“The Cyprus problem has to be seen as part of the struggle between pro-European forces and those who resist democracy in Turkey,” explained Izzet Izcan, one of the organizers of the mass demonstrations on the Turkish side of Nicosia last December that began the avalanche of change now sweeping the island. After 38 years of armed confrontation, Turkish-speaking Cypriots and their Greek-speaking fellow-citizens are finally speaking to each other again.
They are even visiting across the Green Line that has divided the island since 1974, when the colonels who ruled Greece backed a coup in Nicosia aimed at uniting the whole island with Greece. Turkey replied with an invasion that linked up most of the besieged Turkish-Cypriot communities in the north and turned 200,000 Greek-Cypriots into refugees. But since the Green Line crossings were opened on April 22, at least 15 per cent of the entire Cypriot population has crossed, often to visit the homes they lost in 1974.
Whether this is really the beginning of the end of the “Cyprus problem” depends mostly on the outcome of the struggle between Turkish-Cypriot president, Rauf Denktash, and the Turkish general staff on one side, and Turkey’s new prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other. Erdogan has already successfully defied the Turkish army on the issue of letting the United States of America use Turkish territory for the invasion of Iraq, and he is equally iconoclastic about Cyprus.
In Erdogan’s eyes, the future of 70 million Turks is far more important than one stubborn old man, and Erdogan believes that the future lies with the European Union. Turkey got a promise from the EU last December to begin negotiations for entry “without delay” once it passes a progress review on its human rights reforms late next year, but if Cyprus stays divided, everything could go horribly wrong. Cyprus would join the EU next year under its internationally recognized government (which in practice only rules over Greek-Cypriots), and the 35,000 Turkish troops based in Denktash’s “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” would then end up occupying what is legally EU territory.
Nobody wants the mess that it would cause, so the United Nations went in last year with a peace plan for a reunited Cyprus with two highly autonomous provinces under a weak central government. Greece and Turkey, the two mother-countries, backed it; President Glafcos Clerides of Cyprus backed it — and Denktash rejected it. His power is based on the old fear and hatred between Greeks and Turks, and he even discourages informal contacts between the two groups. “I’ve heard the only thing people seem to do at these meetings is have sex,” he said two years ago.
Greek-Cypriots, frustrated by Denktash’s eternal stone-walling, elected hard-line nationalist Tassos Papadopoulos as president early this year, but that setback to re-unification was more than counter-balanced by the fact that time suddenly ran out for Denktash. Most of the Turkish-Cypriot opposition parties, unions and NGOs got together and challenged Denktash’s power at home — and in Ankara, Erdogan began to break the stranglehold of the Turkish military on policy towards Cyprus.
Denktash’s sudden decision last month to open the border was initially just an attempt to release some of the pressure from Turkish-Cypriots for change, but it is rapidly transforming the siege mentality that kept him in power for so long. Papadopoulos’s government has responded intelligently, ending the economic blockade of the Turkish north that has done so much to keep Turkish-Cypriots poor.
That is a benefit that few Turkish-Cypriots will want to lose again. Turkey will not allow the Cyprus problem to wreck its hopes for EU membership, and Greece will back Turkey all the way. (Athens clearly understands that it is safer with the EU’s eastern border a long, long way east of Greece.) So Denktash will probably be dealt with one way or another, and Cyprus will join the EU next year as a reunited country.