BY ILTER TURAN
It has been forty years since the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was declared. At the time, some observers questioned the wisdom of such action since many members of the international community considered it possible that the two parts of the island might be united under a federal state. The declaration of a Northern Turkish republic was considered premature, failing to contribute to the unification negotiations. There were those who argued that the Greek side would accept nothing less than putting the island’s Turks as a minority under Greek tutelage but many observers, including yours truly, thought that a genuine attempt should be made to reunite the island. Time has shown, however, that the diagnosis of Greek Cypriot motives were rather accurate while those of us who believed in reunification were well intentioned optimists.
It may be recalled that Cyprus was born as an independent republic after a prolonged war against the British that had colonized the island, taking it from the Ottomans after 1877-1878 Russo-Ottoman War, presumably to return it after the Russian threat had receded. Cyprus was made a crown colony after the First World War. As the British were divesting themselves from their empire following the Second World War, the island’s Greek population engaged in an insurgency to liberate themselves from British rule. The island’s Turks that had been reduced to a minority, responded to the Greek challenge by asserting that they also constituted a community whose existence should be taken into consideration in planning the future. Greece and Türkiye joined the struggle, each on their ethnic side. At that time, the division of the island between Greeks and Turks was considered but discarded since the communities lived in mixed patterns.
A three way fight among the Greeks, the British and the Turks progressed while the international community focused on developing a solution. These were Cold War years. It was important to keep Greece and Türkiye as allies while ensuring that an independent Cyprus would not lean toward the Soviets. Prolonged negotiations produced London and Zurich agreements, giving birth in 1960 to the Republic of Cyprus whose constitutional order would be guaranteed by Greece, Türkiye and Britain. It took no time for the Greek side to start complaining that the constitutional arrangement was unworkable, paralyzing the government into inaction. In the following years, the Greek dominated government pursued a deliberate policy of ignoring constitutional provisions protective of Turks while tolerating acts of terrorism that were aimed at reducing Turkish presence on the island through attrition and emigration. Türkiye’s attempts to redress the balance were arrested by the US to maintain alliance unity. Matters finally came to a head in July 1974. The Greek government staged a coup with the illegal forces it had slipped into the island and a local adventurer, to make the island a part of Greece, disposing the island’s elected government. The Turkish government invited Britain to act together to fulfil their commitment as guarantors but intervened unilaterally when Britain declined.
The Turkish intervention terminated Greek Cypriot actions intended to eradicate the Turkish community on the island. Accordingly, the Cypriot Turks moved to the North of Cyprus and were provided with Türkiye’s protection while the Greeks moved down South to escape Turkish domination. The next ten years were spent in searching for ways to establish a unified state in which the two ethnic communities would enjoy equal status. These efforts failed. Frustrated by the unwillingness of the Greek side to accept equality of the Island’s Turks, the governments of Türkiye and Cypriot Turks decided jointly on a path of declaring independence. This new state did not rule out forming a bizonal federal Cyprus in which the Turkish state would form one of the constituent units. Negotiations to form a unified Cyprus continued but progress remained limited. The Greek side was not willing to recognize the equality of the Turkish state.
In retrospect, it has become clear that the Greek side was not interested in forming a federal state, but used the determination of the Cypriot leadership, in particular Rauf Denktaş, to achieve equal status with the Greeks as justification that it was the Turks who did not accommodate reasonable solutions. In the meantime, cooperating with Greece, the Cypriot government applied to become a member of the EU. Threatening to subvert the entire process of expansion to incorporate Eastern European countries, Greece managed to force other members to violate the cardinal EU rule that potential members should solve their outstanding problems like unity before joining. They accepted Cyprus. EU member countries may have calculated that in its desire to join the EU, Türkiye would yield to its demands. The reverse has happened. Türkiye’s determination to protect the Turkish part of the island as an independent unit has intensified. After forty years, the existence of an independent Turkish state in the North has become ever more solidly established. And who knows, countries other than Türkiye may soon choose to recognize it as an independent state.