Celebrating a Dubious Birthday

Thirty years after Turkey invaded it, Cyprus remains a divided island. The Greek side is now part of the EU, but the northern Turkish half still suffers economic isolation despite UN and Brussels' efforts to reunite it. A background report by Rainer Sollich

photo: AP
A border still divides north and south Cyprus

​​Though the Greek portion of Cyprus became a European Union member after May's "big bang" round of enlargement, the Mediterranean island nation remains divided. Three decades after Turkish troops invaded Cyprus following a putsch attempt by former Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios, who wanted the island to be annexed by Greece, the question of responsibility still galvanizes.

The island's Turks insist Greek Cypriots were at fault because, for years, they tolerated attacks on the Turkish minority, they tried to mount a coup and they wanted to annex the island as part of the Greek mainland. Meanwhile, the island's Greek majority accuse the Turks of having used the putsch attempt as an excuse to expel close to 200,000 Greeks from the northern half of the island as a manifestation of its desire to create an independent state on the island.

A diplomatic U-turn

For years, the international community leaned towards the Greek interpretation of events - for decades, it always seemed to be the Turks who blocked the UN's efforts toward reunification. But last year, the island's Turkish residents made a dramatic U-turn - a move motivated by the EU prospects for the isolated and economically undeveloped northern half of the island in the immediate term, and Turkey's own EU membership hopes in the future.

Against this optimistic backdrop, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan developed a reunification plan that was put up for an April referendum on both sides. The plan called for a relatively weak central government and strong Greek and Turkish bodies.

The resulting vote is already history: 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the plan. But 76 percent of the island's Greeks voted against it, despite a decades-long push for reunification. Unlike the Turkish Cypriots, the Greeks had nothing to lose: EU membership for the island's Greek half was already a done deal.

The results of the reunification referendum angered officials in Brussels. "I'm going to say something totally undiplomatic," EU Expansion Commissioner Günter Verheugen said at the time. "I personally feel deceived by the government of the Republic of Cyprus." Verheugen said he had worked for months to create the conditions for a "yes" vote by the Greeks.

Brussels thumbs its nose

Deeply angered, EU officials pledged to end decades long economic isolation of the island's Turkish denizens. The European Commission has proposed providing a €259 million economic aid package to the Turkish Cypriots. Brussels is also calling for the creation of a direct trade agreement that would allow northern Cyprus to open up trade to the international community and to be given preferential treatment by Brussels.

But there are even problems with that deal: As a full voting member, the Greek Cypriot government, which considers Turkey to be an occupier of northern Cyprus rather than a legitimate power, has threatened to sue the EU at the European Court of Justice if the aid is approved.

Right of return still simmers

Other problems also persist, including property rights and the right-of-return for the former residents of the northern part of Cyprus who were expelled in 1974. In addition, the Greeks are still extremely wary of the 30,000-strong Turkish military presence on the island. But Georg Ziegler of the European Commission's Cyprus Task Force said those fears are exaggerated.

"It's now 2004 - and 1974 was a long time ago," he said. "Now, Turkey has candidate status for EU membership and negotiations could be opened this year, making it a breakthrough year for Turkey. When you consider the fact that Turkey is standing before the EU's door, on a pro-EU (political) course, you can see that, fundamentally, it's unthinkable that its military would attack Cyprus again."

Still, even though the border between the two sides has become more porous and the Greek part of Cyprus has become part of the EU, 30 years after the Turkish invasion there is still no solution to the island's division in sight.

The EU has more or less imported the problem and will have even greater difficulty trying to apply pressure to the Greek Cypriots now that the carrot-and-stick approach is no longer an option. For the time being, the UN has puts its negotiating efforts on ice.

Rainer Sollich


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