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Experimental Station

The Cyprus Triangle

by R.R. Denktash
Allen and Unwin, 222 pp., $17.95

Thomas Aquinas never completed De Regno, his treatise on the principles of government. But he addressed its unfinished portion to King Hugh II of Cyprus, prompting Sir George Hill to comment, in his history of the island:

It was fondly hoped that the throne of Cyprus was an experimental station in which principles which commended themselves to the active thinkers of their times could be treated with a chance of favorable results.

Modern times appear to ridicule this “fond hope.” As an “experimental station,” Cyprus is considered by statesmen and diplomats as either a venomous nuisance or as a nest of intrigue. On the international scale of apparently permanent insolubles, it rates somewhere below Lebanon and above East Timor. Thickly forested with radio masts, it has become a spy station, a convenient rendezvous for agents of all sides in the Middle East drama, a sort of Levantine equivalent of Tangier. Dr. Henry Kissinger dealt only briefly with Cyprus in his recent memoir, reserving a fuller consideration to a later volume. In the few paragraphs he could spare for the country he had altered so radically, he described it as the site of “primeval hatred of Greeks and Turks,” “blood feuds” and “atavistic bitternesses,” “a lethal cocktail.”

At first sight, the island may seem to live up to this poor reputation. It is divided by an east to west line, drawn by the invading army of Turkey in 1974. This line has created a species of apartheid, because the Turks are exclusively to the north of it, the Greeks exclusively to the south, and it may not be crossed by civilians. To the north lie some 115,000 Turkish Cypriots, 18 percent of the total population. Together with the Turkish army (which numbers almost 20,000 soldiers) they occupy 36 percent of the territory and more than 60 percent of the productive and developed land. They are presided over by the author of the book under review, who has been head of the Turkish Federated State of Cyprus since it proclaimed itself unilaterally in 1975.

To the south (the military partition runs through the capital city of Nicosia) is the Republic of Cyprus, still recognized internationally as the sovereign government of the whole island. Its population, some 82 percent of the total (there are small but active communities of Armenians and Maronites), is Greek. One-third of them, some 200,000, are refugees who fled the advancing Turks in 1974 or who were expelled from the north in the course of the following year. The president of the Republic, Spyros Kyprianou, succeeded the late Archbishop Makarios in 1977.

In this small compass is reflected the dispute between Greece and Turkey. Its essential complexity arises from the fact that (as in the cases of Northern Ireland and Palestine) both communities regard themselves as the oppressed and endangered minority. Within the island, Greeks predominate to a degree that frightens the Turks. But on a clear day, mainland Turkey can be seen from the northern coast, while Greece is many miles away.

This consideration did not inhibit, in July 1974, the desperate and enfeebled Greek military junta. It staged a coup on the island, and installed an unsavory gunman named Nicos Sampson as its proxy. The aim was to annex Cyprus to Greece, thus rescuing the junta from its domestic unpopularity and (more important) ingratiating it with those in the Nixon-Kissinger administration who disliked the “dangerous neutralist” Archbishop Makarios. The Archbishop survived the coup and fled into temporary exile. The Sampson regime massacred dissident Greeks and Turks, but lasted only nine days.

That was enough to provoke a Turkish counterattack. On the pretext of restoring the constitution and protecting the minority, the Turkish army put into effect a long-rehearsed contingency plan. By the time the smoke had lifted, thousands of Cypriots had been killed, both the parent and the bastard Greek junta had fallen, and the Turkish army was firmly entrenched. The Cyprus invasion, known by the rather tactless code name of Attilla, was a step in the aggrandizement of the Turkish generals. Mr. Bulent Ecevit, the prime minister who unleashed the soldiers, is now the prisoner of the Turkish military regime. Dr. Andreas Papandreou, who was imprisoned by the Greek junta and then went into exile, was brought back to Athens by the Cyprus catastrophe. He has ever since been in a position to claim that in Greece it is the left and not the right who are patriotic.

These considerations alone should promote Cyprus out of the category of forgotten or “atavistic” questions. Its affairs have had—and have still—a direct and decisive influence on the survival of democracy in two NATO countries. Yet it remains somehow on the periphery of our vision, only coming into focus when its unique strategic position demands, or when some exotic event, such as the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut, requires the use of its territory. Cyprus (I’m speaking here of the Republic) is the only state in the region which maintains embassies from both Israel and the PLO. It contains 100 square miles of Anglo-American air bases and monitoring stations. It has, in proportion to population, the largest nonruling Communist Party in the world, which regularly commands about 35 percent of the Greek Cypriot voters. As Saki made one of his characters say about Crete, Cyprus seems to produce more history than it can consume locally.

Since 1945, Cyprus has been the scene of an anticolonial war, a near civil war, a military coup, a full-scale invasion, and the only battle in which two NATO armies fired directly on one another. One approximate way to summarize and preface the argument is to show how variously the Greeks and the Turks interpret the past.

The Greek Cypriot sense of history is based on a consciousness of survival. Since 1400 BC the island has been predominantly Greek-speaking. But until 1960 it never had a Greek-speaking ruler. Phoenicia, Persia, the Ptolemies, and the Romans ruled Cyprus in antiquity. Byzantine, Lusignan, Venetian, and Ottoman rule succeeded. The British Empire held the island as a key to Suez and therefore India. Throughout all of this, or at any rate, for most of the last two thousand years, the Cypriot majority have held together and kept their identity because of their language and their Christian church—the latter claiming to be one of the oldest communions in existence. It is not surprising that the battle for independence in this century should have been led by an archbishop.

Unlike, say, the island of Rhodes (which became politically part of Greece only in 1947) Cyprus has been prevented by distance and by foreigners from uniting itself with Greece. For much of the Fifties, Greek Cypriots fought a bitter guerrilla war against London for the right to enosis—union with Greece. The British, supported throughout by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership, resisted this demand and only conceded a form of independence in 1960 on condition that Greece and the Greek Cypriots drop this claim. The leftists in Cyprus preferred independence anyway, because they feared the power of the right on the Greek mainland. But Turkish pressure was resented and in nationalist circles the dream of enosis was kept alive. To Archbishop Makarios, first president of the new state, it made sense to steer a course between the Greek right, the Greek left, and the Turks who distrusted him as a prelate. He used his prestige as an anticolonialist to make alliances in the third world.

In this way, fourteen years passed under Makarios during which the island became highly prosperous—prosperous enough to postpone if not to resolve the underlying Greek-Turkish distrust. Fighting broke out between the Greeks loyal to Makarios and the Turkish minority in 1963. The Turkish Cypriots began to press for a partition of the island, and were supported in this by the Turkish government in Ankara. Neither side, however, was strong enough to outdo the other without foreign intervention. This came from the Athens junta. Ironically, the most passionate Cypriot Hellenist is thus compelled to face the fact that Greece opened the door to the Turkish invader by its plot to install Sampson in 1974. The complicity—not to say collusion—of Secretary of State Kissinger in both the Greek subversion of Cyprus and the Turkish occupation of it only reinforces the Greek Cypriot view that history is a cycle of enemies and occupiers.*

From the Turkish perspective, Cypriot history is no less replete with grievance. It is, however, more brief and more simple. Mr. Denktash in his book is content to give the past a mere two paragraphs, in which he deals with the period between 1571, when the Turks took Cyprus from Venice, and the present day. The Ottoman Empire, so runs the argument, was the rightful master of the island. It lost Greece to the Greeks, but in Cyprus it held on until cheated by the perfidious British. In 1878, Disraeli acquired the island from the Turkish Sultan in exchange for some dubious guarantees for Turkey against the czar. (Queen Victoria wrote to him that “High and Low are delighted, except Mr. Gladstone who is frantic.”) In 1915, after Turkey had allied itself with the Kaiser’s Germany, Britain annexed the island fully. In Turkish eyes, that raised the unacceptable possibility of Cyprus one day joining the ring of Greek islands around Turkey. Throughout this century, Turkey’s principal aim has been to prevent that outcome.

In Mr. Denktash, Turkey has found an able and diligent executive. Trained in London as a lawyer, he is, as all who have met him will confirm, an exceedingly agile and tough politician. After years of struggle, he has succeeded in helping to found the first mini-state in Europe since 1945 and in bringing about the first forcible change of boundary and exchange of population in Europe since that date. Yet his book, which sets itself the task of justifying the Turkish invasion and partition, is oddly dull and bloodless, consisting largely of his collected UN speeches and other reprints and hand-outs. Nowhere does he mention, as he did in his last book, that Turkey had done much to defend British colonial rule. Nowhere does he describe his part, in 1955, in raising a Turkish-backed guerrilla force (the tmt) to counter the demands of the Greek Cypriot majority. Nor does he acknowledge the long-held designs of Turkey on the island or its long advocacy of partition. Instead, he gives a litany of quotations, all purporting to show that Archbishop Makarios never really abandoned the ideal of enosis. Though some of Mr. Denktash’s quotations from Makarios are given without sources, there is no doubt that Makarios often spoke of “the Greek motherland.”

The fact remains that “Hellenist” though he was to the last, he risked his life to wean the Greek Cypriots away from enosis and toward independence. In doing so, he alienated that section of the Turkish Cypriot leadership, led by Mr. Denktash, whose prime loyalty was to Ankara. He also incurred the murderous anger of the extreme right in Greece, who saw him as a clerical traitor to the national sacred cause. Finally, he earned the distrust and the dislike of senior American statesmen who thought of him as a “Mediterranean Castro,” and who desired to divide the island in order to reward their political and military allies in both Greece and Turkey. That plan, first put forward by Dean Acheson in 1964, had a certain rationality. It did not, for instance, allot the island to Greeks and Turks in such unfair proportions as does the present partition. But it would have meant the end of Cyprus as a state, only four years after independence had been dearly bought. As such, it was against the decided wish of most of the people on the island.

Successive attempts to invoke the partition plan were made nonetheless. At first, these efforts were channeled through the pliant junta in Athens, which was given to understand that the lion’s share would be Greek. When that failed, the US “tilted” to Turkey, which holds the lion’s share today.

The “Turkish Federated State of Cyprus,” of which Denktash is “president,” is recognized only by Turkey which, alone of the member states of the UN, does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus or its right to exist. In theory, it is a provisional government, awaiting settlement of the wider differences. In practice, it is an attempt to create facts. It has removed, so far as is possible, every trace of the millennia of Greek settlement—deconsecrating churches for use as mosques, exporting antiquities and icons for sale on the mainland or open market, bringing in settlers from Anatolia (who are much resented by the Cypriot Turks), changing the currency and linking the economy (with unfortunate results for consumers and producers alike) to Turkey’s. In times of political stalemate Mr. Denktash has spoken of proclaiming a “unilateral declaration of independence.” This would only hasten de facto annexation by Turkey since there is no room on the island for an enduring system of two states and the existing facilities for transport, communications, etc., cannot support two economies.

There is tragedy in this, and not only for the Greeks. When the fanatical squadristi of the junta seized power in Cyprus in 1974, many Greek Cypriots actually welcomed the first Turkish landings as a deliverance. Greece had deliberately done something harmful to Cyprus, and Turkey could have acted generously and intelligently to redress the injustice. Instead, the Turkish government moved to annex territory, to expel settled populations, and to import colonists. This has led to a situation where the worst passions can easily be stirred. It is also one of the causes of Turkey’s current resentful isolation behind a curtain of martial law from the other European nations.

For many Greeks, the drama in Cyprus is familiar. The Turks have used minorities before to tighten their hold on a disputed territory. They seized the Hatay province of Syria and its port of Alexandretta in just the same way during the late 1930s. They pushed the Greeks out of Smyrna and Asia Minor a little earlier. They have steadily reduced the Greek population of Istanbul. On his visit to Cyprus in February 1982—the first ever by a Greek prime minister—Andreas Papandreou spoke of the “shrinkage of Hellenism” that had taken place in this century. In his eyes, the Cyprus conflict has become an allegory of the wider contest over the Aegean and the islands. This line is popular with the Greek mainland electorate, which sees American favoritism being lavished on Turkey in the form of arms and aid. But it also obliges Papandreou to prepare for a possible showdown in Cyprus. When he says that the removal of the Turkish army is a principal test of his administration, he means it. Many Greeks might devoutly wish that Cyprus would disappear, but as matters now stand it is an insistent reminder of their past (the battle for national independence), their present (the legacy of the junta and its crimes), and therefore their future.

Mr. Denktash thinks that if these Greek dreams are ever realized, his Turkish Cypriot constituency will be either physically or politically liquidated. Running through his book is the image of the Turkish Cypriots as a small, embattled, threatened community. He never alludes to the proximity of Turkey, except when he says, revealingly:

The Turkish Cypriot community looks upon Turkey as the motherland and as a guarantor and begs and demands that its protection should not be withdrawn from us.

What he does emphasize, repeatedly, is the supposed desire of the Greeks to dominate or to expel the Turks. During the 1960s, gangs of Greek extremists terrorized Turkish villages. They did not regard their inhabitants as a Cypriot minority, but rather as a kind of Sudeten wedge or Trojan horse, sworn to regain Cyprus as a Turkish province. This racial obsession led to some terrible atrocities. The Turkish Cypriots have not forgotten them.

Still, Turks have had the upper hand in Cyprus, with or without British help, for many decades. And they have it again today. With their 20,000 soldiers they are the rulers in the north and they seek, through negotiations, to become partners in the south as well. Mr. Denktash is at least as much the satrap of an occupying power as he is the spokesman of a minority. In order to point up this distinction, Dr. Papandreou’s government recently proposed to the United Nations that the Turkish army withdraw from Cyprus. If it did so, so ran the proposal, Greece would pay the difference in the UN budget that would be necessary to expand the UN peacekeeping force on the island. A force of mixed European contingents has been there since 1964. The Greek side is also prepared to pay for troops from Islamic countries to be stationed on Cyprus to protect the Turks—if that is what the Turks would want.

Greece has the right to propose this solution, because along with Turkey and with Britain it is one of the signers of the Treaty of Guarantee which established the Cyprus Republic in 1960. The Turkish junta has so far refused to discuss the idea. The question must therefore be asked whether Turkey thinks of Cyprus as a permanent conquest. If so, the patience of the 200,000 Cypriot refugees who were pushed out of a large part of the island may not be inexhaustible. It would be cynical to use the understandable fears of the Turkish minority to justify a prolonged takeover of Greek Cypriot land.

Though the Turkish army seems determined to stay for a long time, it should leave Cyprus. It should do so for the sake of Turkey’s own political health and to avoid a revival of precisely that “atavism” that it claims to cure. And it should do so in order to allow Cyprus to resume an independent existence. Majorities have rights too.

  1. *

    See Lawrence Stern, The Wrong Horse: The Politics of Intervention and the Failure of American Diplomacy (Times Books, 1977).