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Failure and Success in Cyprus


by Yehoshua Ben-Nahum
May 13, 2004

The proponents of the Annan Plan for Cyprus have expressed great regret at the rejection of the plan by Cyprus's Greek southern section in a general referendum. But really, the plan's main supporters got exactly what they wanted- and even if they hadn't, they would still have won a considerable victory.

Cyprus was ruled for centuries by the Ottoman empire, during which time Turks began to immigrate to the Mediterranean island. In 1878 the Ottomans ceded de facto control of the island to the British empire and at the beginning of the first world war Britain (which fought in the war against the Central Powers, of which the Ottoman empire was one) officially annexed the island as a colony. Britain ruled the island until Cypriot guerrilla resistance to imperial rule led Britain to grant Cyprus its independence, although Britain has maintained two military bases in Cyprus ever since.

A constitution with careful provisions for the sharing of power between Greeks and Turks was signed (but not written) by the representatives of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities just before independence was declared, but in 1963 Greek Cypriot leaders attempted to alter the power-sharing arrangements in what many Turkish Cypriots took to be a step toward achieving enosis, or union, with Greece. The Turks opposed the changes and a civil war was in progress by the end of the year; it ended in August 1964 after British and UN peacekeeping forces intervened. During the civil war many Cypriot Turks were forced from their homes and fled to Turkish enclaves and the Turkish section of the capital, Nicosia. Most of them remained there, having formed for the areas they controlled a semi-government, until July 15, 1974, when a coup, supported by Greece's military junta, replaced Greek Cypriot president Makarios with enosis activist and militia leader Nicos Samson.

Five days later, Turkey invaded Cyprus on the pretext of preventing union of the island with Greece and to protect the Turkish minority, its forces advancing rapidly and uprooting Greeks from areas that came under its control. The Greek junta was ousted three days later, Greeks not desirous of a conflict with Turkey, a far more powerful state militarily. The Samson government collapsed quickly thereafter and Samson was replaced by a Makarios deputy; thus Greek Cypriots and the Greek government ceased pursuing enosis, but the Turkish army continued to conquer territory for another week. Thereafter a ceasefire was implemented, but peace talks stalled and in August the Turkish military, which had been consolidating its position in Cyprus during the talks, attacked the Greek Cypriot-held part of the island.

By the time the fighting stopped, 180,000 to 200,000 Greeks had been forced from their homes in the thirty-seven percent of the island Turkey controlled, and they have not returned since. 45,000 to 50,000 Turks fled their enclaves in the Cypriot south to seek refuge in the north.

The history of negotiations and peace plans for Cyprus is as tortuous and frustrating as that between Israel and the Arabs and it is not necessary to recount it here. The important issue right now is the recent Annan plan for a unified Cyprus, backed with varying degrees of openness by Turkey, the US, and elite Western opinion, and just rejected by the Greek Cypriots and accepted by their Turkish neighbors in the Cypriot north in twin referenda. The Annan plan began as negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, but when they were unable to agree Annan made his own final version of the plan, complete with a number of significant revisions. Smug public opinion quickly lined up behind the Annan plan; it immediately became politically-correct to support acceptance of the plan on the grounds that "surely at this point in history we can all live together in peace" and it was easily possible to dismiss those who rejected the plan as "nationalists," that favorite all-purpose modern term of abuse. The actual terms of the plan and whether they are fair have simply not been an issue of any significant public discussion outside the Turkish and Greek media, with a few honorable exceptions, almost all outside of the United States. If you reject the plan, it must be because you are a nationalist, and if you are a nationalist you are probably a fascist, and thus not worth listening to.

I cannot say by what mechanism public (that is, journalist) opinion aligned so rapidly and uniformly with the goals of Kofi Annan, but I can venture a guess as to why those goals were promoted. The United States owes Turkey a considerable amount of political capital for the repeated difficulties and snubs Turkey has suffered as a result of the American-led war on Iraq, its aftermath, and insulting American waffling on Turkish involvement. American help to Turkey on Cyprus may also be payment for present and future Turkish assistance to American plans to reshape the Middle East, and particularly Iraq. Moreover, it is very much in US interests to promote Turkey's admission to the EU, since Turkey's close relationship with the US would give the US considerable leverage in the EU. It is not unreasonable to guess that behind-the-scenes American and Turkish involvement at the UN led to the creation of a Cyprus unification plan which so favored the Turks that if the Greek Cypriots accepted it they would give up a great deal which was rightfully theirs.

If the Greeks rejected the plan, as they should, and the Turkish Cypriots accepted it, as they could reasonably be expected to given the favorable terms of the plan for them and an intensive campaign for it by their leaders and various international actors, the Greeks would also get less than was rightfully theirs: the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus would be legitimated in the eyes of the complacent international community by the Greeks' supposed intransigence (that is, their rejection of an unfair deal), and the Greeks would be considered to have given up the right of return or compensation for their refugees and the restoration of their property, the removal of Turkish troops from the island, and the regaining of Greek land.

All these issues apply to Cypriot Turks, of course, but far less so, and their unjust disadvantages under the Annan plan were far outweighed by the legitimation of their unjust gains. Importantly, Turkey's support for the EU-friendly reunification plan, even while it likely knew the plan would be rejected by the Greeks and thus that its support would do its interests no harm, has probably made it a little more likely that Turkey will be admitted to the EU- a prize for Turkey and a prize for the US. It is also now possible for the US to lead international public opinion in recognizing the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and ending the decades-long embargo which has impoverished it, even while Turkey is not pressured to withdraw the large military presence it has in northern Cyprus. That presence, of course, has the potential to be a major center of US power-projection, through Turkish troops, in the region. (It's already a minor one.)

The Annan plan permitted only some Greek refugees to return to northern Cyprus even though the island would be politically unified, although anyone, Greek or Turk, unable to reclaim his property would be compensated; it made permanent the Turkish rule over twenty-nine per cent of the island, much of it acquired by conquest, and permitted Turkey's troops to remain in the Turkish part of the island indefinitely and tens of thousands of settlers from Turkey to remain in Cyprus forever; it gave the Turkish minority highly disproportionate representation in the government on an ethnic basis; and it ended forever Greek hopes for independence or union with Greece. Essentially, if Greek Cypriots want enosis or independence through partition of the island, they must vote no on the plan and the international community will never give their legitimate demands for restoration of or compensation for land and property another thought, at least while Turkey is a vital US ally.

If the Greeks want even partial compensation or reinstatement, they must not only give up the possibility of a full restoration of their land and property, but also the hope of independence or enosis, and they must accept an unfair political system which privileges Turks on the basis of their ethnicity. The Greeks chose not to acquiesce to the Annan plan, and any fair consideration of the issue leads one to the conclusion that they should not be expected to relinquish all their claims to a fair settlement because of their rejection of an unfair plan. But just as Yasir Arafat's rejection of an inadequate peace plan has become an excuse for giving the Palestinians an even less adequate settlement, or treading water on giving them anything at all, I fear that public opinion has already hardened on the issue of Cyprus, and that from now on the Greek Cypriots will be seen as having thrown away their great chance to achieve their goals.


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