This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
There had been ample warning of a Turkish invasion: a buildup of 38,000 troops at the Adana military base in southern Turkey; a flotilla of ships that carried 160 tanks and armoured personnel carriers; and preparations to launch some 80 aircraft. Greek intelligence seems to have interpreted all this, and radar sightings of the fleet under steam on the morning of the invasion itself, as a mere exercise.
At dawn on July 20, Turkish fighter jets began to strafe Greek infantry billets, light artillery batteries and air force early warning stations on Cyprus’ northern shore. Moving swiftly inland, they laid waste to the Greeks’ main military camp in the capital, Nicosia. The 185th artillery battalion was scorched with napalm bombs as it moved out of barracks.
Cyprus effectively fell within days, but Turkish forces advanced well into August, long after the UN had ordered aceasefire, and stopped when they reached a line of division between ethnic Greek and Turkish communities suggested by the British in 1964.
It is along this Green Line, as it is now known, that Cyprus remains divided today, cutting across Nicosia to create the world’s last divided capital.
The invasion marks the only occasion when one NATO ally fought another. Washington’s apparent acquiescence is attributed to the Nixon administration’s distraction with impeachment proceedings, but remains controversial. The ongoing occupation of northern Cyprus is the only occupation of EU soil and still marks the biggest obstacle in Turkey’s path to EU membership.
Roots of division
Cyprus’ division marks a spectacular failure to graduate a European country from British rule to independence. The Turkish invasion was, at least nominally, a response to Greek-Cypriot nationalism. After the Second World War, a Greek-Cypriot lieutenant colonel, Yiorgos Grivas, set up EOKA, a guerrilla organisation, which attacked British troops and installations as part of its goal to merge Cyprus with Greece. Its battle cry was Enosis, or union.
In 1955, British governor John Harding offered the Greek-Cypriot community leader, Archbishop Makarios, self-determination after seven years. Makarios turned it down and condoned the EOKA campaign. It was then that Britain began to stoke Turkish interest in its ethnic community on Cyprus. From this point on, British policy saw any new arrangement as bi-communal.
The following year Britain presented the Radcliffe Plan, which allowed some self-government to the two communities separately. Prime minister Harold MacMillan went further down this path in 1958, foreshadowing the gradual division of Cyprus into two communities and possible partition. The plan could be enforced with either the Greek-Cypriot or the Turkish-Cypriot community separately. Like the previous plans, it was rejected by Makarios.
Cyprus was eventually given independence in 1960 on the basis of a power-sharing agreement negotiated by Greece and Turkey, not by the Cypriots themselves, which installed Makarios as president and a Turkish-Cypriot vice-president. However, Britain, Greece and Turkey retained power to intervene unilaterally if they felt their interests threatened.
By December 1963, this system of self-rule broke down. Turkish-Cypriots withdrew from the administration and Turkey declared the constitution of 1960 void.
The breakdown sparked the worst inter-communal clashes to date early the next year, leading Turkey to deploy troops along the highway between Nicosia and the northern port of Kyrenia, and depriving Makarios of control over parts of the island for the first time. The Turkish position, that Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots could not live together, seemed to have been amply demonstrated.
Makarios was to turn down one last chance at Enosis that year: an American proposal would have unified Cyprus with Greece, allowing Turkey to lease a small military base for 50 years.
Still, it was a Greek blunder that would trigger the invasion. In 1967, a cabal of nationalist Greek colonels who had served in Cyprus in the 1950s and had become radicalised there, seized the reins of government in Athens to prevent a centre-left government from being elected. On July 15, 1974, they attempted to bring about Enosis by deposing Makarios in favour of their own man, Nikos Sampson, a former EOKA guerrilla. Makarios fled, denouncing the coup as an invasion, and inviting intervention.
The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence in 1983, but remains recognised only by Turkey.
Is the status quo permanent?
“I am not sure we can live with the Turkish-Cypriots,” says Christos, a banker raising a family with his wife, Anita, in a plush neighbourhood of Nicosia. Both grew up in an ethnically pure state since the invasion.
He is suspicious of Turkish motives in backing the talks, the first since Cyprus discovered large reserves of natural gas in its territorial waters. These could transform its economy over the next few years.
“It’s obvious that they want a share in the gas wealth. Frankly, I think that we should just let them have all the gas, in return for pulling out their troops. We don’t need the gas to prosper. We’re perfectly capable of building an economy out of our own labour. We just want to have our island back and to be left alone.”
Anita agrees, despite the fact that a reunification settlement could indemnify her at today’s property rates for luxury hotels her family lost in the invasion. “I just don’t think we should legalise the invasion,” she says. The word she uses means both to legalise and to render legitimate, and reflects Greek-Cypriots’ awareness of the fact that they are being called upon to surrender a moral high ground.
Christos’ and Anita’s skepticism echo throughout Greek-Cypriot society, and lies at the heart of a disastrous attempt to reunify Cyprus ahead of its last major invasion anniversary a decade ago.
In April 2004, four out of five of Greek-Cypriots rejected the so-called Annan Plan, named after then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It would have created a federal state that gave the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities powerful local governments.
Although two thirds of Turkish-Cypriots voted in favour of that plan, not all are so minded. Many Cypriots on both sides are now beginning to wonder whether they should accept the status quo as the lesser of many evils.
“For me there is no division,” says Osman Sakale, a Turkish-Cypriot shopkeeper who lives in northern Nicosia. “Turks are on this side living happily, Greeks are on the other side living happily. Any reunification by force won’t work.” He adds, “We Turks play artistic music, the Greeks play Western music and we don’t coincide.”
Sakale is not a native-born Tuyrkish-Cypriot, but a settler brought in over the last 40 years by Turkey as part of an effort to alter the demographics on the island. Greek-Cypriots currently number some 600,000, Turkish-Cypriots only 200,000 – and only an estimated 80,000 of those are indigenous.
One of those indigenous ethnic Turks is film-maker Mustafa Ersenal, who supports reunification. “We really do feel very claustrophobic in Cyprus; especially in northern Cyprus,” he says. “First of all, we all have to go to the army. It steals a year of our lives, it steals a year of productivity, it steals a year of our creativity, it steals a year of our future.”
Elena Tanou, a businesswoman who has organised a Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot business forum, agrees. “The situation now with the economy brings us to a dead end. People in both communities feel that a solution – a political solution - will bring jobs, and the chance to restore the country again altogether.”
Mightier than the sword
Despite its effectiveness, the invasion increasingly seems to have become a millstone around Turkey’s neck. Keeping 40,000 troops on the island costs an estimated $480 million a year. Subsidising the TRNC’s budget costs hundreds of millions more.
Expelling some 200,000 Greek-Cypriots from their homes in the north is also becoming increasingly expensive. A landmark European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1996 awarded Titina Loizidou, a Greek-Cypriot teacher, $915,000 in compensation for the violation of her right to the “peaceful enjoyment of her property”, by preventing her from visiting and occupying her home in the north. Hundreds more cases have been filed, and the damages accrue for each year of the occupation.
In May, the ECHR ordered Turkey to pay Cyprus more than $120 million (90 million euros) to the relatives of some two thousand people missing since the invasion, and to enclaved Greek-Cypriots in the north.
These mounting legal costs stand in contrast to the peace dividend Turkey stands to gain through re-unification. In 2010, the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), a think-tank, estimated the potential annual benefits to Turkey at over $16bn (12.3bn euros) – chiefly in travel, tourism, financial services and exports, in addition to some $7bn in savings.
The potential benefits to Cyprus are even greater, the PRIO believes. “With a solution to the Cyprus problem, all-island GDP (at constant 2012 prices) would rise from just over 20bn euros [$27bn] in 2012 to just under 45bn euros [$61bn] by 2035… compared with around 25bn euros [$34bn] without a solution. In other words, the peace dividend over 20 years would be approximately 20bn euros [$27bn].” This would translate into per capita earnings of $38,000 a year for Cypriots, compared to $23,000 today.
Energy is the great new factor here. Gas fields found offshore Cyprus in 2010 are estimated to amount to at least 4.1tn cubic feet, with much exploration remaining to be done.
Finally there are the diplomatic costs: Occupation has now become a major obstacle to Turkish hopes for EU membership.
This has helped Cyprus win diplomatic ground. In 2002, Greece persuaded the European Union to admit Cyprus divided, over Turkish objections. This underlined the legitimacy of the Republic of Cyprus and further undermined the TRNC. Nicosia alone may issue EU passports to members of both communities and disburse the bulk of EU funds. Turkey’s refusal to extend customs union with Cyprus, as with all other EU members, has led to the freezing of membership negotiations on several chapters.
Placing all talks under UN auspices meant that UN resolutions calling for a complete withdrawal of Turkish armed forces have had to be part of any plan. Basic EU freedoms of movement and establishment are also considered inalienable, so Greek-Cypriots displaced during the invasion should be able to return to the north.
Potential diplomatic, legal and financial gains all advocate in favour of re-unification, but political trust still eludes the two communities. The occupation can be withdrawn, but can Cypriots overcome the separate Greek and Turkish nationalism that have nurtured them for so long?