Cyprus: the predictable crisis.

Author: Barkey, Henri J.; Gordon, Philip H.

Source: National Interest no66 (Winter 2001/2002) p. 83-93


MOST international crises take leaders by surprise. While the region or  issue that might blow up can often be identified in advance, the timing and  contour of any particular crisis usually cannot. The coming dispute between  Turkey and the European Union over the Mediterranean island of Cyprus,  however, provides the rare opportunity of a coming crisis that can be  pretty well scripted in advance. Barring significant new developments, none  of which will come about without major outside intervention, the accession  of the Greek part of Cyprus in 2004 to the European Union will trigger a  severe crisis between Turkey and the West. The crisis is set to begin,  however, at the end of 2002, when the EU plans to issue invitations to  prospective candidates. Unless something is done to alter the current  course of events, the entry of a divided Cyprus into the EU will reverse  much of the cooperation that has developed recently between Greece and  Turkey, increase tensions on the island, further alienate Turkey from  Europe and generally worsen Turkish domestic political conditions. The  resulting crisis could lead to Turkish annexation of Northern Cyprus, the  permanent division of the island, a deep rupture between an aggrieved  Turkey and Europe, and a possible military confrontation between two NATO  members.


Avoiding this all-too-likely scenario should be a high priority for U.S.  and European policymakers, even as they rightly focus the bulk of their  attention, political capital and foreign policy resources on coping with  the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.  Indeed, whereas the natural tendency in the face of such an overwhelming  new priority would be to push the seemingly eternal "Cyprus problem" to the  back burner, the issue is both more pressing and more important than ever  before. It is more pressing because of a timetable that has the EU set to  announce Cyprus' accession sometime next year, even if Turkey's objections  remain. And it is more important because a clash with Turkey over Cyprus,  at a time when the United States is trying to sustain a global coalition  against terrorism and fight wars in the Middle East, would deeply damage  American national interests. Knowing this, of course, Turkey will be all  the more likely to dig in its heels over Cyprus and expect Europe to back  down.


The United States has an important role to play in defusing the Cyprus time  bomb before it explodes. Whereas the EU naturally holds most of the highest  cards (namely the accession timetable and economic incentives), the United  States--as Turkey's most important strategic ally and an important partner  of Cyprus, Greece and the rest of the EU--has significant leverage on all  the parties involved. Leaders in Washington should avoid the temptation to  dismiss Cyprus as an unnecessary irritant as they deal with more important  issues, and instead use the long lead time before the coming crisis to take  action. This means not only pushing hard to achieve a political settlement  on Cyprus before accession (the optimal, if improbable, scenario), but also  starting to prepare for the more likely scenario in which such a settlement  is not reached and the EU enlarges to accept Cyprus without one. Only by  pulling a range of strings with Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and the EU partners  can this latter scenario be managed without producing the crisis that would  otherwise inevitably result.


THE DIVIDED ISLANDTHE DIVISION of Cyprus has been one of the most  intractable problems in international relations for decades, frozen almost  in place for over a quarter century. The current disputes date back to the  early 1960s, when the delicate balance constructed between the Greek and  Turkish communities at the time of independence from Britain collapsed,  primarily as a result of attempts by Greek Cypriots to undermine the  Turkish Cypriots' constitutional protections.


The constitutional system broke down after inter-ethnic clashes in 1963,  after which Turkish Cypriots no longer participated in the government.  Between 1963 and 1974, the minority Turkish Cypriot community was  frequently harassed by the majority Greeks, and acts of communal violence  escalated. Conditions changed radically when, in 1974, the ruling military  junta in Athens, in part to compensate for its growing unpopularity at  home, instigated a coup in Cyprus. The coup resulted in the overthrow of  the elected president, Archbishop Makarios, and his replacement by a member  of the main anti-Turkish terrorist movement, Nikos Sampson. Turkey, as a  guarantor power, responded by invading the island on July 20, 1974.  Unsatisfied with the military gains achieved by the time a ceasefire was  implemented, Turkish troops went on the offensive again in August,  resulting in the current territorial division of the island. Backed by the  Turkish military, the Turkish Cypriots, representing 18 percent of the  population, ended up with around 37 percent of the island.


Since then, all efforts to broker a solution to the conflict have failed.  While the Greek Cypriots continued to enjoy legal recognition as the  Republic of Cyprus, the Turkish Cypriot administration in 1983 declared its  independence and formed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity  recognized only by Turkey, and supported both by Turkish financial aid and  some 30,000 Turkish troops. Over the years, numerous attempts have been  made to bring the two sides together, and countless rounds of talks have  been held under UN auspices with active U.S. participation. All have proven  fruitless. The general contours of a possible deal on a new Cypriot  federation have been known for years: the Turkish side would cede territory  to more closely reflect its share of the island's population; the Greek  side would recognize Turkish administration over its zone; citizens on both  sides who lost property would receive compensation or the right to return  home; and a new, decentralized government would be formed. But none of the  plans has been able to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles: the  inherent difficulties of building a joint government for two antipathetic  communities; the Greek Cypriots' unwillingness to countenance a formally  separate Turkish Cypriot area within Cyprus; and the Turkish Cypriot--and  Turkish--preference for the post-1974 status quo.


While those who experienced personal or property losses in 1974 suffered  greatly in subsequent years, Cyprus has actually been relatively stable  since its division. During the 1980s and early 1990s it was a major issue  only for those with a direct interest in it, including the powerful  Greek-American domestic lobby and its supporters in Congress. The Cyprus  problem rose to new prominence in 1995, however, when the European Union  put Cyprus at the top of its list of candidates for future EU membership.  The agreement to do so was reached under strong pressure from Greece,  frustrated by the lack of progress toward a settlement, and as a quid pro  quo for Athens agreeing to an EU customs union with Turkey. EU leaders were  also convinced that the prospect of membership in the Union--massive  economic benefits for both Cypriot communities and the freedom for Cypriots  to work and travel throughout the Union--would catalyze the resolution of  the inter-communal divisions on the island.


They were wrong. The EU's playing of the Cyprus card only stiffened Turkish  resolve against a compromise. The EU's decision at the December 1997  Luxembourg Summit not to offer Turkey a path to EU accession further  strained Turkish-European relations and made Ankara even less likely to  encourage the Turkish Cypriots to cooperate. Two years later, with a Greek  government now focused on deepening its integration with Europe and winning  entry into the euro zone (and after strong pressure from the United  States), the EU reversed course. At the 1999 Helsinki summit Turkey was  made a formal candidate and declared to be "destined to join the Union."  The price, however, was a renewed commitment to the resolution of the  Cyprus problem. While noting that "all relevant factors" would be taken  into account when the time came to decide on Cyprus' accession (widely  taken to mean that the Greek Cypriots had to show good faith efforts to  negotiate a political settlement), the EU stated clearly for the first time  that the end of the island's division was not a precondition to membership.  Thus was lit the fuse leading to a political settlement on the island--or  to a crisis with Turkey.


TOWARD EUROPEDESPITE THE enduring deadlock over Cyprus, Turkey's  relationship with the European Union--including with its historical rival  Greece--has improved significantly since the Luxembourg Summit debacle.  Whereas the mid- to late-1990s were plagued by a series of dangerous  clashes and crises--concerning ownership of the Imia/Kardak islets in the  Aegean (1996), the Luxembourg Summit (1997), Turkey's threat to respond  militarily to Cyprus' proposed purchase of a Russian S-300 air defense  system (1998), and Greece's support for Kurdish Workers' Party leader  Abdullah Öcalan (1998-99)--the period since 1999 has been marked by an  encouraging rapprochement both between Turkey and the EU and between Turkey  and Greece. The Istanbul and Athens earthquakes of August and September  1999 further brought the two countries closer, as the populace in each  country mobilized to provide assistance to the other, ushering in a period  of what some observers called "seismic diplomacy." Under the new,  pro-European moderate government of Costas Simitis, Greece adopted a new  strategy of cooperation with Turkey. This new approach, driven primarily by  Foreign Minister George Papandreou, has led to a long list of concrete  agreements--in the areas of economic cooperation and trade, tourism, the  environment and people-to-people exchanges--that demonstrate the potential  to transform relations among these historical rivals and move Turkey closer  to its aspiration of acceptance in Europe.


All of this progress, however, could be halted--and perhaps reversed--by  Cyprus' accession to the EU in the absence of a prior political settlement.  Turkey has remained deeply hostile to the accession of a divided island,  and senior Turkish officials have threatened to do "whatever is  necessary"--perhaps including the annexation of Northern Cyprus and further  militarization of the island--to protect Turkish interests. Greece,  however, has not backed down, and continues both to defend the principle  that Cyprus must remain a single international entity (i.e., no recognition  for the Northern Cyprus regime) and that Cyprus must be allowed to join the  EU regardless of whether the island's division is overcome. Indeed, Greek  leaders and members of parliament have made it clear that Greece would  block the accession of any other prospective EU members (such as Poland,  Hungary or the Czech Republic) unless Cyprus is allowed to join at the same  time. Thus the potential for crisis, as the seemingly unstoppable progress  of Cyprus' EU accession runs into the equally determined Turkish and  Turkish Cypriot unwillingness either to accept a deal on the island or to  acquiesce in Cypriot accession. Recent improvements in Greek-Turkish and  Turkish-EU relations would be unlikely to survive such a development, with  all the attendant implications this would have for peace and security in  the region, domestic political stability in Turkey, regional military  spending, and economic, energy, and defense relations among Turkey, the EU,  and the United States.


Suffice it to say, then, that mistakes have been made. The idea of inviting  Cyprus to join the EU has not led to a political settlement as was  anticipated; there is little evidence that the parties are any closer to an  agreement now than they have been for the past 27 years. Even if a majority  of Turkish Cypriots want a deal--which may be the case--their leaders (and  more importantly, leaders in Turkey itself) are unprepared to accept one on  the terms being offered, and those terms do not seem likely to change  substantially. On the other hand, Turkish assumptions regarding Cyprus and  EU accession--that in the end, the EU would never actually accept a divided  island--also seem to have been proven flawed. Until recently, most  objective observers would have predicted that a divided island would not be  allowed to join the EU, but now the reverse seems more likely.


This change in Cyprus' EU prospects has come about for four main reasons.  The first is, as noted above, that in exchange for the extension of  candidacy status to Turkey at the 1999 Helsinki summit, the Greek side won  the EU's agreement that Cyprus' reunification is not a prerequisite for EU  accession. The second factor has been Cyprus' rapid progress in fulfilling  the various chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU  legislation with which all candidates must comply before they are allowed  to join. At last report, Cyprus was at the top of the list of candidates in  this regard, having fulfilled 23 out of 31 chapters, thus well on the way  to removing any technical obstacle to its accession. To the extent that the  Turks were hoping that Cyprus' accession would be derailed by its failure  to comply with EU rules, they have been disappointed.


Third, at its December 2000 Nice summit, the EU undertook the institutional  changes necessary to allow for rapid enlargement of the Union, such as  limiting the size of the European Commission, using more qualified majority  voting, and re-weighting majority votes in the European Council. (It is  true that Ireland's June 2001 rejection of the Nice Treaty in a referendum  is a setback for institutional revision, but most observers believe that  the Irish will find a way to ratify by 2002, allowing the institutional  changes to proceed and thus pave the way for enlargement.).


Finally, there is the widespread perception in Europe (and elsewhere) that  the Greek Cypriot side has been more willing to pursue a political  settlement than the Turkish side, and that the Greek Cypriots should not be  punished for Turkish intransigence. In exchange for the December 1999  Helsinki statement on Turkish candidacy, the United States and the EU  received assurances that the Turkish Cypriots would re-engage in the  UN-sponsored process. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, however, has  twice walked away from that process. His decision to abandon the proximity  talks in November 2000 re-inforced the perception that his participation  had never really been sincere, that he only sought to appear reasonable in  the run-up to the Helsinki decision. The following year, arduous efforts by  the United States and others led to an understanding between Washington and  Ankara that the talks would resume. They did not. On the eve of their  scheduled resumption in September 2001, Denktash again backed out, with  Turkey's full support--leading to a denunciation of the Turkish Cypriot  position by the UN Security Council and key EU member states. Denktash's  behavior has thus strengthened the Greek Cypriots' hand, relieved them from  having to negotiate, and made it difficult for the EU to do anything but  include Cyprus in its ranks.

THE COSTS OF A CLASHIN THEORY, at least, all parties to the Cyprus dispute  have an incentive to reach a deal, and a "last-minute" settlement of the  problem is not entirely impossible. On the Turkish Cypriot side, dire  economic conditions--brought about by a Greek Cypriot-led embargo on its  exports and homegrown mismanagement and corruption--have assumed almost  disastrous proportions. The exodus of many of the most talented Turkish  Cypriots has accelerated, as migrants from Anatolia, with few ties to the  local culture and no natural attachment to the notion of Cypriot identity,  replace them. (According to the best estimates, nearly half of northern  Cyprus' population is made up of mainland settlers.) The recent economic  crisis in Turkey also means that Turkish Cypriots cannot count on the  mainland to bail them out anytime soon. In this context, the prospect of EU  accession may appear increasingly attractive to many Turkish Cypriots,  especially to the extent that their rights and interests are protected  through membership in the EU. The Turkish Cypriots also have an incentive  to make a deal before the Greek part of the island joins the EU, given that  their bargaining position would be weaker after such an accession.  Moreover, the inclusion of Turkish Cypriots in the EU would have the added  benefits of making Turkish an official EU language, and perhaps help to  lower the psychological barrier to Turkey's eventual accession.

Even though Greek Cypriots are slated to join the EU, they, too, have  incentives to make a deal. First and foremost, a crisis over accession and  Turkish annexation of the north would put a definitive end to longstanding  Greek Cypriot dreams of a reunified Cyprus. In effect, by withholding  sufficient incentives to their Turkish neighbors, they may be strengthening  the hand of hardliners; whereas a more moderate Turkish Cypriot  administration in the future might reverse course. Annexation would also  end any hope of regaining through negotiations some of the territory lost  in 1974. There are economic risks, as well. In contrast to the  crisis-ridden north, the economy of the Republic of Cyprus is thriving, but  a post-accession crisis with Turkey--especially if Ankara has given up its  EU aspirations--would undoubtedly lead to increased military tensions that  would, at a minimum, undermine investor confidence and hurt the vital  tourism sector.

Finally, both Greece and Turkey would themselves benefit greatly from a  deal on Cyprus. A settlement of the Cyprus problem would remove perhaps the  greatest obstacle to their bilateral cooperation and restore the  possibility that the two countries could not only peacefully coexist but  actually become friends, as they were before tensions over Cyprus emerged  in 1955, ending the two countries' rapprochement that had begun during the  1930s. A deal would greatly reduce the financial drain that northern Cyprus  represents for Turkey and would allow both Greece and Turkey to reduce  their military budgets (at present by far the highest per capita among NATO  members). That, in turn, would facilitate Greece's economic integration  into the euro zone and ease, at least in part, Turkey's current financial  crisis. Finally, a Cyprus settlement would also remove a key barrier that  stands between Turkey and the EU; it is far from the only barrier, but even  if Turkey made other necessary changes it is hard to imagine it ever  joining the Union so long as the Cyprus issue remains unresolved.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOREGONE?DESPITE THESE clear benefits to all, past  history--and the deep mistrust that persists among the parties on  Cyprus--suggests that the parties will dig in their heels not only right up  until the eleventh hour, but beyond it. Turkey's inclination in the run-up  to the EU's Cyprus decision will be to escalate the level of rhetoric in  the hope of leading a nervous Washington to weigh in with EU members on  Turkey's side. In recent years, Turkey has successfully employed such a  strategy against friend and foe alike. In 1998, for example, when Turkey  discovered that the Greek Cypriots were planning to import Russian-made  S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, it threatened to "take them out"  with military force, and the Greek Cypriots--under American and European  pressure--had to beat a humiliating retreat. Similarly, Ankara can derive  satisfaction from its confrontational stance following the EU's Luxembourg  decision sidelining it from the list of candidate countries; two years  later, with an active U.S. diplomatic campaign in its favor, Ankara held a  winning hand at the 1999 Helsinki Summit. More recently, Turkey's  steadfastness helped it dodge a bullet in October 2000 when the U.S. House  of Representatives, under pressure from a White House concerned about  alienating Ankara, shelved a resolution that would have described the 1915  Armenian massacres as "genocide.".  

The debate over the EU's security and defense policy provides yet another  good example: unsatisfied with the degree of involvement being offered to  Turkey in the EU's emerging security and defense policy, Ankara blocked a  NATO-EU deal at the April 1999 NATO summit in Washington. It held out for  an offer of greater influence at Helsinki and Nice, and managed to extract  further concessions from the EU in a proposed compromise struck at a June  2001 meeting in Istanbul. (While the Turkish Foreign Ministry was  apparently satisfied with the EU's new and improved offer, the military and  political leadership in Ankara has delayed agreement, and demanded still  more.) With these recent examples to draw upon, no one should be surprised  if Ankara were to conclude in the case of Cyprus that a strong stand will  ultimately serve it well.

The post-September 11 war against terrorism may further encourage Turkey to  dig in its heels. Because of its geographical location, size, military  power, and role in the Middle East (particularly as a Muslim neighbor of  Iraq and Iran), Turkey's geopolitical attributes trump those of Greece.  Many Turks will thus conclude, as prominent Turkish columnist Sami Kohen  recently put it, that "the U.S. will be loath to upset Ankara at a time  when it urgently needs its help."(FN1) Indeed, it was perhaps no  coincidence that only days after Turkey pledged in November 2001 to send  special forces to support the American campaign in Afghanistan, Turkish  Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and other Turkish officials warned that  southern Cyprus' EU accession could lead to annexation of the north by  Turkey.

Greece, too, has seen the benefits of staking out maximalist positions. As  suggested above, in 1994 Greece forced the EU to reconsider its position on  admitting a divided island by simply taking the future enlargement of the  EU hostage. Greece's success puts the onus on Turkey to be more  forthcoming, provided, of course, that Greek Cypriots do not make  diplomatic errors that test the patience of those governments that really  matter on this issue. As long as Turkey does not fulfill its part of the  Helsinki bargain, it will remain outside the EU, an outcome that may suit  many in Athens despite proclamations to the contrary. Indeed, all Athens  has to do is keep the Greek Cypriots focused on the goal of completing the  acquis.

If each party sticks to its maximalist position, all will pay a heavy  price. Greece would hardly benefit from Turkey's disenchantment. An  immediate casualty of escalating tensions would be the goodwill built up  over the last two years. New tensions would stress Greece's domestic  resources as calls for spending more on defense would proliferate,  undermining the uncharacteristic and impressive fiscal restraint recently  shown by Athens. If Ankara were to carry out its threat to respond to  Cyprus' EU accession by annexing the island's north, the heightened  tensions in the Aegean and on Cyprus could result in a conflict between the  two sides--just as the 1996 Imia/Kardak incident nearly did. It is not  clear how the rest of the EU would react in such circumstances. A failure  of EU states to mobilize on Athens' side would deeply damage Greek-European  relations. As became clear during the war over Kosovo, the Greek public is  deeply skeptical of, if not outright hostile to, some Western policies.  Demands on Greece to back NATO's pledges of support for U.S. military  actions in Afghanistan and against Osama bin Laden's terrorist network have  further strained relations between the Greek public and the West.

The costs to Turkey could be even greater. A crisis over Cyprus provoked by  perceived Turkish intransigence is likely to delay, if not destroy, any  chances Turkey has of joining the Union. In the near term, a veto-wielding  Greek Cypriot-controlled Cyprus in the EU is hardly likely to accommodate  Turkish interests. The longer-term cost for Turkey lies in Ankara's  alienation or estrangement from the Western alliance. Turkey is not likely  to join some other alliance system, nor will Turkish leaders actively court  anti-American powers in their region or beyond. However, an inward-looking,  increasingly nationalistic and autarkic Turkey could emerge, reversing the  economic and political progress the country made during the 1980s and early  1990s. Having exposed the fragility of the Turkish economy, the economic  crises of 2000 and 2001 have constrained Ankara's room for maneuver. An  incorporation of northern Cyprus or any other precipitous action could  undermine any confidence the international financial community may by then  have regained. Estrangement carries enormous risks for an economy that is  dependent on the West, and yet strong and large enough to think that it can  make a go of it alone.

Turkey thus faces a terrible dilemma: a majority of the Turkish elite and  public want Turkey to join the EU, an organization it fundamentally  distrusts. The misgivings go well beyond Greece's presence in the EU.  Discussions in Turkey over Cyprus' EU accession and the fate of the Turkish  part are informed by a deep suspicion--not always unfounded--of the EU's  real intentions and the authenticity of its invitation to Turkey to join.  Rightly or wrongly, Ankara has interpreted current European efforts at  constructing a security and defense policy as a deliberate effort to  exclude Turkey. While the differences in religion and culture worry some  Europeans, others are uneasy because of Turkey's large population, relative  underdevelopment and thus its large potential claim on resources from the  EU budget. For the EU, Turkish accession still seems remote primarily  because of Turkish domestic problems, namely the authoritarian nature of  the 1982 Constitution, the constraints on individual liberties and the  still unresolved Kurdish question. In the absence of progress in these  areas, Ankara will not earn Brussels' seal of approval. A divided Cyprus'  joining the EU could also lead to the strengthening of those forces in  Turkey hostile to its Western vocation.

Turkey's current economic and political difficulties could re-inforce these  negative trends. The political system has been unable to generate new ideas  to confront the problems facing the society, or to make way for new leaders  willing to take them on. In the vacuum of confidence and competence that  has been created, the military's influence has grown, overshadowing the  civilians and blurring democratic lines of authority. The military feels  pressure not only to defend its corporate interests but also to maintain  national stability and ideological harmony.

The military does not worry for nothing. After years of stability the  electorate--having historically opted for moderate center-right  formations--is showing signs of desperation. In 1995, an anti-Western  Islamist party (Welfare), won a plurality with 21 percent of the vote. In  1999, two nationalist parties--the current prime minister Bulent Ecevit's  center-left Democratic Left Party and his deputy Devlet Bahceli's far-right  Nationalist Action Party, garnered 20 and 19 percent of the votes,  respectively. These strange bedfellows then teamed up with Mesut Yilmaz's  center-right Motherland Party to form the ruling coalition. The current  instability of the Turkish electorate is further demonstrated by recent  polls showing that under today's electoral system, the coalition's three  constituent parties would fail to garner the requisite 10 percent of the  vote to remain in parliament. This kind of uncertainty is not conducive to  new thinking, least of all about Cyprus, and could easily activate the  existing nationalist impulses of the current coalition government. Ecevit  is on record as having said that the present division of Cyprus is the most  desirable solution. His poor health and the possibility that his party may  disintegrate should he have to leave office might also make the search for  a solution more difficult. Bahceli, as head of a future coalition led by  his ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party, might use Cyprus as a means  to establish his nationalist credentials.

Rightly or wrongly, the Turkish political-military elite will approach the  Cyprus accession issue as one no less existential in nature than the  Kurdish and Islamist problems of the past decade. There has been little  debate on the merits of the Turkish position and tactics; support for  Denktash has been solid irrespective of events in northern Cyprus. Dissent  on Cyprus, as the Turkish columnist Ferai Tinc points out, is often