The Cyprus Dispute
Cyprus is an island of only 10,000 square kilometers. Being such a small country the Cypriots value every inch of their land more than most countries do. Shockingly, the Cypriot Government controls only just over half the landmass of Cyprus.
Since time immemorial Cyprus has been inhabited by Greeks. Hellenistic culture flourished there in prehistoric time. Greek history and literature mentions Cyprus almost three thousand years ago. It is true that Ancient Greece was not politically united. However, the Hellenes all shared a common culture, spoke mutually intelligible dialects, worshipped the same pantheon and participated in the Olympics and other games. The Greeks perceived themselves to be one in those respects. They often made common cause against a common foe such as Persia.
Over the centuries Cyprus has passed through the hands of many empires. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Plantagenets, the Luisgnans, the Genoese and the Venetians all conquered the island at one time or other. The Byzantines were not really foreign to the Cypriots. Byzantium was the eastern third of the Roman Empire that broke off and became independent. But these ‘romaioi’ as they called themselves spoke Greek not Latin. Moreover, Orthodox Christianity was the state religion of the Byzantine Empire. It was a faith that the Cypriots embraced perfervidly. Through the 16th century the Cypriots suffered many raids by Turks. Cypriot women who were abducted often ended up as odalisques satisfying the perverse appetites of the sultans. The Ottomans conquered the island of Cyprus in 1572.
For centuries under Ottoman rule the Greek Cypriot people were oppressed. They were legally discriminated against. Turks immigrated to the island. The Ottoman authorities openly favoured Turks over the indigenous inhabitants of the island. The Ottoman Empire was notorious for the depredations it wreaked on sundry lands. People were carried off into captivity. People who had been enslaved by the Ottomans were forced to toil in circumstances as vile as those on West Indian plantations. Young women were ravished. Boys were sometimes castrated and – if they survived – made to work as eunuchs in seraglios. This is not to say that other empires did not have slavery likewise. Nor is this to imply that all Turks are bad nor that all Greek are good. However, as empires go the Ottoman Empire was egregiously cruel. It had fewer redeeming virtues than other empires. Much of what we find alluring about Turkish culture are borrowings from Greece. Turkish baths and Turkish cuisine are to large extent copied from the Greeks.
At one stage the Turks comprised over half the population of Cyprus. The official language was Turkish. At the beginning very few Greek Cypriots were conversant in that language. The Turkish language was penned in the Arabic script until the 1930s. That made acquiring mastery of the language much more challenging than it is today. As well as official discrimination against the Greek populace the language issue militated in disfavour of the Greeks. The Ottomans interacted with the Greek community through the Orthodox Church. This was called the ‘millet’ system. The Archbishop of Cyprus was regarded as the ‘ethnarch’ or ‘ruler of the nation’ for the Greek Cypriots.
In the 1830s Greece achieved independence. After centuries under the Ottoman boot the Hellenes were free. Greece began to build a democracy. Despite Greece’s sluggish economic growth the strength of its institutions and the its respect for civil liberty were impressive. The establishment of the Kingdom of Greece put hope in the hearts of Greek Cypriots. Greece was much smaller in the 1830s than it is today. Many Greek majority areas were still under Ottoman rule. Only gradually did Greece regain these territories. Most Cypriots longed to break free of Ottoman oppression and to be reunited with their kith and kin.
In 1878 the Ottomans withdrew and allowed the United Kingdom to administer Cyprus. Note that the Ottomans still held sovereignty. The Ottomans were grateful to the British for sabre rattling against Russia. This induced the Russian Empire to rescind some of the most onerous terms of the Treaty of San Stefano. British rule was preferable to Ottoman rule insofar as the Greeks were no longer discriminated against. The UK’s support for the Ottoman Empire was partly due to the Sultan being the caliph – as in the successor to the Prophet Mohammed of whom he was a putative descendant. As the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was ‘the commander of the faithful’ the British assumed that he had enormous sway with Sunni Mohammedans across the globe. In fact, his influence with Muslims was hugely exaggerated. The deal was that the British would prop up the tottering Ottoman Empire. In return the Sultan would tell Sunni Muslims in the British Empire to obey the colonial authorities. It was as part of this shabby and misconceived deal that the UK found itself supporting one of the most unjust regimes in the world. The Ottoman Empire was so oppressive that even its own army officers rose against it in the 1908 Revolution.
The warm-hearted nature of the Cypriot people meant that Cyprus was considered one of the most desirable stations for British soldiers and sailors. There was much infrastructural development in the colonial era. At first relations between the Greek community and the British authorities were amicable indeed.
In the First World War the UK declared that Cyprus had been annexed. By then the Greek Cypriot community outnumbered the Turkish Cypriots by a long chalk. In 1915 the Armenian Genocide started. This gigantic crime against humanity is till not recognized by Turkey for what it was. Some Armenians escaped to Cyprus where they were welcomed by the cordial embrace of the Greek community.
In the 1920s the Greco-Turkish War scarred the region. Greeks in Turkey and Turks in Greece were sometimes killed. Those who were left chose to flee. At the time 20% of the people of Anatolia were Christians. There are almost none left today. Some of those Greeks who fled Anatolia for their lives settled in Cyprus.
In the 1930s Cyprus had a legislative council. It had official members (appointed by the governor) and unofficial members (elected). There were separate electorates for the two ethnicities. The Turks together with the official members had a slight majority. The Greek community continually pressed for an end to colonialism.
In the Second World War a high proportion of Greek Cypriots volunteered to join the British Army. Their valour helped to secure Allied victory. One might have thought that the UK would be grateful for their sacrifice.
In 1950 the Greek Orthodox Church organized a referendum. The Greek Cypriot community took part. The Turks boycotted the poll. The result was a foregone conclusion. The Greeks made up 80% of the people of Cyprus and almost all of them voted. 96% of votes cast were for Cyprus to become part of Greece.
Surely 1950 was the moment for Britain to seize the initiative. Indubitably it was the settled will of a large majority of Cypriots to liquidate colonial status. The desire of the Cypriot people to unite with Greece was crystal clear. London could have expedited this wish. What would have followed? Relations between Greece and the United Kingdom would have improved dramatically. Cyprus would presumably have agreed to the UK’s retention of bases on the islands. Britain’s reputation for fair dealing would have been enhanced. The UK had granted independence to India three years earlier. If any group of people is capable of running a democracy it is those who invented it. Cyprus had a mature and sensible leadership to take over. Unfortunately, London had its head in the sand. His Majesty’s Government refused to countenance acceding to the wishes of the people of Cyprus. Greece had been Britain’s ally in the First World War and the Second World War. Turkey had not. Surely it made more sense for the UK to curry favour with the Greeks. The Greek Communist Party had been given short shrift in the Greek Civil War. Some Britishers said that the UK must keep on the right side of Turkey due to the Cold War. The Turkish top brass was fervently anti-communist. Turkey bordered the USSR (today’s Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia). Turkey sought admission to NATO. As the Turks desperately needed Western support against the USSR it was clear that Turkey was not going to leave NATO over the Cyprus issue. Turkey then had a population of 40 000 000. Turkey was not going to risk everything for the sake of 100,000 Turkish-Cypriots.
Peaceful and democratic methods made no progress in securing self-determination for Cyprus. Moderation turned to militancy. EOKA was formed. This was the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA). Some mainland Greeks arrived on the island to assist their Cypriot compatriots.
The UK was perhaps the third mightiest country in the world. EOKA was not going to succeed by fighting conventionally. EOKA began its armed campaign. The Crown Forces did not always behave ethically. Torture was sometimes used on EOKA suspects. There was at least one accusation of rape against the British forces. Legislation was introduced that would have made Draco of Athens blanche. The death penalty was imposed for possession of an unlicensed firearm. Many Greeks were detained without trial. The Turkish community was four square behind the British Army. The British authorities learnt of the Turks forming their own illegal clandestine force. However, London chose to turn Nelson’s eye to this. Why? It was believed that the Turkish Cypriot secret army could prove a useful weapon against EOKA.
The Crown Forces achieved a considerable degree of success against EOKA. By the late 1950s casualty figures were down. EOKA was on the back foot but it was never totally defeated. As the country is so small it ought to have been easy for governmental forces to quell the insurgency. But the UK had ruined relations with its wartime ally; Greece. Many Britons had been philhellenes. Greece contained many raving anglophiles. However, by the late 1950s Britain’s name was mud in Greece. In discussing the future of Cyprus the British Government insisted on including Turkey as well as Greece be included in any conference. This was despite the Turkish community in Cyprus only making up 18% of the population. The Turkish minority had an effective veto on political evolution. The Turks of Cyprus had more rights under colonial rule than they would have had in Turkey. For decades Turkey was run by ultra-nationalist dictators with an absurd cult of the personality. Turkey’s fanatical secularism meant that Turks had greater freedom to practise Islam in British Cyprus than they would in Turkey!
By the 1950s the Turks were demanding ‘Takism’ for Cyprus: partition. They wanted the island to be divided into Turkish and Greek zones. They had the temerity to call it ‘an extension of Anatolia’. There is a prominent square in Istanbul called ‘Taksim’ for this reason. There were a few who even claimed that Turkey should annex the whole of Cyprus.
By the late 1950s Her Majesty’s Government had belatedly come to the realization that the colonial era in Cyprus had had its day. Colonialism was unsustainable as it was rejected by a huge majority of the inhabitants of the island. As a compromise it was decided that Cyprus would be given self-rule but two paths were precluded. Cyprus must not unite with either Turkey or Greece. Most Greek Cypriots clamoured for ‘enosis’ – union with Greece. In return for granting independence the British were given two sovereign base areas on Cyprus.
In 1960 Cyprus became independent. The Republic of Cyprus had a constitution which guaranteed the Turks much more representation in the legislature than their numbers would warrant. The same held true in the Cypriot Army. Sadly, relations between the two communities took a quick turn south. Soon their was inter-ethnic fighting. The asperity between them got so bad that the Turks armed themselves and turned their villages into little forts. But did it suit London this way? The UK could say – look at these natives they cannot cope without us. The situation become so ghastly that the UN dispatched troops to Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots faced a choice. They could tolerate the situation in Cyprus or they could emigrate. When they chose to leave few opted to return to their ancestral homeland. Many of them went much further afield such as to the United Kingdom or Australia. But the lot of the Turkish Cypriots was not too bad. Greek Cypriots emigrated in similar numbers. The Greek Cypriots who moved overseas went to the UK, the United States, Canada, Australia and even South Africa.
In 1967 there was a military coup in Greece. The Greek colonels overthrew democracy. They feared that communists would come to office. The United States was kept apprised of developments. The CIA egged on the coupsters. The United States had no wish to see Greece withdraw from NATO and join the Warsaw Pact. Soviet military bases in the Mediterranean would have been a game changer in the Cold War. Langley Farm was very satisfied to see the right wing junta ruling Greece. The military dictatorship unleashed a reign of terror on even democratic socialists. King Constantine tried and failed to lead a countercoup against the fascist regime. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had the nerve to say that Greece was not ready for democracy!
By 1974 the Greek people were at the end of their tether. The colonels had been a disaster for Greece. There were large scale protests that the junta could not contain. The government was an international pariah. The military government was more unpopular than ever. The Greek Drachma was facing runaway inflation. The junta desperately cast around for something to restore support for their tinpot tyranny. They decided to bring about enosis. This was sure to be popular with Greeks of all shades of opinion.
The Greek junta instigated a coup d’etat in Cyprus. Makarios was ousted and fled to a British base. The junta had Sampson declared himself President of Cyprus. He announced his intention to bring about a full union between Cyprus and Greece in short order. The Turks were having none of it. Five days after the coup the Turks invaded. The presence of UN troops did not deter this act of aggression. The US Government was kept in the picture by Ankara. Despite advance knowledge of what Turkey was about to do the US did not warn Cyprus or Greece. The Turkish invasion led to the deaths of scores of civilians. Hundreds more Greek Cypriots were abducted by the Turkish Army and have never been seen again. Eight UN soldiers were killed by the Turkish Army. The Turks left nothing to chance. They landed 60 000 troops on the island. At one stage 1 in 5 people on the island was a Turkish soldier! The Turks also brought hundreds of tanks. The Turks occupied the eastern part of the island. They did not dare attempt to take the western half of the island because it is mountainous there. In the western part of Cyprus the Turkish Army would not have been able to use its tanks so well.
The United Nations brokered a ceasefire. The Turks accepted. Only a month later Turkey committed a dastardly breach of the ceasefire and grabbed even more land. Turkey ended up controlling 37% of Cyprus. This was for a mere 18% of the people who are of Turkish stock. The Turkish occupied zone is known as ‘North Cyprus’. Hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots fled from the north. They lost everything and were never given a penny in compensation. The Turks had grabbed the flatter land – i.e. it was much better for farming. They had also taken Famagusta – the chief port. The loss of the major port was a huge blow to Cyprus since as an island the port was economically vital.
The UN moved in more soldiers to separate the two sides. There is a UN buffer zone between the free part of the country and the occupied area. There was an economic embargo on the occupied zones. The Turks sold stolen property to foreigners. In particular, Britons bought properties in North Cyprus. In many cases these were houses stolen from Greeks who had left at gunpoint.
The Turks did not quite know what to do about North Cyprus. In 1983 Ankara granted ‘independence’ to North Cyprus. It was proclaimed the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. The whole place is run by the Turkish Army. Turkish soldiers with pregnant wives were sometime posted there just before the baby was due. In that way another Turkish child is born in Cyprus and Turkey comes closer to having a majority of Cypriots on its side. North Cyprus is in legal limbo. Not one country besides Turkey recognizes North Cyprus. Even the poverty-stricken Turkic nations of Central Asia do not do so. North Cyprus is a conduit for money laundering and people trafficking.
Tourism thrives in Cyprus. Unfortunately, some of the most exquisite strands are under Turkish occupation. The area controlled by the Cypriot Republic has made huge strides economically. North Cyprus languishes decades behind.
Despite the many disadvantages imposed on Cyprus by Turkey the Cypriot economy has gone from strength to strength. Most Cypriots speak superb English. The country is an educational magnet. Moreover, the Republic of Cyprus enjoys warm relations with all countries in the region. The country is a commercial entrepot and renowned for its financial services. In 1993 Cyprus hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. President Glafcos Clerides greeted Her Majesty the Queen with an eloquent and plaintive explanation of Cyprus’ woes. His magnanimity in receiving the Queen cordially was quite something. Under her authority only 40 years earlier a dozen young Cypriots were hanged for anti-colonial activities.
In 2003 Cyprus was on the cusp of admission to the EU. The generous spirited Cypriot people decided to seek reconciliation with North Cyprus. Both sides dropped their guard and tensions were relaxed. Several border crossings were opened. The Cypriot Government was using all carrot and no stick to try to get North Cyprus to end its illegal occupation status. It did not work. All it did was relieve economic pressure on North Cyprus. The Turks have exploited Cypriot reasonableness and humanity. The détente has stimulated the economy of North CYPRUS.
Kofi Annan propounded a plan to reunite Cyprus. He foolishly failed to consult with the Cypriots. His proposals were unacceptable to the majority since his plan would have granted Turkey the right to invade! Unsurprisingly his plan was decisively rejected in a referendum.
The illegal occupation of North Cyprus is a grave affront justice and international morality. Poor little Cyprus! 37% of it stolen by Turkey. 2% is the UN buffer zone. 2% is the British military base area. Cyprus has lost almost half its land.
Cypriot liberality towards the occupied zone is probably a mistake. But on the other hand social and commercial intercourse between people of the two parts of the island has built trust and amity. Despite the spurning the Annan Plan there was still hope for peaceful reintegration. Most North Cypriots saw the folly of partition. They also wished to share in the benefits of EU membership. There was a good chance that a way forward could be found. However, over the last few years in Turkey the Erdgoan administration has become ever more pernicious. His demented authoritarian regime has disgusted even most Turks. The Turkish Government is now jingoistic and chauvinistic. It is less likely to see sense on the Cypriot issue than any previous Turkish government.
The illegal occupation needs to end now. The retrocession of the occupied land is step one in achieving a peaceful and prosperous future. Turkey should also apologise and pay compensation for the damage wrought. The ‘border’ in Cyprus is not a border between two separate countries. It is a border down the middle of one country. It is a livid open wound across the face of Aphrodite. The Turkish Army need to leave now. Then there would be no need for the UN to be there. Cypriots have the right to national self-determination. The Cypriots could choose independence or unity with Greece. They certainly do not want to be occupied by Turkey! The United Nations has passed number Security Council Resolutions demanding Turkish withdrawal from Cyprus. However, Washington DC ensures that no firm action is taken against the Turkish Republic.
North Cyprus exists under the guise of independence. But it is a false independence. Make no mistake – the area is under illegal military occupation by Turkey. Admittedly many people in that zone want it that way. However, this does not alter the fact that it is unlawful. The renegade regime in North Cyprus is bereft of legitimacy. This territory must be reintegrated to Cyprus.
Does the UK have any moral rights to its bases? Akrotiri and Dhekelia were granted to the UK because otherwise London would not have agreed to independence. This was an agreement extracted under duress. Are these bases even any use to Britain? Many military experts say no. They are millstones around Britain’s neck. They cause huge resentment in Cyprus. The conduct of British military personnel in local bars is not always gentlemanly! One respected Cypriot politician dubbed these bases ‘a colonial bloodstain’. By contrast the Venetians and Cypriots are reconciled over their past. There is even a winged lion statute in Larnaca. This is the symbol of the Most Serene Republic of St Mark which once ruled Cyprus. (Remember Othello?). Venice and Cyprus have fraternal links. There will always be some bad blood between Cyprus and the UK until the base issue is resolved.
In the pamphlet ‘Democratic Defence’ Peter Tatchell explained the folly of the United Kingdom retaining bases across the globe. This stratagem is based on the outmoded colonial mindset whereby it is held to be advantageous to have one’s forces stationed across all continents. If the British Army came home that would defend the UK. The United Kingdom is not safer by having its troops where they are not wanted. The UK is less safe through stationing its troops in places such as Cyprus. These bases are costly and useless. By spreading one’s forces thinly across the globe the UK enfeebles herself.
Cypriot are rightly worried that if the UK goes to war against Iran for example then Britain’s enemies will bomb the bases. Inevitably this will spill over into Cyprus proper. The Cypriots have absolutely no say whatsoever as to what the United Kingdom does on these bases. The base area is British sovereign territory.
By George Callaghan
Source: The Duran