Cyprus divided, 40 years on

Cyprus marks 40 years since the Turkish invasion and division of the island. What hope is there of unity today?

Events across Cyprus will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Turkish invasion on July 20 [EPA]

There had been ample warning of a Turkish invasion: the build-up of 38,000 troops at the Adana military base in southern Turkey; a flotilla of ships carrying tanks and armoured personnel carriers; preparations to launch some 80 aircraft. But it seems that Greek intelligence interpreted all this, along with radar sightings of an approaching fleet on the morning of the invasion itself, as a mere exercise.

At dawn on July 20, 1974, Turkish fighter jets began to strafe Greek infantry billets, light artillery batteries, and air force early warning stations on Cyprus’ northern shore. Moving inland, they laid waste to Greece’s main military camp in the capital, Nicosia. 

Cyprus fell within days, but Turkish forces advanced into August, long after the UN-ordered ceasefire, stopping at the line of division between ethnic Greek and Turkish communities suggested by the British in 1964.

This Green Line, as it is now known, is where Cyprus remains divided today, cutting across Nicosia to create the world’s last divided capital.

The invasion marked the only occasion when one NATO ally fought another – and it remains the only occupation on EU soil. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but remains recognised only by Turkey. 

Roots of division

Cyprus’ division marked a failure to graduate a European country from British rule to independence. After World War II, a Greek-Cypriot lieutenant colonel, Yiorgos Grivas, set up a guerrilla organisation, EOKA, which attacked British troops as part of its goal to merge Cyprus with Greece. Its battle cry was Enosis, or union.

In 1955, British governor, John Harding, offered the Greek-Cypriot community leader, Archbishop Makarios, self-determination after seven years. Makarios turned it down and instead condoned the EOKA campaign – at which point Britain began to stoke Turkish interest in Cyprus.

The following year Britain offered a plan allowing some self-government to the two communities separately. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan went further down this path in 1958 – but, like the previous plans, it was rejected by Makarios.

Cyprus was given independence in 1960 on the basis of a power-sharing agreement negotiated by Greece and Turkey, which installed Makarios as president and a Turkish-Cypriot as vice president.

By December 1963, this system of self-rule broke down. Turkish-Cypriots withdrew from the administration and Turkey declared the constitution of 1960 void.

The breakdown sparked the worst intercommunal clashes to date – early in 1964 – leading Turkey to deploy troops along the highway between Nicosia and the northern port of Kyrenia, and depriving Makarios of control over parts of the island. 

We just want to have our island back and to be left alone.

by - Christos, banker , Nicosia

Makarios turned down one last chance at Enosis that year: A US proposal that unified Cyprus with Greece, allowing Turkey to lease a small military base for 50 years.

In 1967, a group of nationalist Greek colonels who had served in Cyprus in the 1950s and grew radicalised there, seized power in Athens to prevent the election of a centre-left government. On July 15, 1974, they tried to bring about Enosis by deposing Makarios in favour of their own man, Nikos Sampson, a former EOKA guerrilla. Makarios fled, denouncing the coup as an invasion and inviting intervention – a call that Turkey answered.

Is the status quo permanent?

“I am not sure we can live with the Turkish-Cypriots,” said Christos, a banker raising a family with his wife, Anita, in a plush neighbourhood of Nicosia. Both grew up in the homogeneous state that has existed since Turkey’s intervention.

He is suspicious of Turkish motives in backing recent talks, the first since Cyprus discovered large reserves of natural gas in its territorial waters in 2013, which could transform the economy over the next few years.

“It’s obvious that they want a share in the gas wealth. Frankly, I think that we should just let them have all the gas, in return for pulling out their troops,” he said. “We don’t need the gas to prosper. We’re perfectly capable of building an economy out of our own labour. We just want to have our island back and to be left alone.”

Cyprus: 40 years divided

Anita agrees, despite the fact that a reunification settlement could compensate her at today’s property rates for luxury hotels her family lost in the invasion. “I just don’t think we should legalise the invasion,” she said. The Greek word she uses means both to legalise and to render legitimate, reflecting a sentiment among Greek-Cypriots that they are being asked to surrender a moral high ground.

Christos’ and Anita’s scepticism echoes throughout Greek-Cypriot society, and lies at the heart of a disastrous attempt to reunify Cyprus ahead of its last major invasion anniversary a decade ago.

In April 2004, four out of five Greek-Cypriots rejected a UN-proposed plan that would have created a federal state, giving Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities powerful local governments.

Today, many Cypriots on both sides are beginning to wonder whether they should accept the status quo as the lesser of many evils.

“For me there is no division,” said Osman Sakale, a Turkish-Cypriot shopkeeper who lives in northern Nicosia. “Turks are on this side living happily, Greeks are on the other side living happily. Any reunification by force won’t work.”

Sakale is not a native-born Turkish-Cypriot, but a settler, one of many brought in over the last 40 years by Turkey as part of an effort to alter the island’s demographics. Greek-Cypriots currently number 600,000, Turkish-Cypriots only 200,000 – and of those, an estimated 80,000 are indigenous.

Turks are on this side living happily, Greeks are on the other side living happily. Any reunification by force won't work.

by - Osman Sakale, shopkeeper, Nicosia

Born on the island, Turkish-Cypriot filmmaker Mustafa Ersenal supports reunification. “We really do feel very claustrophobic in Cyprus; especially in northern Cyprus,” he said. 

Elena Tanou, a businesswoman who has organised a Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot business forum, agreed: “The situation now with the economy brings us to a dead end. People in both communities feel that a solution – a political solution – will bring jobs, and the chance to restore the country again altogether.”

Mightier than the sword

Despite its effectiveness, the invasion has become a millstone around Turkey’s neck. Keeping 40,000 troops on the island costs an estimated $480m a year; subsidising the TRNC’s budget costs hundreds of millions more.

Meanwhile, the expulsion of some 200,000 Greek-Cypriots from their homes in the north – from July 1974 to May 1978 – is also increasingly expensive. In 1996, a landmark European Court of Human Rights awarded Titina Loizidou, a Greek-Cypriot teacher, $915,000 in compensation for the violation of her right to the “peaceful enjoyment of her property” by preventing her from visiting her home in the north. Hundreds more cases have been filed.

In May, the ECHR ordered Turkey to pay Cyprus more than $120m – to the relatives of some 2,000 people missing since the invasion, and to Greek-Cypriots living in an enclave in the north.

These costs stand in contrast to the peace dividend Turkey could gain through reunification. In 2010, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), a think tank, estimated the potential annual benefits to Turkey at over $16bn – chiefly in travel, tourism, financial services and exports, in addition to some $7bn in savings. 

The potential benefits to Cyprus are even greater, the PRIO believes. “With a solution to the Cyprus problem, all-island GDP [at constant 2012 prices] would rise from just over $27bn in 2012 to just under $61bn by 2035 … compared with around $34bn without a solution. In other words, the peace dividend over 20 years would be approximately $27bn.” This would translate into earnings of $38,000 a year per person, compared to $23,000 today.

And there are the diplomatic costs: Occupation has become a major obstacle to Turkish hopes for EU membership, which has helped Cyprus win diplomatic ground. The Republic of Cyprus has since 2012 been a recognised member of the EU, while the TRNC in the north is not. 

Potential diplomatic, legal and financial gains all advocate in favour of reunification, but political trust still eludes the two communities. The occupation can be withdrawn, but can Cypriots overcome the separate Greek and Turkish nationalisms that have nurtured them for so long?

Source: Al Jazeera