in 1955 and which took the British four years to subdue, partly by exiling Archbishop Makarios III to the Seychelles.

As EOKA’s efforts became more militarized and prominent, the Turkish Cypriots formed their own counter-cry to demands for enosistaksim, the Turkish word for “partition.”  At the same time, the British began consulting with both Greece and Turkey regarding Cypriot unrest and allowed the exiled Greek leaders, including Archbishop Makarios to return.  Turkish Cypriots suddenly became targets for EOKA and other pro-enosis factions, leading to persistent violence between the two communities.    A Turkish Resistance Organization formed to oppose EOKA’s violence with its own.  Eventually, a compromise arrangement was achieved in Zürich, in which Cyprus would become an independent state whose government would intentionally include representatives from both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities and would be guaranteed by the ongoing presence of both Greek and Turkish military forces.  Naturally, Britain added a stipulation that its military bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia would remain.  Archbishop Makarios III became the first president of an independent Cyprus in 1960.

No One’s Compromise

Because the agreement explicitly ruled out both enosis and taksim, it satisfied neither Greek Cypriot nor Turkish Cypriot interests. Greek Cypriots in particular resented requiring the approval of Turkish Cypriot officials for their activities and floated several proposals to remove the ethnic quotas established in Zürich.  As Makarios told it, these moves would soften the divisions between the communities and make the government more efficient.  Many Turkish Cypriots saw them instead as a plan to disenfranchise them and allow the Greek majority to pursue enosis once more.  Sources differ on the exact nature of what happened next.  Turkish Cypriot officials exited their government posts en masse, but whether they did so voluntarily as a statement of anger with Makarios’s proposals;  or were coerced as part of the same goal of establishing a firmly Greek Cypriot government; or were already setting up for the events of 1974 is subject to dispute.  At any rate, these insults further encouraged violence between the two segments of Cyprus’s population while being insufficiently pro-Greece for many radical elements.  After the 1963 military coup in Greece, Makarios claimed that Greece was fomenting paramilitary groups in Cyprus to force the enosis question on their terms; one such group attempted to assassinate him in 1970.  Makarios called for United Nations aid, leading to the imposition of a UN peacekeeping force tasked with maintaining “law and order” but not with restoring the required Turkish Cypriot portion of the government.

In 1974, amidst the violence and the de facto confinement of the Turkish Cypriot community to a series of tiny enclaves scattered around the island, the Cypriot National Guard executed a coup d’état to replace President Makarios with Niko Sampson, a Greek Cypriot nationalist.  The goal was to replace the existing government with one that would pursue enosis at all costs.  Within five days, Turkey invaded Cyprus, ostensibly to protect the interests of the Turkish Cypriots from the danger of the new military government.  Turkey quickly took control over the northern 38% of the island, causing 200,000 Greek Cypriots to flee to the south and the UN to relocate 60,000 Turkish Cypriots northward.  The invasion was widely condemned as a violation of the Zürich agreement that created independent Cyprus, though some argued that the agreement had been nullified by the coup and that the Turkish minority was in real danger.

In 1983, still maintained by the Turkish military presence and a UN buffer zone between the two, the Turkish region of Cyprus declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.  Amidst repeated UN Security Council Resolutions declaring the Turkish invasion and de facto occupation to be illegal, only Turkey recognizes the TRNC’s independence, severely limiting Northern Cyprus’s contact with the outside world.  Turkey has since encouraged migration of Turks into Northern Cyprus, to the point that only 45% of Northern Cyprus’s current population was born on the island.  Violence between the two regions became minimal, but official negotiations to resolve the status of Northern Cyprus did not resume until 1999.  Negotiations over a series of UN proposals called the Annan Plan were tense and prolonged, eventually ending in 2004’s 24% Greek Cypriot and 65% Turkish Cypriot approval, thereby failing.  Complicating matters, Cyprus acceded to the European Union in 2004, without an agreement on the Cyprus question.  The Cyprus that joined the European Union is de jure a united Cyprus and de facto the Greek portion, excluding the TRNC.  Nevertheless, accession came with the opening of a handful of crossing points between Cyprus proper and the initiation of aid programs from the EU aiming to end the northern half’s isolation.  It also came with the TRNC gaining an observer seat in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, despite its near-total lack of diplomatic recognition otherwise.  Soon thereafter, the TRNC elected a new president, Dimitris Christofias, interested in reunifying Cyprus as a two-part federation.

Looking Forward

The Cyprus question is not one that falls neatly into the paradigm of colonizer and colonized.  While the initial arrival of the Ottomans in Cyprus was an invasion and meant to assimilate the native Greeks, subsequent efforts to erase the ethnic Turkish presence in Cyprus effectively reversed the classic roles for decades.  The 1974 invasion from Turkey, likewise, augmented and reinforced a division that was already present, rather than creating a new one, but it also involved the wholesale conversion of northern Cypriot churches into mosques, stables, and other buildings; the seizure of enormous amounts of Greek Cypriot property in the north, given to Turkish Cypriots for their use; and the arrival of thousands of Turkish settlers into the newly occupied territory.  More importantly, the lack of diplomatic recognition for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has made the TRNC extremely dependent on and beholden to Turkey, to the point of rendering it into a puppet state in many ways.  The TRNC’s difficulties with Turkish hegemony are at the point of generating protests against Turkish influence, in particular against Turkey’s increasingly religious slant.

It is also increasingly suspected that Turkey is using the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a dumping ground for Kurdish dissidents, relying on the partitioned island’s difficult legal situation to deter international attention and keep the Kurdistan movement weak.  This is a wrinkle not present in the otherwise very similar situation of Kosovo.

All of that being said, the partition of Cyprus is a fait accompli, and the expectation that it will be reversed is not realistic.  Taksim is the reality of the situation.  The question of Cyprus is whether that partition should take the form of a federated Cyprus, one or more independent states, and/or one or more annexations by the ethnic parent states.

A federation is unlikely to appeal to either set of Cypriots.  Europe’s mid-sized binational states, such as Belgium, are not generally pictures of peaceful coexistence while at their best.  Tensions between the two communities and their distinct senses of themselves preclude coexistence within a single country.  Similar combinations are failing all over the world, and there is no reason to expect otherwise here.  The two nations belong in and deserve two countries.

The 1974 coup and invasion seem to have dampened Greek Cypriot enthusiasm for a union with Greece, as has the Greek financial crisis and Cypriot accession to the EU.  With a pre-existing European Union seat and international presence, Greek Cyprus is unlikely to subsume itself into another entity, least of all one as fraught as modern-day Greece, least of all after only recently being itself decolonized.  For all the cultural links between Greek Cyprus and Greece, the island’s distance from the Greek mainland and strategic location suggest continuing independence from Greece as a prudent decision, unless a massive new push for enosis emerges.  Similarly, given the growing tension between the TRNC and Turkey, Northern Cyprus becoming Turkey’s 82nd vilayet is an increasingly unlikely proposition, despite its ethnic-nationalist convenience and the degree to which such a merger has already been realized via the TRNC’s lack of international recognition and dependence on its only backer.

With that in mind, Turkish Cyprus would probably benefit from independence.  An independent, fully recognized TRNC is more likely to enter the European Union in the near future than one absorbed into Turkey, whatever suspicions the European deciders may have regarding a member state of ethnic Turks.  An independent Turkish Cyprus can also assert its opposition to Turkish religious interference and make its own arrangements regarding Greek Cypriot property within its territory.  Turkey is unlikely to cut its client state loose if other countries decide to recognize it—Bangladesh and Pakistan briefly recognized the TRNC before the UN Security Council condemned it—so Northern Cyprus would most likely avoid the economic collapse that a sudden loss of Turkish investment would provoke.

Unfortunately, Greece and Turkey already border each other elsewhere, so the creation of two Cypriot states would not provide an especially effective buffer between these historically antagonistic neighbors.  It would, however, solve one of the largest sources of conflict between the two; lay bare the anachronism of the United Kingdom retaining 3% of the entire island for its own use; prevent any further removals of Kurds to Cyprus without the international community noticing; and remove one of the stated obstacles to Turkey’s entry to the European Union.

And that would be decidedly…interesting.
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