In the powder keg of the Middle East’s religious and ethnic conflicts, the 40-year-long division of Cyprus between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots shouldn’t rank high on the list of dangers to defuse. This does not make the issue less relevant — nor less dangerous.
Turkey, already unsettled by the surge in Islamist extremism and Kurdish nationalism in the region, has now raised the stakes in the eastern Mediterranean. Demanding that the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the European Union, stop exploring for gas and oil in the island’s offshore economic zone, on Oct. 20 Ankara sent an exploratory vessel into the same waters — accompanied by a warship. This prompted the Greek-Cypriot president to walk out of United Nations-mediated efforts to reunify the island.
Turkey is also angry that Cyprus and Greece plan to exploit the region’s energy resources in cooperation with Israel and Egypt. (Both were once close allies of Turkey but are now estranged as Ankara’s pro-Islamic rhetoric has become more strident.) As tensions rise between Greece and Turkey, the two nations’ warships have increasingly shadowed each other. Things could get worse before they improve.
Perhaps potential danger will concentrate minds. The Greek and Turkish prime ministers are to meet in Athens this Friday and Saturday. They must ask themselves whether Turkey, Greece and Cyprus will cooperate, or focus only on their differences and risk being sucked into the region’s morass of self-justifying conflicts.
A measure of Washington’s concern is the fact that Vice President Joe Biden, during a recent visit to Istanbul, stressed the need for a solution on Cyprus. “Right now that requires a focus on de-escalating tensions and returning to the negotiating table in Cyprus,” Mr. Biden said after talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Nov. 22. “Given the significant energy potential in the Eastern Mediterranean, the rewards to both communities on Cyprus of finding a cooperative path forward has never been greater.”
Such cooperation could take the form of a bicommunal committee to handle the exploitation of any oil and gas finds. Greek Cypriots have consistently rejected calls by Turkish Cypriots and the United Nations for such a body, saying that a future federal government will share out the profits.
Cyprus, with a population of about one million, has long been a volatile object of contention between Greece and Turkey, to the detriment of both the Greek-Cypriot majority and the Turkish Cypriots. Turkey invaded and occupied the northern part of Cyprus in 1974, in response to a coup by Greek Cypriots who wanted union with Greece. Before that, when Greek Cypriots rebelled against British rule in 1955, an anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul (with rioters carrying placards proclaiming “Cyprus is Turkish”) and mass deportations in 1964 eradicated that city’s flourishing Greek community. Disputes in the Aegean Sea brought the two countries to the brink of conflict in 1987 and again in 1996. The year before that, Turkey’s Parliament had authorized military action if Athens exercised its right under the international law of the sea to extend its territorial waters beyond the current six miles.
The international community regards the Greek-Cypriot government in Nicosia as the island’s sole legitimate representative, while Turkey recognizes only the state Turkish Cypriots declared unilaterally in 1983; it is the only country to do so. Turkish Cypriots say Greek Cypriots claim to be “masters” of the island, while Greek Cypriots object to any development that could be seen as recognizing the Turkish-Cypriot state as a legal entity. Other contentious issues are the rights of more than 160,000 Greek Cypriots who were displaced from the north in 1974, along with some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots from the south. And during the violence of 1963-4 and 1974, 1,493 Greek Cypriots and 502 Turkish Cypriots disappeared; in 2007, a bicommunal committee began to find, identify and return their remains.
In 2004, a referendum was held on a United Nations reunification plan, with 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots approving but 76 percent of Greek Cypriots rejecting. The Greek-Cypriot vote angered many European Union members, who had hoped that Cyprus would be reunified prior to accession. (The international community does not press Turkey too hard to recognize Cyprus because Ankara is not shy about punishing governments and companies that cross it. Its occupation of northern Cyprus involves about 30,000 troops, financial support, large numbers of settlers from the mainland and forceful diplomacy.)
Throughout its history, Cyprus has been the plaything of greater forces. Strategically situated between Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East, it was settled by Greeks, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians and Persians, and Hellenized by Alexander the Great and his successor Ptolemy of Egypt. Later it was ruled by Rome and its successor in the east, Byzantium. Crusaders, Franks and Venetians held it for nearly 400 years before the Ottoman Turks took the island in the 1570-73 war with Venice. It became a British protectorate in 1878 and a crown colony in 1925.
At independence in 1960, Greek Cypriots accounted for 77 percent of the population and Turkish Cypriots 18 percent. A complex power-sharing arrangement allowed Britain, Greece and Turkey to intervene unilaterally if the constitution was threatened. Tensions between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, and between Greece and Turkey, erupted in violence in 1963, when the republic’s president called for constitutional changes. In 1964, more strife resulted in Turkish planes bombing Greek-Cypriot towns, but pressure from the United States prevented an invasion. United Nations forces have been on the island since.
Today, both Cypriot communities feel that they are victims, and can find ample evidence in the other side’s past behavior to be wary of making concessions. Nicosia remains the last divided capital in Europe. Although border controls were relaxed in 2003, interest in bicommunal activities is low. Decades of separation seem to have worn away at the desire for a solution — yet it’s a status quo with no real winners.
Nikos Konstandaras is the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini.