"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."

"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Don't forget the basics: Why Turkey must be directly involved in the talks

This article first appeared on 17 April, 2008 in In Depth, a bimonthly electronic newsletter of the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs, which is affiliated with the University of Nicosia.

Watching the fanfare in the media, particularly the foreign press, it is hard not to get caught up in the spirit of ‘change.’ As if to bolster the argument against the skeptics, there is progress to show: Ledra Street underwent a historic change with its opening to traffic between the two sides of Nicosia; and the chief negotiators of the two communities have nearly completed the list of 13 subjects that working teams will negotiate. In light of the short period after the election of Demetris Christofias to the Presidency that these developments occurred, this is undoubtedly progress. But for many Greek Cypriots, and veteran observers of developments in Cyprus, there is something fundamental that is missing: the issue of occupation.

Since the early 1980s the issue of the Turkish occupation of the northern third of the island and Ankara’s central role in altering ‘facts on the ground’ in Cyprus has been systematically pushed to the bottom of the agenda. For much of the period after the 1977 agreements on a bizonal federation, and until he stepped down in 2005, the focus of much of the negotiating efforts centered on ways to soften the intransigence of the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash. The decades focused on Denktash contributed to an illusion that essentially, and one might add conveniently for certain parties, diverted attention from the basic fact that Turkey and its army were at the crux of the imposed changes on the Cypriot population.

While it is of utmost importance to hold bicommunal talks on a workable settlement to the internal dispute on the island, it is paramount that the issue of Turkish occupation of Cypriot sovereign territory be dealt with in parallel. There are three central reasons for this.

First, it is almost comical to pretend that the self-declared Turkish Cypriot statelet is anything but a creation of Ankara and a direct expression of Turkey’s efforts to irretrievably alter historical conditions on the ground, contravening agreements to which Ankara is signatory.

Second, Turkey has exclusive say on security issues over the territory of Cyprus it controls and over the Turkish Cypriot community; occasionally Ankara also seeks to extent that influence over all parts of Cyprus and beyond it. Most recently this occurred in relation to plans for offshore oil and gas exploration in an area to the southwest of the island.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Turkey links Cyprus to many of its broader strategic goals and fluctuations in these affect Ankara’s attitudes in Cyprus. Thus, its relations with the European Union, its territorial claims in the Aegean, and its ambitions of influence in the Balkans, all affect its approach in Cyprus. Turkey’s European ambitions have already been integrated into the 2004 Annan Plan and it is hard to imagine how it will be possible to decouple this issue from any future solution in Cyprus.

Had Ankara merely retained troops on the island as a safeguard of an interim status quo, until territorial and constitutional agreements were reached between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, then perhaps the issue of Turkish role in Cyprus could have been left on the back burner. But Ankara is actively working to delegitimize the Republic of Cyprus, whose establishment it backed, whose constitutional status quo it claimed to seek to restore by its invasion, and whose territorial integrity it guarantees (at least on paper). Similarly, Ankara has consistently and aggressively Turkified the Turkish Cypriot community, by an infusion of tens of thousands of immigrants from mainland Turkey. How then is it possible to negotiate solely on the bicommunal level, ignoring the dominant role that Ankara plays on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots, as well at their expense?

Turkey has consistently avoided direct negotiations with the Greek Cypriots and has been insufficiently pressed to partake in these. In part this stems from the same patronizing attitude which dominates Ankara’s relationship with the Turkish Cypriots, and also by extension an effort to reassert an imperial mantle over the entire island. But it is also part of a concerted effort to skirt its responsibilities, its violations of fundamentals of international law, and its wish to legitimize a post-1974 fait accompli.

While not many Greek Cypriots still believe that Cyprus can be restored to a 1974 ante status quo, any resolution to the Cyprus question involves Turkey, and it is important to pursue a parallel effort that would bring Turkey directly into the negotiations. All leverage should be brought to bear in this effort, not least of which should be a public relations campaign among decision makers in European capitals but also in Washington. However, ultimately, by restoring the basics to the negotiating table, the Greek Cypriots will be able to gauge Ankara’s reaction to any developments in talks with the Turkish Cypriots. Let’s call it a litmus test to Turkey’s real intent.

Michalis Firillas
17 April, 2008

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