Last month the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its founding. Surviving four decades is a long time for a state whose establishment was seen as temporary, a means to strengthen the hand of the Turkish side in the negotiations for unification, an aspiration that failed. There was no question that negotiations aimed to terminate the autonomy of the north where an ethnically homogeneous Turkish enclave with a Türkiye supported administration had grown, a goal both the US and the EU actively pursued.
Greek and Turkish sides conducted negotiations under the auspices of the UN. It became clear over time, however, that the Greek side never accepted the numerically fewer Turks, as equal partners in rebuilding the republic that fell apart in 1963 when President Makarios announced that the 1960 constitution of independence was unworkable. Ever since Turks have been excluded from government and constituted the target of violence and murders to drive them away or acquiesce to minority status. In 1964 these acts of violence had prompted Türkiye to consider landing forces on the island, but it was crudely dissuaded by President Johnson from doing so.
After a military junta took over government in Greece, it worked with pro-union Cypriot elements to make join Greece. In contrast to the Colonels, Cypriot President Makarios, although initially a proponent of union with Greece (Enosis), had gradually moved toward favoring an independent country. In 1974 Nikos Samson supported both by pro-union terrorist organization EOKA and the military junta in mainland tried forcibly to take over the Island’s government and unite it with Greece. As one of the guarantors of independent Cyprus, Türkiye invited the other guarantor Britain to intervene together to prevent such an outcome. When Britain declined, it proceeded to do so unilaterally. Samson failed while the Greek junta had to let go of power. In the meantime, Turks in different parts of the Island moved to the North and Greeks to the South leading to the separation of the two major ethnic groups.
The next few years were spent trying to find a formula to reconstruct the Cypriot state but to no avail. At the end of 1983, the North declared independence, simultaneously making clear that they were ready to unite with the Greek Cyprus if accepted as equal partners but not as a minority in what otherwise would be a Greek state. In the meantime, Greece though not ready for membership, joined the EU with the strong support of France, presumably to ensure that the military would not return to power. In this way, the EU became party on the Greek side to Turkish-Greek disputes. The strength of Greece’s position underwent a major test when Greece pushed for Cyprus to join the EU along with East European states that had been liberated from Soviet domination. Although the status of Cyprus was unsettled, meaning that it would not be allowed to join the Union until it achieved a “solution”, the rule was cast aside in the face of a Greek threat that they would veto the entire expansion process unless Cyprus was also included.
The EU had assumed that in its drive to join it, Türkiye would accommodate itself to accepting a Cypriot solution preferred by Greek Cypriots. This calculus proved to be wrong. In part owing to the insincerity the EU had displayed in accepting divided Cyprus as a member by yielding to mainland Greek threats of subverting the entire process of expansion, but also for a variety of reasons mostly emanating from itself, Türkiye stopped actively pursuing membership. The Greek Cypriot side, on the other hand, now assured of the support of “fellow” Union members, displayed no desire to unite with the North except on its own terms. Hence, what emerged was what is referred to in international relations as a “frozen conflict.”
As years have passed, the cosmopolitan atmosphere that used to prevail in earlier times, where Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived in common neighborhoods and spoke each other’s language has been replaced by two ethnically homogeneous communities with limited interaction and more intensely oriented toward their respective “home” countries. Although there has been constituencies on both sides that have argued for unification, they have been countered by stronger movements that want to maintain their current positions. While a “divided” island does generate inconveniences both for Turkey and the Turkish Cyprus in international affairs, it is also a fact that the situation has become established and normalized. No party displays a proclivity to change it. Turkish Cyprus has opened a number of representative offices – similar to what Taiwan did – in several countries, including some member states of the EU. It has observer status in some international organizations. I would not be surprised if in the not-too-distant future, some countries decide to recognize it. In the process of trying to unify the island on its own terms, the EU has managed to create a frozen conflict and another independent country.