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
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