IN DEPTH – Volume 17 Issue 5 – September 2020
Senior Fellow at the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs
CYPRUS, GREECE AND TURKEY- THE LESSONS OF HISTORY
Since ancient times, Cyprus was defined by power relations in the region, part and parcel of geopolitical war games in the area. Little seems to have changed today. The island being surrounded, even as we speak, by an armada of warships of various affiliations, proves a case in point. Possibly, the last chapter in the Eastern Question (that is, the struggle between East and West over who was to get the spoils of the Ottoman Empire) is still played out. However, Turkey is no longer on its deathbed. The ‘Sick Man of Europe’ no more, Turkey demands whatever territory it considers to fall within its all-encompassing imperial ‘frontiers of the heart’. Amidst occasional glimpses of the French fleet caught in Mediterranean waters and the gradual withdrawal of Britain, Ankara has become the master of a delicate balancing act: flirting with Moscow, while wooing Washington. Greece and Cyprus are stuck in the middle.
But how have things come back to this?
Despite waiving any claims to Cyprus through the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the Turks were invited back on center stage, in the 1950s, by the British, who were hoping, through their usual ‘divide and rule’ antics, to contain the Greek Cypriot claim for ‘Enosis’ and the anti-colonial struggle of EOKA, by juxtaposing the sponsoring of the ‘Muhammadans’ on the island by Ankara. Thus, Britain added a regional game-changer to an otherwise ordinary, for its time, colonial struggle between peoples and empire, a struggle hitherto chaperoned on national grounds only by Greece. Upon independence in 1960, this dividing policy became reality, as its footprint was reaffirmed in the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, between Cyprus, Britain, Turkey and Greece. Its consequences remain with us today.
In fact, the dynamics of the particular power mix orchestrated by Britain were only made worse, even if not originally created, by the two communities themselves. The way the two communities have treated and still treat each other is deeply rooted in the island’s history, as past historical paths of these communities had never borne any semblance of commonality. In Ottoman times, the Greeks were the slaves to their Turkish masters; in 1821, concurrently rising against such rule as other Greeks did elsewhere. In 1878, the very first day the British landed in Cyprus, a Greek delegation met their new rulers and petitioned enosis with Greece, while at that very same time the Turkish elites sent their own petition of fears and concerns about their new-found status on the island to the Sultan. Daily personal and sometimes economic relationships aside, there had never been throughout the history of Cyprus a precedence of equal and rightful political co-existence of the two communities; they had been used to positioning and defining themselves against each other, had sometimes managed to survive side by side, but had never felt of or with each other. Attempts at ‘epanaproseggisi’ between the two communities seem insistent on forgetting this fact, insisting at constructing rather romantic notions of the past. This is perhaps one of the reasons that bi-communal rapprochement has never had any real trickle-down effect to grassroots on the island. One can attempt to ignore or sanitize the past at one’s own peril.
Glancing through history, for most Greek Cypriots, the narrative of their presence on the land dates back thousands of years to the Achaeans and later, the Dorians, who colonized the island around the time of the Trojan War- the Homeric Cypro-Arcadic dialect and the ancient names of Cypriot cities bearing witness to one’s Hellenic history. This idea of Greekness stands above any practical assistance or support that Athens is and was prepared or able to offer, guarantor or no guarantor. Paraphrasing the well-known Cypriot poet, Michalis Pashiardis; “We are Greeks and thus, we expect nothing from Athens.” Being Greek does not necessarily have much to do with being chaperoned or officially governed by Athens. In the same way that being under Ottoman rule, the 16th and 19th century, was nothing that the tide of history would not at some point sweep away. The Franks, the Venetians, the Templars, the Romans, the Persians had all left their mark on Cyprus before, but to no avail.
Putting national feeling aside, the 1960 established Republic of Cyprus, which, even if initially for many of the Greek Cypriots was the means to another ultimate end- that of Enosis with Greece, still was and is the direct product of their very own proud and rather painful struggle against the British Crown with whom, in fact, the Turkish Cypriots had sided early on. It seemed quite an affront to every sense of justice that the Turkish Cypriots had, back then, won, through Turkish patronage and a quotas-ridden constitution, a disproportionate numerical representation in a state for which they had never fought and to whose emergence had, in fact, placed immense obstacles. Despite the reasoning that the Turkish Cypriots may present to this effect, their decision to abandon the Republic’s institutions in 1963 and wreak havoc in a newly-founded state, with zero institutional memory and few government reflexes, added insult to injury. Part of the Greek Cypriot fear of a collapsed state in the aftermath of the signing of a solution stems from that.
Simultaneously, it is no secret that the Turkish Cypriots had no sympathy for the Greek Cypriot Enosis struggle, lo and behold led by none other than a Greek Orthodox religious leader, Makarios, the majority claim of the Greek Cypriot community seen as a threat to the Turkish Cypriot physical existence on the island. Their first fall of grace, in 1878, had extinguished their superiority as the representatives of the Ottoman rule. Experiencing a second fall from grace, a few decades later, by having a somehow bearable British Cyprus turn into an outright bastion of Greekness was too bitter a pill for the Turkish Cypriot elites to swallow. Their only hope was to go along with the British and invoke the guiding hand of Turkey, which they, too, made sure they forced, on a number of occasions.
All this matters, as Cyprus cannot escape its history. The escalating rhetoric of past and present tensions of all actors, over legitimization, governance and territory has now been made worse by bickering over the sharing of maritime boundaries and natural resources. Greece is now once more being dragged into the military equation, as Turkey keeps surrounding the island with drills and warships, while extending the drums of war to the Aegean and far beyond. To the American reluctance of global leadership, Moscow and Ankara poise their appetite for hegemony. The shaky foundations of regional peace and security are now rattling, unbothered by European silence and UN collective pretenses.
Yet attempts at peace on the island by the international community choose to ignore the context and focus on the convenient, continuing to emphasize a jargon which no longer has any geopolitical resonance, focusing on the ‘bi-communal’ aspect of the Cyprus problem. This is convenient yet ahistorical. Even if one is to argue that this aspect is fore and foremost the most important part of the Cyprus conundrum, fact remains that the two communities in Cyprus have trodden down increasingly divergent historical paths of social, economic and political development for many decades: the Greek Cypriots looking to the West, the Turkish Cypriots being subsumed by the East. No serious attempts have been made to tackle this. Strong preference has been shown towards ignoring history rather than understanding it.
While everything changes, everything stays the same. Omens remain unfavorable for Cyprus, as the settling of old scores continues and the Eastern Question remains unanswered.