The Flashpoint at the Bottom of the Balkans

Sunday, January 30, 2000

Pyla, Cyprus—With its mosque and Orthodox Church just short blocks apart, this small village in eastern Cyprus represents the hopes and fears of a divided island that for decades has been a potentially dangerous flashpoint in southeastern Europe.

Turkey’s military invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 divided the island into Greek and Turkish sectors and brought more than a third of its territory under the control of 35,000 Turkish troops. Since the invasion, some 100,000 Turks have moved to Cyprus from the mainland and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has proclaimed the area as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. No country in the world recognizes the TRNC except Turkey. Today Nicosia is the last capital in the world to be lacerated by rolled barbed wire fences and a rubble-strewn buffer zone patrolled by United Nations forces. The thirty-six-year-old U.N. peacekeeping operation in Cyprus utilizes more than fifteen hundred personnel and will cost $54.6 million this year alone.

Pyla is the only village in Cyprus that still has a generous mix of Greek and Turkish Cypriots and permits free entry to residents of both sides. But even here the broader reality isn’t far away. Turkish flags fly on hilltops to the north and east while Cypriot flags fly to the west and south. In Pyla itself a massive U.N. guardpost in the middle of the village dwarfs two nearby coffeehouses, one for each ethnic community.

The roots of the current crisis date back to the 1950s, which saw Greek Cypriot violence against Turkish Cypriots and the British colonial government and demands by many highly vocal Greek Cypriots for enosis, or unifying the island with Greece. Since then many parties in Cyprus and abroad have contributed to the tensions. A ray of hope can be traced to the European Union’s offering Turkey candidate status in the European Union in December (which Ankara immediately accepted); new initiatives pushed by the United States, the United Nations, and G-8 countries; and mellowing relations between Greece and Turkey. (See accompanying interview with Greek foreign minister George Papandreou.)

The Greece-Turkey-Cyprus triangle is a regional flashpoint because Cyprus is located in a critical position near the southern coast of Turkey, a millennia-old link between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Tensions between Greek Cypriots (the vast majority) and Turkish Cypriots are fueled by the historical hostility between Greece and Turkey. When American emissary Richard Holbrooke was in Nicosia in late 1997, he lamented that "when I try to talk about the future, the people here, the leaders, talk about the past." That complicated past is viewed differently and passionately by each player.

Eighty-two years of British rule ended in 1960 with Cyprus’s independence, but within a couple of years the country was torn by increasing tensions and conflict. A military coup sponsored by Greece in 1974 brought in a militantly anti-Turkish president who lasted only eight days; that was long enough, however, to spark a Turkish invasion. Ankara asserted that it was defending the Turkish Cypriot minority according to treaties signed in 1960.

The period following the invasion was one of "suffering and deep psychic trauma for both ethnic groups," says Joseph S. Joseph, a political scientist at the University of Cyprus. Some 170,000 Greek Cypriots—on an island of just over 800,000—were forcibly relocated from the north to the south, and about 45,000 Turkish Cypriots moved north or left the island altogether.

If physical conflict between the two Cypriot communities largely stopped in the years that followed, disputes about the future did not. Almost all formal and informal contacts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots ended in December 1997 when the European Union summit in Luxembourg took two actions that angered Ankara: (1) it emphasized a number of barriers to Turkey’s becoming a candidate member even as it (2) decided to begin accession negotiations with Cyprus on the basis of what Turkey called "the unilateral application of the Greek Cypriot administration of Southern Cyprus."

Today the entire world community (except Turkey) seeks, through the United Nations, the Cyprus described by Papandreou: "A federal state with a single sovereignty and single citizenship, an independent country with a maximum degree of internal self-administration, no foreign troops on its soil, and international security guarantees for both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities."

The Turkish position, presented in late 1999 at the United Nations by Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, is very different: "A just and lasting compromise in Cyprus today can only be based upon the existing realities. There are two separate peoples, two separate states in Cyprus." As Turkish premier Bulent Ecevit emphasized on his October 1999 visit to the United States, a precondition for negotiations is the confederation of two separate states.

The most important recent development in the region has been the warming of relations between Greece and Turkey. The move can be traced back to contacts between the foreign ministers of the two countries—Papandreou and Cem—in the course of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia last spring. Subsequent generous governmental and private Greek and Turkish responses to earthquakes in each other’s countries sweetened the relationship further.

So far, however, negotiations and cooperation between the two countries have avoided the two critical divisive issues—Turkey’s territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and the future of Cyprus. Both issues came up, however, in negotiations leading to the European Union’s offer of candidate membership to Turkey. The carefully crafted terms of the offer—which the Athens paper Kathimerini called "a framework for peace"—satisfied most Greeks that their interests were not only safeguarded but even advanced, while Turkey’s acceptance of the terms suggested a much more conciliatory attitude in Ankara.

In fact, Turkey made important concessions on the two critical issues and thus assured Greek support for the invitation. (A Greek veto would have killed it.) These were that (1) candidate states should "make every effort to resolve any outstanding border disputes and other related issues. Failing this, they should within a reasonable time bring any pending dispute to the International Court of Justice"; and (2) while a "political settlement" on Cyprus would "facilitate" the island’s accession to the European Union, "if no settlement has been reached by the completion of accession negotiations, the . . . decision on accession will be made without this being a precondition."

Long-term progress, however, will require support or at least acquiescence from the powerful Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash, a strong advocate of the confederation formula. With the more positive E.U. position this fall, and in the context of the Papandreou-Cem rapprochement, Denktash and Greek Cypriot leaders began negotiations in New York on December 3 under United Nations auspices.

The complications of integrating the first Muslim nation into Europe were immediately evident. While Turkish leaders know that over time they must make wide-ranging political and economic reforms, they undoubtedly did not expect the European Union to begin dictating Turkish domestic policy the very day after the Helsinki ceremonies. But so it was when European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana told Turkish leaders that if they execute a prominent rebel leader recently convicted in Turkish courts, the whole European Union deal is off.

Thus even though prospects for a mutually advantageous resolution of the Cyprus standoff are higher now than they have been in many years, this remains one of the most potentially explosive disputes in the world today. The hope is that a combination of pressures, self-interest, and a reduction of hostility and suspicion between Greece and Turkey—and between Turkey and the European Union—will tip the scales in a way that would improve the lives of the vast majority in Cyprus and the region.

Becoming Good Neighbors

William Ratliff recently met with Greek foreign minister George Papandreou to discuss the Cyprus standoff and relations with Turkey. The interview was conducted in English in Athens, Greece, on October 8, 1999.


Q: How do you see Greece and Turkey in post–Cold War Europe?

A: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall there is much more feeling in this region that we are part of Europe. We must stop our bickering and see issues in the longer-term strategy of Europeanization. We must integrate our economies, create common democratic and security structures, and solve bilateral and multilateral issues in a more constructive way. Turkey understands that she must be part of this process, and although she can maintain her own separate cultural characteristics, she must also make some major changes. She must make real progress in democratization at home and show a spirit of cooperation that will enable us to resolve the long-standing issues of Cyprus and the Aegean according to international law. That is, if Turkey genuinely wants to open the door to Europe, she must accept the institutional obligations and commitments that E.U. candidacy entails. Greece and Turkey are already members of NATO and thus have a special role and burden to help this process of Europeanization.

Q: How did the current improvement in Greek relations with Turkey begin, and where is it going?

A: It began during the war in Kosovo when we had to act together and communicate on a wide variety of issues. We began our dialogue on what I call low-anxiety issues such as tourism, environment, culture, and business. Then when the earthquakes came [Turkish foreign minister Ismail] Cem and I decided our responses should be humanitarian but also send a strong political message: We are friends. Spontaneous citizen diplomacy quickly took over and went way beyond what we did in the governments. We have not resolved important problems like Cyprus, but we have developed a positive atmosphere and gone beyond taboos and prejudices. One of our basic objectives is being able to trust each other. We must strike a balance between realism and vision. If expectations are too high and, because we aren’t patient, our policy doesn’t seem to work, people will question whether we are doing the right thing.

Q: It is good to start on low-anxiety issues and build trust, but what about the basic issues? For example, how do you see making progress on Cyprus?

A: Greece envisions a multicultural Balkans. In line with that, we are striving to see Cyprus as a federal state with a single sovereignty and single citizenship, an independent country with a maximum degree of internal self-administration, no foreign troops on its soil, and international security guarantees for both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. Turkey, however, wants a confederation that would allow one side to break away. Instead, we need to guarantee that the two sides can and will live together without meddling from either Greece or Turkey. If there are two states Cyprus will become a new border between Greece and Turkey: Greek Cypriots will say, "We need Greek troops" and Turkish Cypriots will say, "We need Turkish troops." Instead of this military escalation we need to demilitarize the island. We should bring Cyprus into the European Union so that all Cypriots will be protected under that much larger E.U. umbrella. Turkey has said it doesn’t want Cyprus in the European Union at all, but if the European Union says that Cyprus will go in whether she likes it or not, Turkey will think twice: do we want a Cyprus in the European Union that is only Greek or one with a Turkish voice. Finally, so long as Turkey fulfills her obligations to the European Union and Cyprus’s progress toward E.U. membership continues unimpeded, Greece will not raise any objections. Otherwise we shall be forced to resort to using the weapons at our disposal, even if we are not inclined to do so. I am trying to convince them that we can be good neighbors.