An afternoon stroll through the seemingly sleepy capital of The
Republic of Cyprus yields nothing more than postcard-perfect vignettes
of life in a typical, mid-size Mediterranean city: winding cobblestone
streets, picturesque museums, family-run shops, cats draped over
sunny terraces, and a few Gap-like stores frequented by sunburned
British tourists. Oh wait--there's also that "Green Line" running
down the center of the city, the one that has kept Cyprus divided
for the past 27 years.
"Turkey's got access to oil," Katarina Demetrious, a Greek Cypriot
tour guide, says to me bitterly as we approach the Green Line. "We
have no oil--if we did, the United States would never have allowed
this to happen."
Demetrious refers not so much to Turkey's initial military invasion
of Cyprus in 1974, but to the occupation the Republic of Cyprus
has had to endure. With the exception of a few heated months during
the summer of 1974--when Henry Kissinger's name was angrily shouted
at protests throughout southern Cyprus and in Washington--the U.S.
government and most E.U. member states have done an excellent job
of whitewashing Turkey's possession of northern Cyprus. Now, with
tensions mounting between Ankara and Brussels--over Turkey's increasingly
aggressive bids for E.U. membership--Greek Cypriots are moving back
into the international spotlight.
Nicosia's Green Line actually was created at the end of 1963, three
years after Cyprus
was granted independence from Great Britain. A British commander who
was trying to squelch street fighting between Greek Cypriot and Turkish
Cypriot militias reportedly took a green pen and bisected a map of
the city from one side to the other. When Turkey overran a third of
Cyprus 11 years later, the line was extended 112 miles across the
island. Despite decades of diplomatic assurances from Turkey, the
United States and Europe that this division works, the fact remains
that the situation in Cyprus is far from satisfactory to the Cypriots
Click on map to see larger
Per capita, Cyprus is the most militarized country in the world
after North and South Korea; there are 35,000 Turkish and Turkish
Cypriot troops, 14,500 Greek and Greek Cypriot troops, and 1,200
U.N. soldiers on the island. Standing on the Greek Cypriot side
of the U.N. observation post at the east end of Nicosia, Demetrious
and I stare into the buffer zone, about 160 feet of uninhabited
space designed to keep the two sides apart. None of the island's
190,000 Turkish Cypriots and Turkish mainland settlers or 655,000
Greek Cypriots can enter the buffer zone without special permission.
Squinting as hard as I can, I see nothing but rotting buildings,
litter and debris, and just a little farther on, a prominently displayed
"Where are all the Turkish soldiers?" I ask as we climb down. Greek
Cypriot soldiers mill freely around, machine-guns hugging their
"The Turkish government won't place soldiers here because of the
observation post," my guide informs me. "They're afraid there could
be incidents that would involve tourists."
Under normal circumstances, keeping a lid on the simmering anger
around the Green Line isn't a big priority for Turkey--its strategic
location during the Cold War practically guaranteed carte blanche
as far as the Western powers were concerned. But these days, desperate
to join the European Union, which it hopes will bring much-needed
foreign investment and employment in the country, Turkey is struggling
to downplay its militaristic past.
Yet even now, more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall,
officials from the United States and the European Union are reluctant
to move beyond diplomatic wrist-slapping with Ankara over its continued
occupation of Cyprus. Both entities feed weapons and funding to
the country on a regular basis, although the United States is by
far its biggest supplier. A 1999 report by the World
Policy Institute documented more than $5 billion in U.S. arms
transfers to Turkey during the Clinton administration alone. In
December 2000, the IMF agreed to pump another $10 billion in credit
and loans into Ankara's empty pockets.
Once again, Turkey's geopolitical importance is its trump card.
In addition to its long-regarded strategic importance, oil and other
natural resources have been discovered in the nearby Caspian Basin,
and the United States is loathe to do anything that would anger
Turkey and disrupt plans for the Baku oil pipeline. However, as
these two governments continue with business as usual, the European
Union is growing increasingly nervous about the idea of accepting
Turkey as one of its own.
When Turkey first invaded Cyprus in July 1974, it claimed it was
protecting the island's Turkish Cypriot community--a remnant of
Cyprus' time as an offshoot of the Ottoman Empire. Although the
main culture and language of Cyprus has always been Greek, the island
has passed through a dizzying array of hands--Byzantine, Frankish,
Venetian, Ottoman and, finally in 1878, British. Turkish Cypriot
and Greek Cypriot communities lived together in relative peace under
British rule until the 1950s, when a guerrilla movement for independence
began to form on the island. The National Organization of Cypriot
Fighters (EOKA) wanted the British out of Cyprus. The British wanted
to retain Cyprus as their Middle East base and involved Turkey in
the issue to counter the Greeks at the United Nations. What concerned
Turkey--and the Turkish Cypriots--was that the EOKA supported
enosis, or unification with mainland Greece. The south coast
of Turkey lies only 47 miles away from Cyprus, and the Turkish government
would not tolerate a Greek military presence so close to its borders.
After a few years of communal violence, the British raised the
specter of partition between Greece and Turkey, an unacceptable
solution since Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were scattered
throughout most of the island. Archbishop Makarios III, the Greek
Cypriot leader, agreed to the idea of independence instead of enosis.
The British arranged a meeting at Zurich with Greece and Turkey
to draft an independence accord, with a set number of Greek and
Turkish troops to be stationed on the island, sovereign bases for
Britain, and constitutional provisions that could not be altered.
The result was a nightmarishly awkward constitution that provided
for a Greek Cypriot president, a Turkish Cypriot vice president
and a parliament that allotted the Turkish Cypriots, 18 percent
of the population, veto power and 30 percent of the parliament and
civil service. In 1960 the Republic of Cyprus was born, with Makarios
as president. The constitution soon proved unworkable and the violence
By late 1963, the Green Line was established in Nicosia, but that
didn't help. Fighting escalated to the point where the United States,
which wanted NATO control of the island to keep the Soviets out
and ensure continued operation of U.S. listening facilities that
had been established under the British, attempted to introduce a
NATO force. Makarios insisted on U.N. peacekeepers instead. Turkish
Cypriots fled, or were forced to flee, into enclaves, raising the
possibility of partition. Eventually the violence was brought under
control, and intercommunal talks for a new constitution began in
1968. The talks came close to reaching a final agreement in early
1974, but with Cyprus seeming to slip out of the mainland's grasp,
both Turkey and the Greek junta in Athens made plans to ensure that
didn't happen. In mid-July, a small unit of right-wing Greek officers
staged a coup against Makarios and seized control of the government;
Turkey's invasion seemed a foregone conclusion.
The United States, which had been given advance notice of the Greek
junta's plans, pretended that it was an internal affair and blocked
a U.N. Security Council demand for cease-fire. Somewhat later, the
Nixon administration dispatched a high-level diplomat, Joseph Sisco,
to the region in a belated effort to get Greece and Turkey to agree
to a replacement for Makarios. It was too late: 6,000 advance Turkish
troops were on their way, landing in Kyrenia, a small village on
the north coast of Cyprus. Greek Cypriots who fought against the
island junta blamed Nixon for the invasion. Indeed, Nixon's Secretary
of State, Henry Kissinger, wanted Makarios ousted to bring the island
under the control of someone more likely to do NATO's bidding. Kissinger's
name was cursed repeatedly in street demonstrations all over the
southern half of the island.
To most political observers, Turkey's invasion came as no surprise.
Some Greek Cypriots even welcomed it initially, assuming Turkey's
presence would rid the island of the fascist junta that drove Makarios
into hiding. But when Turkey followed up its initial July invasion
with a second one in August, pushing south until it captured the
wealthy city of Famagusta, Greek Cypriots realized Ankara was playing
for keeps. All in all, Turkey carved out 37 percent of the island's
territory for itself, most of it located on the northern coast.
The Turkish military began a village-by-village expulsion of Greek
Cypriots from the occupied area. Greek Cypriots, fearing the realization
of Turkey's long-held goal of partition, tried to prevent Turkish
Cypriots from fleeing north. In August 1975, an agreement was reached
to allow 40,000 Turkish Cypriots to move north under U.N. escort,
in exchange for an end to expulsions and the return of some of the
175,000 displaced Greek Cypriots--an agreement only partially honored
by the Turkish side. This deal played right into Turkish hands.
"Once northern Cyprus was given over to the Turkish Cypriots, Turkey
brought in thousands of ethnically Turkish peasants from the Anatolian
heartlands," says Heinz Kramer, author of The Changing Turkey.
"In effect, they repopulated parts of the island to make it more
Despite cries of protest from Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots--who
also resented the peasants' presence--nobody from the international
community came to their aid. In 1983, when the Turkish Republic
of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) finally declared itself to be an independent
state--unrecognized by nearly every country except Turkey--all but
the most diehard Greek Cypriot refugees realized they would not
be going home.
The European Union is set to inherit the latest phase of this 27-year-old
problem. In November, E.U. member Greece persuaded its 14 partners
to add resolving the division of Cyprus and long-standing territorial
disputes in the Aegean Sea to the list of short-term actions that
Turkey must carry out before the start of membership negotiations.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit accused the European Union
of duping his
country by adding obstacles to its membership and trying to meddle
into Turkey's internal affairs. Right-wing members of Turkey's National
Action Party, who don't support E.U. membership, clamored for a complete
withdrawal of Turkey's application. Faced with the threat of a total
communication meltdown, Brussels capitulated yet again and appeased
Ankara with a modification to the short-term action. Turkey agreed
to an "ongoing political dialogue" about Cyprus and other contentious
issues, and the European Union agreed "not to specify at this stage"
resolution of the Cyprus issue as a prerequisite for membership.
Turkish tanks practice military
in northern Cyprus.
The fly in the ointment in all of this is Cyprus itself. Buoyed
by Greece, Cyprus has been placed on the fast track for E.U. membership
by 2004. Although most member states would rather not accept Cyprus
until "the issue" is resolved, Greece threatened to veto membership
applications for Poland and Hungary if Cyprus was not accepted as
well. Dedicated to eastern enlargement, the European Union had no
choice but to issue ratification papers to Cyprus, which delineate
the economic goals the island must achieve prior to acceptance.
With its relatively well-developed infrastructure, heavy tourism
industry, and single-minded determination to join the European Union,
Cyprus has a major leg up on Turkey, which is saddled not only with
economic woes but massive human rights violations. If accepted as
an E.U. member, Cyprus would certainly be well within its rights
to use its member veto power to force Turkey into a head-to-head
dialogue about the occupied territory--something it has been trying
unsuccessfully to do for 27 years. "What would Turkey do?" Kramer
asks. "It can't invade Cyprus if it is an E.U. member state, and
if it did, the European Union would likely deploy troops there."
In an ironic twist of fate, the Turkish Cypriot community is among
the most excited about Cyprus' prospective E.U. membership. Isolated
by international policies that refuse to recognize the TRNC as a
legitimate state, and vastly outnumbered by their Anatolian counterparts--with
whom they have little in common--many Turkish Cypriots spent the
summer demonstrating against TRNC leader Rauf Denktas, whom they
accuse of blocking negotiation talks with Greek Cypriots.
The Republic of Cyprus has offered Denktas and Ankara several versions
of its plan for a unified island, basically one federal government
with proportional representation overseeing two relatively independent
states. Denktas and Ankara have responded with their version, which
insists that the legitimacy of the TRNC government be recognized.
Last December, Denktas refused to attend the sixth round of Cyprus
talks in Geneva unless the European Union and United States recognized
the TRNC. Neither did, leaving Denktas out in the cold.
Turkey further alienated itself from the West in December, when
it refused to give the European Union access to its NATO resources
to build a European-based, 60,000-member rapid-reaction force. (Washington
was particularly anxious that NATO bases be used so it could share
information and keep tabs on E.U. forces.) Turkey feared that these
troops could be deployed against it if the situation in Cyprus gets
out of hand.
One thing remains clear: The status quo in Cyprus cannot be maintained
forever. If the European Union can't bring about a deal before 2005,
all the existing rules are going to be broken--and for the first
time in its millennia-long life, Cyprus could be the one sitting
in the catbird seat.
V.A. Otis, a correspondent for New York's WBAI radio,
also writes for The Village Voice and Ms. magazine.