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Greece is all too often Cyprus’ reluctant champion

file photo: turkey's president tayyip erdogan visits greece
Erdogan and Mitsotakis all smiles, but what does it really mean?

Since the days of Makarios, Greece’s relations with Turkey have been held ransom by the Cyprus problem

When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan signed the groundbreaking declaration of ‘friendship and good neighbourly relations’ and ‘calm seas’ in Athens earlier this month, hopes were expressed in Cyprus that this could spearhead a resumption of Cyprus talks.

The day after the Athens meeting of the two leaders, President Nikos Christodoulides sounded positive.

“I consider the improvement of Greek-Turkish relations is something that will also help our efforts,” he said. “Athens’ position that there could not be full normalisation of relations without a solution of the Cyprus problem is well-known.”

This could have been a subtle warning that the Cyprus government would not tolerate Greece pursuing full normalisation of relations with Turkey, while the Cyprus problem remained.

A few days ago, a Phileleftheros columnist concerned that the Cyprus problem would be left by the wayside wrote: “Evidently, the normalisation of relations, if carried out a la Turk and Cyprus is forgotten on the shelf, will have the well-known tragic development.”

He did not explain what the tragic development would be, even though the implication was that Greece would leave Cyprus to the mercy of Turkey.

This is the prevailing thought in Nicosia: Greece cannot conceive of mending relations with Turkey while the Cyprus problem remains unsolved. The reality is that the problem has been preventing normal relations between Greece and Turkey ever since the early 1950s.

feature kyriacos former greek prime minister constantinos mitsotakis spoke of 'the gangrene of the cyprus problem'
Former Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis spoke of ‘the gangrene of the Cyprus problem’

Before the Eoka struggle, the two countries enjoyed good relations and had signed the Balkan Pact with Yugoslavia in 1953, known as the Friendship and Cooperation Agreement. A year later, fearing the communist threat from the north, this became a military treaty which was abandoned when Cyprus’ struggle for enosis began in 1955.

“Normalisation of relations cannot happen because Cyprus is a national issue for Greece,” said Leontios Ierodiakonou, a Cyprus issue scholar, whose most recent book, Fatal Leadership (1948-2021) Makarios and his Continuers, wrote in detail of the way Cyprus’ leadership demanded Greece put aside all its other interests for the sake of Cyprus.

His view is echoed by Alexis Eraclides, a Greece-based academic and author of a host of books on international relations that include the Cyprus issue and Greece-Turkey relations.

“As long as the Cyprus issue exists, there cannot be full rapprochement with Turkey,” said Eraclides, who was at the Political Science Department of the Pantion University of Greece until his retirement. He was echoing Konstantinos Mitsotakis, Greece’s former prime minister and father of the current leader.

The straight-talking Mitsotakis senior, who served as prime minister in the early 1990s, said that as long as “the gangrene of the Cyprus problem” existed Greece could not proceed with mending relations with Turkey.

The question is why?

Ierodiakonou, who features a chapter on the ways Makarios imposed his diktats on Greek governments ever since the early 1950s by using the Greek public to pressure them, had a clear explanation.

“This is what the past shows,” he said.

From the start of the appearance of the demand for enosis in 1950, the entire leadership of Greece did not want to internationalise the Cyprus problem in the way Makarios wanted – that is going to the UN General Assembly and asking for self-determination.

“A council made up of all of Greece’s political leadership agreed that it was not in the interest of the country to clash with a traditional friend like Britain,” Ierodiakonou said.

Yet this is what happened despite a Greek economy in meltdown, still reeling from the German occupation and the civil war that followed. Since the Germans left in 1944 until 1952 the country had changed 26 governments, wrote Ierodiakonou, and was dependent on the support of Britain and, later, also on the US. Its political leadership did not want to jeopardise its good relations with Britain, and believed that the pursuit of enosis should take place gradually, because the British could not oppose it indefinitely.

Makarios had different plans.

“He put tremendous pressure on the Greek leadership, regularly visiting Athens and rousing public opinion by appealing to the media, to youth, the church, turning them against their government on Cyprus,” said Ierodiakonou.

When in 1953 Greece’s Prime Minister General Alexandros Papagos refused to support the registering of Cyprus’ demand for self-determination at the UN (any such requests needed the backing of one member-state), Makarios threatened to ask another country to do so, which would have caused a public uproar against the Papagos government. Such was the support of Greece’s population for the Cyprus cause.

Another Greek prime minister, Sophocles Venizelos, who had earlier also refused to put Cyprus self determination on the UN agenda, told Greek parliament some years later that Makarios had told him “I will report you to the Greek people.”

“It was clear blackmail,” said Ierodiakonou. “Makarios clashed with all the governments of Greece, before and after independence. His tactic was that even if he agreed something with Athens he could go back on it, knowing that from the moment the disagreement was made public, Greek public opinion would apply pressure on the government and not Makarios.”

feature kyriacos president makarios resisted greece's reluctance to internationalise the cyprus issue
President Makarios resisted Greece’s reluctance to internationalise the Cyprus issue

Eraclides is also aware of the hold the Cyprus issue appears to have over the Greek public. He quoted Kathimerini editor Alexis Papachelas, who said that there was “a raw nerve in Greeks about the Cyprus problem and when it is touched there is a big reaction and everything is destroyed.”

The problem in Greece was that “the opposition never took responsibility or acted responsibly on national issues,” said Ierodiakonou, highlighting the difficulty any Greek government would have in pursuing good relations with Turkey while the occupation of Cyprus remained. It simply could not be sold to the Greek public.

So what is the future of Greece Turkey relations?

During the Costas Karamanlis premiership, immediately after the Annan plan referendum, the idea of decoupling the Cyprus problem from Athens’ relations with Ankara was discussed, said Eraclides.

“The thinking was that we could not be hostages to the Cyprus problem which cannot be solved and should pursue improvement of relations with Turkey, regardless,” said Eraclides. “But this could not happen, because there are limits.”

There could be some improvement in relations, which Eraclides said could be described as “détente rather than rapprochement”. He believes relations can progress but only ever to a certain point.

“For example we can try to have a moratorium in the Aegean, take some steps with the Halkis theological school and the patriarchate in Constantinople. Low politics that would allow economic relations to continue, which is a win-win,” he said, though he warns that they should avoid energy “because it is tricker”.

Ierodiakonou believes forecasts cannot be made on how relations will progress because “it is not mathematics,” and “Erdogan is unpredictable.”

There is a possibility the Cyprus problem will lose its impact, “in the sense that we do not cause a fuss about it and react only when the Turks do something to provoke a reaction, in which case there would be calm.”

Perhaps it was time for some realpolitik, said Eraclides.

“The Cyprus problem cannot be solved, but we will move forward as much as we can, to improve relations as much as we can, although at any moment this thing would be there.”

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