I remember that day well. It was the summer of 1974 and I was working in Alanya, right across the island on Turkey’s Mediterranean shore. I recall how the fighter jets flew over the beaches, frightening the middle-aged European tourists and delighting the youngsters. In the absence of social media, we learned about the military operation only later in the afternoon. The de-facto division of the island of Cyprus, created by this operation and consolidated immediately with a second offensive in August of that year, still holds today.
The fate of the third largest Mediterranean island – which lies closer to the shores of Syria and Turkey than to those of Greece, and has always been considered a strategic terra firma – has never been steady. From a crusader kingdom of the French house of Lusignan to an outpost of the Maltese Knights, from an Ottoman possession in 1571 to a British semi-colony in 1878, the island was finally divided by a Turkish military intervention. Turkey stepped in on the pretext of protecting the constitutional status quo created by the 1959-1960 Agreements in Zurich which guaranteed minority rights for the Turkish-Cypriots and which was threatened by the July 1974 coup d’etat led by Greek-Cypriot Nikos Sampson.
Sampson had the intention of eventually uniting the island with Greece, in line with the historical ideology – the Megali Idea of 19th century Hellenic nationalism. While the end of the coup d’etat restored the legitimate government in Nicosia, the presence of Turkish troops in the north effectively became an invasion and the north seceded in 1983. Today, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is recognised only by Turkey.
Some assume that the Cyprus issue was resolved in 1974, when the north of the island effectively came under Turkey’s control, while the south secured its future with the legitimacy it enjoyed internationally and thanks to a future EU membership. Nevertheless, the parties have never ceased to hold talks for reunification, and no party, including the mainland ones, has had the upper hand for long.
Over the years, the matter has become something of a legendary international dispute. After the Republic of Cyprus gained EU membership in May 2004, Greece steadily disengaged from its mentorship role. However, it continues to be influenced by the outcome of tensions, so much so that this encompasses its relations with Turkey.
Turkey, although proud for having resolved the stalemate, never managed to reach a sustainable outcome. None of the Turkish plans have held. Turning the TRNC into a Turkish province by annexation failed, as did the the dream of getting international recognition for the statelet. Supporting the TRNC has become a headache in international platforms, especially in the EU. Efforts towards religious assimilation in a largely secular Turco-Cypriot society have also failed. The Cyprus stalemate continues to be the gateway to endless problems between Greeks and Turks, be it on the island, the mainlands, or the international arena.
Today there is no serious economic activity other than gambling and construction in the Turkish-held parts of the island. In the construction sector, incentives are provided mostly to entrepreneurs from the mainland, the land is provided free of charge, loans are secured from Turkish banks, the workers are imported from Turkey, and the building materials are not subject to customs regulations – a “colonial” economy. There is an adviser from Turkey in every ministry supervising decisions.
The Republic of Cyprus, however, obviously benefited from being an off-shore destination for capital movement, and from EU membership, for a while. It placed its bet on an EU membership to gain perpetual prosperity and inclusion in the eurozone, but things didn’t work out as expected and the economy is now under international and European scrutiny through a financial rescue package. Existing political assets have not led anywhere either. Greco-Cypriot politicians thought that by leaning on the EU membership they could reject the 2004 Annan Plan for reunification and bring Turkey to its knees by blocking its membership negotiations with the EU. None of this worked.
At the end, every party lost out while looking for solutions somewhere else. But the stalemate has evolved towards a new era where every party could win. Here is what the island looks like today.
The election of pro-solution candidate, liberal Nikos Anastasiadesto, as president of the Republic of Cyprus in February 2013, along with the victory of the pro-solution Republican Turkish Party (CTP) in the north, has created a momentum on its own. Crowned by the signing of a joint declaration of intent for the talks on February 2014, a new process is now under way, despite all odds. Even the powerful Orthodox Church of Cyprus, which was always against any settlement, has extended support to the process.
The economy appears to benefit from a new asset, a water pipeline that will begin operating in the fall that will run from mainland Turkey to the northern shores of the island, with ample capacity for the entire island. Furthermore, a US company has found natural gas in the territorial waters off the southern parts of the island; and Noble Energy has found gas in the neighbouring Israeli territorial waters.
The international community seems to be looking for an end to the stalemate on the diplomatic front. When the two community leaders announced the joint declaration of intent, the EU, Germany, Russia, the UN, the UK and the US were all swift to vocalise their strong support for the process. The role of the US should be particularly highlighted here.
All these factors point to the necessity of having a package approach that would go beyond the simple reunification talks by taking into account all potential outcomes of a settlement.
Potential positive outcomes are plentiful indeed. Shared water as well as natural gas and an enlivened economic situation that springs from reunification would bring immediate strength to the island’s ailing economy. Cypriot, as well as neighbouring Israeli natural gas sold to Turkey and the West via Turkey, would become a factor in the Israeli-Turkish feud.
For Turkey, ending the financial support of the north would be an economic gain. The return of 40,000 soldiers would be significant in terms of military tutelage and authority. The peace dividends to be gained for all parties are quite clear as well. Normalisation of relations between Greece and Turkey would also become feasible.
Present obstacles to Turkey’s EU membership negotiations (eight chapters blocked by the EU Council and another six by the Republic of Cyprus in connection with the stalemate) would be gradually or entirely removed.
For this fiery Eastern Mediterranean region, a stable island would be momentous.
Cengiz Aktar is a Senior Scholar at Istanbul Policy Center. As a former director at the United Nations where he spent 22 years of his professional life, Aktar is one of the leading advocates of Turkey’s integration into the EU.