Turkey, Cyprus and the European Division

by Rebecca Bryant | published February 25, 2007

For background on the Cyprus question, see Rebecca Bryant, “A Dangerous Trend in Cyprus,” Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005). The article is accessible online at:

For background on the killing of Hrant Dink, see Ayşe Kadıoğlu “The Pigeon on the Bridge Is Shot,” Middle East Report Online, February 16, 2007.

More than years after the opening of the ceasefire line that divides Cyprus, the island is closer than ever to rupture. When the Green Line first opened in April 2003, there was an initial period of euphoria, as Cypriots flooded in both directions to visit homes and neighbors left unwillingly behind almost three decades before. But a year later, when a UN plan to reunite the island came to referendum, new divisions emerged. While Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the plan, their Greek Cypriot compatriots rejected it in overwhelming numbers. Visits stalled, and today social relations are mired in an increasingly divisive politics. Recent polls indicate that more Cypriots on both sides of the line favor partition than reunification, while Turkish Cypriots are anxious about a spate of lawsuits over property that they occupied when the island was divided. They perceive these suits as a direct threat to their existence in the absence of an acceptable plan for reunification.

Moreover, in the absence of such a plan, Cyprus has become a key obstacle in Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. Only a week after the fateful referendum in 2004, the Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus itself joined the EU, and immediately began using its membership to put pressure on Turkey. Indeed, the prospect of doing so was one of the main reasons that Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos gave for rejecting the UN reunification plan. Today, the stumbling block is the question of whether Turkey will “recognize” the Republic by opening its ports to ships bearing the Republic of Cyprus flag. The Turkish government has clearly stated that it will open ports only when the economic isolation of Turkish-majority northern Cyprus ends—something promised by the EU after the referendum but never delivered. Turkey had put its full weight behind the reunification plan, which would have ensured the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the northern part of the island. Indeed, the Turkish government was eager to be rid of the Cyprus problem, but subsequent events have shown that it will not be rid of it at all costs.

Contrary to what many analysts expected and hoped for so long, the bumbling entry of the European Union into the Cyprus equation has produced only an insoluble tangle. Local actors now use their access to EU legal and political mechanisms to threaten, bluff and bully their way into a future that looks more and more like partition. Turkey’s journey toward the EU may run aground on Cyprus’ shores. And as usual, it is Turkish Cypriots who are caught in between, unable to rid themselves of Turkey’s presence and unable to have their own political presence recognized by their Greek compatriots.

Unite and Divide

Not long after the referendum, a Greek Cypriot refugee told me something that seemed boldly to summarize the growing mood in the south. Like many refugees, she refuses to cross the ceasefire line to visit her home in the north, saying that she will not be a tourist in her own country. But it soon became clear that her refusal meant something very specific in political terms. Such refugees desire a full return to their villages and the recreation of their communities—something that would not have been allowed under the UN reunification plan. But the plan was only the latest instantiation of the idea of a federal government uniting two, ethnic states, an idea to which the Republic has paid lip service for more than 30 years. The refugee woman’s position, however, was clear: “Either we will return to the 1960 constitution and all refugees will go back to their homes, or we’ll continue to live in our dreams.” In other words, there would either be a unitary state in which Turkish Cypriots would return to their status as a minority, or, in her words, a wall should be built to keep them apart.

Internally displaced persons and their descendants make up about a third of the Greek Cypriot population and so constitute the single most important interest group in the south. Moreover, many refugees are closely tied to the refugee organizations that sprang up around lost villages and towns to fill the gap created by the loss of their communities. Not surprisingly, refugees were the key group to which much propaganda was addressed during the period leading up to the referendum. During that time, minute calculations of land to be regained and numbers of refugees to return eclipsed serious discussion of a federal state or the process of reconciliation. It became clear that there were many contradictions in the Republic’s stance on reunification, the most obvious being an avowal of support for a federal state while at the same time insisting on the absolute return of all displaced persons to their original homes. 

Indeed, in all its actions since, the Republic has made it increasingly clear that a federal state simply is not on the agenda. Interestingly, it is actually EU membership that has allowed the Republic to take this stance, enabling them directly to pressure Turkey without having to negotiate with Turkish Cypriots. In a November 2006 interview with the Turkish Cypriot Kıbrıs-TV, Greek Cypriot Minister of Foreign Relations Yiorgos Lillikas reiterated that the only interlocutor the Republic of Cyprus will recognize is Turkey. Indeed, until a brief meeting in July 2006, Papadopoulos had refused since the referendum to meet with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, on these grounds. “Look, the Cyprus problem is becoming more and more confused every day,” Lillikas remarked. “We say, our interlocutor on this subject is not Mr. Talat, it’s Turkey. But because neither Talat nor Turkey accepts this, we’re constantly experiencing differences of opinion.”

The Republic insists that it is really Turkey that controls what happens, and that Talat is an insignificant player. But the Republic also operates with a limited understanding of Turkish politics or of the complex relation between Turkey and its de facto colony in northern Cyprus. At the height of his power and popularity, former Turkish Cypriot president Rauf Denktaş was known for his ability to make or break governments in Turkey. The 1974 Cyprus intervention is a matter of Turkish national pride, and the recent rebellion of Turkish Cypriots against their “protectors” has soured relations, leading many Turks to call their Cypriot counterparts ungrateful. After sweeping to power in 2002 elections, the Justice and Development Party adopted a surprisingly compromising stance on Cyprus. While this softened line was initially unpopular, the demise of Denktaş and the rise in Cyprus of a party that seeks freedom from Turkish colonial rule has shaken popular attitudes toward the problem. 

What it has not shaken, however, is the refusal to be blackmailed. In July 2006, the Justice and Development Party published a booklet entitled “The European Union in One Hundred Questions.” The primary aim of the booklet seems to have been to dispel fears that EU requirements would divide the country or that the government would bow to demands that would damage national “honor.” Its stance on the recognition of the Republic is clear: “In the present circumstances Turkey cannot recognize the Greek administration of Cyprus under the name the Republic of Cyprus. Political recognition will come only when a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem can be found.” The Republic and its EU allies appear to believe that the Turkish government is simply bluffing and that it would not rebuff the chance at EU membership. Unfortunately, things are not as simple as that.

In the past, US support for the Turkish military overlooked that military’s anti-democratic tendencies in favor of its supposedly secularist ones. When Turkey’s EU candidacy became a real possibility, the support of another power besides the US became a balance that enabled the development of a stronger democracy in the country, one that might make the military answerable to the government rather than the other way around. But European support for Turkey’s candidacy has been wavering and contradictory, and many Turks now believe that the EU will simply continue to erect new hurdles before an ever receding finish line. Many Turkish analysts agree that giving in to the Republic of Cyprus’ demands will accomplish nothing, because new demands will appear to take their place. Turks recognize, moreover, that the Republic’s hardline approach conveniently dovetails with the desires of extremists in the EU to exclude Turkey at all costs. 

One of the unfortunate costs has been the shattering of political stability in Turkey, as the Cyprus problem becomes a wedge to drive in further divisions. In the summer of 2005, a middle-aged Turkish Cypriot woman hinted to me that she is an ülkücü, a word that literally means “idealist” but has come to connote members of a wide coalition of fringe, fascist-nationalist organizations based in Turkey that also have supporters in Cyprus. The most famous of such supporters is Denktaş, known for his association with the Gray Wolves, an organization infamous for its use of violence and provocation. When the Turkish Cypriot woman discussed her involvement in the larger web of ülkücü politics, she also angrily threatened that they would never allow the Turkish government to “sell out” Cyprus. Indeed, she hinted that they would go so far as to overthrow the Turkish government to prevent it. 

Although her threat appeared toothless at the time, such threats from the periphery nevertheless produce a sense of disquiet. Indeed, provocations in Turkey over the next months appeared to have links to Turkish nationalists in Cyprus. The assassination in May 2006 of a High Court judge in Ankara, originally blamed on Islamists, eventually was linked to one Muzaffer Tekin, a retired army officer with ties both to radical organizations in northern Cyprus and the Turkish “deep state”—the term used for a nexus of military officers, police chiefs and far-right paramilitary groups existing in parallel to the official Turkish state. The assassination marked the crest of a wave of radical dissatisfaction with the Justice and Development Party government, known for its neo-liberal policies, its desire for integration into Europe and its Islamist past. And many analysts link the January 2007 assassination of respected Armenian Turkish journalist Hrant Dink to the isolationism and rising nationalism that European attitudes have produced. That nationalism was fueled by a recent EU decision to freeze segments of Turkey’s admission negotiations after the country’s refusal to open its ports to Nicosia’s ships. Although Turkish Cypriots themselves have largely stayed out of the fray, Cyprus has again come to the fore as a symbol of all that Turkey stands to lose as it stumbles westward.

Support among the Turkish public for EU membership has now fallen to an all-time low, in part because of the ways in which the EU allows the Republic of Cyprus to use its membership. But it should be no surprise that the same EU that allowed a divided Cyprus to enter as a political anomaly is now using that anomaly to put obstacles in the way of Turkey’s EU bid.

Lawfare in the New Cyprus

After the opening of the Green Line, many Turkish Cypriots traveled to the south to claim advantages available to them as technical citizens of the Republic.  Many acquired EU passports, while others began to work or to use the south’s better-equipped medical facilities. Still others sent their children to the English School, an institution established in the early British colonial period that was intended to quell nationalist fervor by producing an elite that would be loyal to the Crown. Ironically, many politicians who played an important role in the island’s division, including Denktaş and former Greek Cypriot president Glafkos Clerides, emerged from that school.

The school has a history of producing graduates who have gone on to study in the best universities in Britain and who have subsequently become community leaders. It should not be surprising, then, that almost 70 Turkish Cypriot families chose to send their children to the school, as soon as they gained access. As with all such gestures, this was heralded as a step in the direction of bicommunal harmony and reconciliation, and by all reports students in the school managed well together until an incident in early December that shocked and worried both communities.

Although reports are contradictory, it appears that a 12-year old Turkish Cypriot boy took offense when he saw a Greek classmate wearing a cross. Reportedly, they argued, possibly fought, and the Turkish Cypriot boy became angry and spat on the ground. The right-wing Greek Cypriot newspapers Simerini and Machi printed inflammatory stories claiming that the Turkish boy spat on the cross and that the school implemented a ban on religious symbols. The furor that resulted culminated when about 20 masked Greek Cypriot youths dressed in black entered the school from outside and attacked five Turkish Cypriot boys. The boys’ Greek classmates intervened and little serious damage was done, but the shock has rippled throughout the island. Reports linked the youths to neo-Orthodox fascist organizations with ties to Greece and names such as “Golden Dawn” (Chrisi Avgi). Such organizations have been increasingly visible since the opening of the Green Line, so far with only isolated incidents involving Turkish Cypriots.

At the same time, many Cypriots discuss the rise of these organizations and the English School incident as the predictable outcome of policies that have divided the communities since the ceasefire line opened. The most divisive of such policies has been the Republic’s implicit and explicit sanction of lawsuits over property that have created much ill will between the communities. In November 2004, the decision of one Greek Cypriot refugee to bring a lawsuit against a British couple who had built a villa on his property in the north sparked a series of such cases that also encompassed Turkish Cypriots. Soon Turkish Cypriots opened their own suits, mostly for the expropriation of their properties by the government in the south. Ironically, it was the open Green Line and the Republic’s EU entry that allowed this litigation to take place, since decisions may be appealed to European courts and enforced by EU law, if enforcement remains impossible in Cyprus. Not surprisingly, the Greek Cypriot refugee won his case against the British couple, and that case has now been remanded to Britain, where he hopes to seize the couple’s property there.

Only a few days before the English School incident, President Papadopoulos announced the passage of a law that criminalizes the sale of Greek Cypriot property in the north, in the unrecognized Turkish Cypriot state. Following the division of the island in 1974, Turkish Cypriots had settled in abandoned Greek Cypriot properties, and the government in the north eventually issued titles that allowed them to sell those properties. Now such sales have become criminal offenses, subject to five years in prison. The use of such legal mechanisms, encouraged and made possible by the Republic’s EU membership, is an instance of what has come to be known as “lawfare,” or the continuation of conflict by legal means. Clearly, that legal battle is escalating.

Although President Papadopoulos dismissed the November attack on the Turkish Cypriot boys as the work of “brainless thugs,” Turkish Cypriot president Talat saw it as a natural outcome of Papadopoulos’ own policies. “Whatever face you show to your people, that’s how they’ll behave,” Talat noted in an address that month. “If you design a law that includes Turkish Cypriots living in Greek property, and if you declare that Turkish Cypriots are criminals and say that you’re going to put them in jail, how would you expect the Greek Cypriot people to behave?”

The escalation of tensions has everyone on edge, waiting for an explosion. Only a day after the English School incident, Turkish Cypriots crossing to the south reported that Greek Cypriot police at the ceasefire line refused to accept their identity cards from the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, insisting that they would be able to cross only with Republic of Cyprus identity cards. Many Turkish Cypriots had acquired those cards, along with EU passports, when the ceasefire line opened; others refused to do so on principle.  By the following day, this “policy” had changed, and Turkish Cypriots were able to cross. Unfortunately, it is precisely such whims that in the past have proven so divisive.

Extreme Makeover?

What has become strikingly clear in all of this is that the political use of EU membership has only encouraged the rise of a militant nationalism that leaves no room for compromises such as federation. Before the opening of the Green Line, many activists and analysts still hoped for the development of a multicultural, civic nationalism in the island that would entail loyalty to a federal state. But at a recent conference on nationalism in Nicosia, a number of Cypriot scholars openly discussed the demise of Greek and Turkish nationalisms in the island and the emergence of Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot nationalisms that express identification with the island while rejecting its cultural or political unity. Certainly, the communities are divided by the interests that those loyalties serve, and by the ways in which the transnational configuration of the EU has given new impetus to local longings.

In Turkish folk literature, the clownish Nasrettin Hoca is a staple figure, and there are hundreds of stories and anecdotes about his misguided foolishness. In one such story, Nasrettin Hoca finds a stork, whose beak and legs he proceeds to amputate in order to make it resemble a “real” bird. The phrase, “Kuşa benzettım” (“I made it look like a bird”) refers to the ways in which one may destroy something with one’s good intentions. 

The stumbling of the EU into the Cyprus morass unfortunately calls to mind the stork’s sad story. The island has certainly become a more and more European “bird,” with a booming economy in the south and all the superficial signs of “Europeanness,” such as Gucci boutiques and chic outdoor cafés. Turkish Cypriots, too, have benefited, especially economically and educationally, if at a slower pace than their wealthier, recognized neighbors. But there has been much lost politically. In contrast to the years prior to the Republic’s EU entry, Greek Cypriot politicians have now begun to proclaim that they will not “give up” the Republic, despite previous avowals to support a federal solution that would have dissolved it. Even Turkish Cypriots, who had supported a federal solution, appear to be drawing back from it, retreating into a protection of what is already in hand.  That retreat also by necessity entangles Turkey, whose troops in the island are the only thing giving Turkish Cypriots a position from which to bargain. And so one can only wonder what sort of “bird” the island may resemble when its makeover is complete.

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CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that a majority of Greek Cypriots favor partition. In fact, recent polls show that a plurality of Greek Cypriots favor partition, as do a majority of Turkish Cypriots.three

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