By Alexander Michaelides
ON MARCH 19 Mr Cavusoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister laid out his government’s vision for Cyprus in a Washington Times article: “transforming the island into a bastion of peace, stability, co-operation and economic prosperity.” As a Greek Cypriot, I share that same vision. Unfortunately, Mr Cavusoglu’s article did not convince me. Rather than propose ways to build lasting peace where Greeks and Turks live together in Cyprus as equals, his approach is designed to ensure increased control of Cyprus by Turkey. This will not allay Greek Cypriots’ fears and will stoke their sense of injustice. His proposal does not map a way forward for the island to be united.
How can enduring conflicts, such as the one between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, be resolved? One key component must be to adopt a shared narrative of history and that narrative must reflect history. Despite ethnic fighting on the island between 1963 and 1974, which both Greeks and Turks must “own up to”, it was Turkey that escalated the violence with its 1974 invasion and occupation of the island. Being myself a five-year-old in Bellapais in 1974, one of the villages still under Turkish occupation, I was an early witness of the horror in people’s faces when Turkey attacked. Making around 40 per cent of the Greek Cypriot population refugees is a disproportionate act relative to pre-1974 ethnic skirmishes between irregular civilians. I realise that these facts cannot be erased from the memory of the Greek Cypriot community, but if peace is to have a chance in Cyprus, both Turkey and Turkish Cypriots need to start recognising the simple fact that 1974 was a disproportionate response not justified by the scale of skirmishes in the earlier period.
A common historical narrative is important in building a shared vision between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which brings me to the second disagreement with historical facts in Mr Cavusoglu’s essay. Mr Cavusoglu states that “the Turkish Cypriots, with Turkey’s support, have consistently worked for a just and lasting comprehensive settlement despite the unjust isolation imposed on them by the Greek Cypriot side… Today the status quo is unacceptable to both sides.” The historical truth is that between 1974 and 2003, the stated position of both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership under Mr Denktash was that the Cyprus problem had been solved in 1974. My grandparents could return as guests to visit their occupied home only after 2003. It was then that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots allowed freedom of movement across the border. Until that time, Mr Denktash openly discouraged any contact between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on the island. His refusal to participate in the Cypriot negotiating team for European Union (EU) entry is telling of his attitude toward the status quo and his vision for the future.
I realise the historical references above are backward-looking, rather than forward-looking. Nevertheless, disagreements with how one views history are not isolated details in reaching a peaceful settlement that can pass the test of time. Biases and distrust will persist as long as a common narrative is not in place. At the end of the day, Cyprus should not become an ethno-federal state where people do not trust each other and families pass on ethnic hatred from generation to generation.
Looking further into the future, Mr Cavusoglu’s vision runs counter to building a sense of Cypriotness, since he emphasises that “a balance between Greece and Turkey will be struck, meaning that Turkish nationals will be treated on equal footing with Greek nationals exclusively on the island.” This is where my vision is completely different: Greece and Turkey are proud and large countries with their own challenges and opportunities. Throughout the last one hundred years both countries have been involved either explicitly or implicitly in affecting the course of Cyprus’ history. The Greek Cypriots have managed to cut the umbilical cord between Greece and Cyprus and it is the Turkish Cypriots’ turn to act likewise. Cypriots are adults and do not require Treaties of Guarantees by their “motherlands”: Cypriots need to be allowed to determine their own future.
Unfortunately, cutting this umbilical cord is much harder for the Turkish Cypriots for a number of different reasons. Turkey has been providing explicit financial aid to the tune of around one billion dollars a year to the Turkish Cypriots. It is still not clear to me whether, in the event of an agreement to solve the Cyprus problem, this accumulated financial aid will be treated as a write-off to be forgiven or as national debt to be repaid. Cyprus does have a national debt of around 100 per cent of GDP but that is not owed to Greece, and there is no plan for Greece to offer financial aid to Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriots, and Turkey, must start thinking in the same way. Finding opportunistic excuses about discussing historical events (for example, the 1950 plebiscite for “Enosis”) does not alter the unmistakeable facts on the ground. Namely, that it is the Turkish Cypriot community that relies economically, politically and socially on Turkey (even when it comes to switching from summer to winter time, and despite the tragic consequences this simple decision can have on innocent bystanders like children going to school early in the morning). It is therefore the Turkish Cypriots and Turkey that need to convince everyone that Turkish Cypriots can stand on their own as a politically equal state in a federation.
Mr Cavusoglu also emphasizes that “the vast majority of Turkish Cypriots will not accept a settlement that does not entail Turkish guarantees.” By the same yardstick, the vast majority of Greek Cypriots will not accept a settlement that entails Turkish guarantees. External actors (“motherlands”) have typically not helped increase trust in the past and one wonders why we should expect that experience to change in the future. How can a common vision for Cyprus be developed if part of the nation believes it is under perpetual occupation? My humble opinion is that no nation-building can take place in Cyprus as long as Turkey maintains troops there. In fact, the mere presence of any troops from either Greece or Turkey provides either ethnic community with reason to suspect, and eventually hate, each other. The mere presence of such troops will just increase the risk of future conflict escalation. A proposal more likely to succeed would probably involve the United Nations devising, within the European Union framework, a security system that does not involve either Greece or Turkey.
One litmus test whether the necessary political stability, a prerequisite for economic growth, can become reality in a united Cyprus, could be whether the proposed solution can attract the Greek and Turkish Cypriot diaspora back to the island (or at least prevent the current residents from emigrating). From afar, my personal assessment is that a lot more needs to be done for that to happen. Both sides in Cyprus need to be convinced to take risks but an ethno-federal state that perpetuates historical inaccuracies, is hostage to strong foreign powers, and continues to breed ethnic hatred, even just through the mere presence of Greek or Turkish troops, cannot succeed. More imagination and vision is needed for peace in Cyprus to have a chance.
Alexander Michaelides is a professor of finance at Imperial College Business School.