Commentary

Resolving the Cyprus Problem

This article appeared on Copley News Service, December 7, 1999.
The old French Embassy stands mute, a ghostly presence in the U.N.-controlled Buffer Zone in Cyprus. It, like scores of other buildings, was abandoned 25 years ago as invading Turkish forces battled ethnic-Greek Cypriot troops in the island’s capital of Nicosia. U.N.-brokered talks, with a major push from Washington, D.C., have begun in New York to end Cyprus’ division. But Washington should beware attempting to impose a short-term fix masquerading as a long-term solution.

Cyprus is one of the most vexing international issues. Settled by the ancient Greeks, the island later fell under the Ottoman Empire, which ceded Cyprus to Great Britain a century ago.

Independence came in 1960 as an uneasy compromise between ethnic Greeks who wanted “enosis,” or union, with Greece, and ethnic Turks who preferred “taksim,” or partition. Britain retained bases on the island and agreed, along with Greece and Turkey, to act as guarantor of the new state.

But the divided government soon broke down, with ethnic Greeks taking full control. Inter-communal violence broke out in 1963, pushing ethnic Turks, about 18 percent of the population, into small enclaves. A U.N. peacekeeping force arrived in 1964, but was unable to prevent continued ethnic killing.

The two sides sharply disagree over causes and casualties. However, argues one American official familiar with the issue, the exact number is less important than the resulting sense of insecurity.

In July 1974, the military junta in Athens fomented a violent coup against the leftish Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. Turkey then led a two-stage invasion, capturing 37 percent of the island, including many of the most economically important areas.

Virtually all ethnic Greeks fled from the north and ethnic Turks abandoned the south, leaving Cyprus effectively ethnically cleansed. The Buffer Zone, established along the cease-fire line, now divides the island and is patrolled by U.N. forces.

Discussions on resolving the impasse commenced almost immediately and have persisted intermittently for a quarter-century. The bitterness of the controversy and depth of antagonism match the barrenness of the lifeless Buffer Zone.

The divide is reflected in the language, which itself is highly political. The current round of negotiations almost foundered because one U.N. communique referred to President Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktash.

Clerides represents the Republic of Cyprus, which is recognized internationally as the government of the entire island. Since only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the United Nations referred to Denktash. But he is demanding official recognition and political equality for Turkish Cypriots.

This is, in fact, the most critical issue. Will there be one sovereign or two? The difference is not easily bridged between proposals for one national government, as recognized today, with substantial zonal autonomy, and two national governments, as demanded by Turkish Cypriots, with cooperation on a few national issues.

There are myriad other vexing issues: mobility between zones, compensation for lost property, security guarantees, presence of Turkish troops, membership in the European Union, accounting for missing people, status of Turkish immigrants. Decide sovereignty, however, and answers to these others should be within (though not easy) reach.

The Clinton administration deserves credit for pushing the “two sides,” as they have been officially termed, to talk. Even though the discussions are with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, not each other, in what are called “proximity” talks.

Greece and Turkey are participating indirectly. Turkey’s application to join the European Union, which requires the acquiescence of Greece, is universally viewed as an informal part of any package deal.

The latest negotiations may set the stage for future progress, but the administration should not attempt to spirit the two leaders off to some isolated location and create a Dayton-like accord for Cyprus. It is critical that any agreement be sustainable over the long term unlike the Dayton treaty for Bosnia.

Today, Bosnia is no closer to real peace than when the agreement was originally signed in 1995. The three different ethnic groups remain locked in a cold war and would prefer to live separately; the “nation” survives only through military occupation by the West; pervasive corruption and favoritism cripple Bosnia’s administration; reconciliation remains an unattainable ideal.

Cyprus cannot afford a similarly unsustainable settlement imposed from outside. Ethnic conflicts are devilishly complicated to resolve. Trust is devilishly difficult to re-establish. Compromises are devilishly hard to make.

The abandoned buildings, barbed-wire fences, and more than 100 minefields in or near the Buffer Zone stand as silent witnesses condemning the hatreds that have divided an island.

A solution to what both sides call the Cyprus problem is long overdue. But Cypriots need a solution that will survive, enabling them to live together in harmony.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.