This article was last modified on April 17, 2008.

Empire Strikes First: Cyprus

For decades, the island nation of Cyprus has fallen short of complete independence and unity. A Turkish invasion effectively divided the island in half by setting up a de facto rule, although Northern Cyprus has never officially been diplomatically recognized outside of Turkey. This has been called the longest-running conflict in modern Europe. Likewise, military bases remaining on Cyprus from the days of colonial rule undermine the authority of the native population. But today, with the election of a new president — Dimitris Christofias of AKEL (Progressive Party of Working People) — what many thought of as only a dream may soon become a right. Although University of Madison history professor Kemal Karpat warns against being “overly optimistic” regarding a “peaceful unification of Cyprus”, the mounting evidence would appear to support this hope.

During its days of empire, Britain had control over Cyprus, formally declaring it a colony during World War I in order to prevent an Ottoman invasion. The Cypriots unsurprisingly had no desire to be a colony and rebelled multiple times in the following years, most forcefully in 1931 with a violent uprising and the incineration of government buildings. Worth noting is that unlike other leftist parties, AKEL favored negotiations rather than violence to expel Britain. Cyprus finally achieved independence in August 1960, although the British kept two military bases there — Dhekelia and Akrotiri — comprising a total of 256 square kilometers under British sovereignty.

The bases are strategically located close to the Suez Canal and the Middle East, allowing the Royal Air Force a staging post for military aircraft, so their benefit to Britain is not in question. The Cypriot benefits are lacking, however, leading to Christofias calling the bases a “colonial bloodstain”. Recent plans to build British radio towers on the island have also created an outrage, with many Cypriots concerned about possible carcinogens and the destruction of surrounding wildlife. These concerns, as well as a known station used to intercept transmissions for intelligence purposes, are ample cause for Cypriots to demand Britain’s return of the land.

The distinction between “Greek Cypriot” and “Turkish Cypriot” was created by Britain, not the people themselves, causing a division among people who had previously not differentiated their citizens. America also accepted this designation, and even favored a plan for official partition. President Lyndon Johnson suggested such a divide, but the Greek ambassador informed Johnson that the parliament would not accept partition. Johnson was outraged, saying, “f— your Parliament and your Constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. If these two fleas [the other being Greece] continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good … If your Prime Minister gives me talk about Democracy, Parliament and Constitutions, he, his Parliament and his Constitution may not last very long … maybe Greece should rethink the value of a parliament which could not take the right decision.” (Quoted in Lawrence Wittner’s “American Intervention in Greece”)

Johnson’s vision became a reality in July 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus and declared the northern (Turkish) half independent. While not legally recognized to this day, the people of Cyprus have aligned themselves with their respective halves — with more than 210,000 people relocating or becoming displaced.

Turkey’s unilateral invasion was based on their stated belief that Cyprus was in constitutional crisis, as the Cypriot National Guard had attempted a coup on the president. The Guard was being funded by Greece (at that point ruled by military junta) and the Central Intelligence Agency. While some validity can be applied to Turkey’s reasoning (they naturally had a strong interest in the stability of their neighbor), their claim was undermined less than a month later when the presidency was restored and Turkish forces refused to leave or return control of Northern Cyprus. In 1983, after the United Nations demanded the removal of Turkish occupation forces, Northern Cyprus declared independence. The United Nations ruled such a declaration “legally invalid”, their current position to this day. For the past twenty-five years, the island has remained largely unchanged.

Dimitris Christofias, throughout his campaign for president, made reconciliation with the north and the removal of British bases two of his chief focus points. This is not surprising considering his party’s long struggle for an independent and demilitarized Cyprus, and a federal solution to the island’s division. If we are to believe his speeches, this man more than any other is the key to Cypriot autonomy. Christofias spoke powerfully at his swearing in about reconciliation: “The solution of the Cyprus problem is the main reason I made the decision to run for the Presidency,” he told parliament. “The solution of the Cyprus problem will be the top priority of my government.” And he spoke to the north, guaranteeing Turkish Cypriots “all the rights as equal citizens of a united federal Republic of Cyprus.”

The crucial factor in securing Cyprus’ reunification is that both Christofias and Northern Cyprus leader Mehmet Ali Talat want a united Cyprus. Talat had voted in favor of reunification (the so-called Annan Plan) in 2004, only being blocked by the south (under the previous centrist administration). While the northern leader has no legitimate authority, he is seen internationally as a negotiator and still speaks on behalf of the Turkish Cypriots, many of whom are Muslim rather than Christian. The deal would have to be brokered less so between two leaders and more so between two peoples who wish to be one; Talat is a leader who can bring his people to the table. Talat, like Christofias, is a progressive politician (a former union organizer), allowing the men a shared vision on a wide range of issues. A new coalition government is not impossible to foresee.

But there are roadblocks. Professor Karmat outlined his concerns for me, stating, “The two leaders may desire a quick solution, but, as in the past, the ultimate outcome shall be decided by the UK, Turkey and Greece, whose views… do not correspond to those of the island’s inhabitants. There are three points to consider: …the Greek Cypriot population wants to remain the dominant group, Turkey’s military see northern Cyprus as vital to the defense of the mainland and … substantial Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities in the UK, whose influence has been underestimated.” Are the forces for unification able to overcome these potential obstacles?

Sheboygan native Dr. Galen Frysinger recalls visiting northern Cyprus not long ago, which he calls “an interesting land with a lot of history”. But free travel was not to be found, and he points out that “at that time I was not allowed by the Greek portion to cross the border into the South.”

But with the new election, times are changing. The most recent sign of hope came on April 3 when the Ledra Street border crossing, dividing the Greek and Turkish halves of Cyprus, reopened after 44 years, after Greek and Turkish Cypriot officials symbolically cut a ribbon and released balloons. Upon its opening, citizens from both sides immediately began to cross. With the exception of one incident where Greek Cypriot police had to briefly close the street, the historic event went off without a hitch. Could this be a sign of things to come in Cyprus?

With membership in the European Union and their use of the euro, Cyprus is gaining freedom from isolation and outside pressure from either Turkey or Britain. With both Cypriot leaders favoring reunification, and first steps already being implemented, the process seems inevitable. A new day of unity and peace is dawning in the Mediterranean.

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