Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

Greece never wanted to internationalise the Cyprus problem

comment leonitios british troops in athens after the germans withdrew in 1944
British troops in Athens after the Germans withdrew in 1944.

First in a series of articles by Leontios Ierodiakonou who looks at how the Greek Cypriot leadership, by accident or design, consistently steered clear of a Cyprus settlement

It is generally agreed that the Greek Cypriot leadership has made very serious, unjustified mistakes in their handling of the Cyprus problem over the last 75 years.

Possibly the most serious was committed by the reckless and untimely attempt to internationalise the Cyprus issue in the early and mid-1950s. It was then that most of the seeds, which put Cyprus on such an unpredictable course, were sown. The main reason we were led into so many elementary mistakes was that all decisions were taken by one person – the leader of the Greek Cypriot community until 1960 and thereafter president of the Republic.

From 1948, when he took over as head of the ethnarchy, Makarios played the leading role in the Cyprus issue. Since his elevation to archbishop and ethnarch (October 1950), he embarked on a relentless fight to internationalise the Cyprus issue with the goal of union with Greece. With frequent visits to Greece, he tried to rally the support of the political leadership, the church, the media, various groups and Greek youth to force every Greek government to internationalise the demand for self-determination, by filing a recourse to the UN.

All governments and the entire Greek political leadership pointed out that the time was not right and any attempt at internationalisation was risky. Instead of reflecting on the advice of the more knowledgeable, experienced politicians, Makarios began to clash with them all.

This position of the Greek politicians was not random. Since the foundation of the new Greek state, Britain had always played an important role in political life. A long friendship, even Greek dependence on London had developed. Winston Churchill himself played a decisive role in keeping Greece in the Western Camp after World War II. In the summer of 1944, when the Red Army was advancing into Romania and Bulgaria, Churchill became concerned about Greece and requested a meeting with the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. At the meeting in Moscow, the British prime minister, in order to keep Greece under British influence, offered Stalin a similar type of influence over Romania and Bulgaria. (The Second World War Triumph and Tragedy, London, 1953, p. 227.) And as soon as the Germans left Greece, Churchill sent British troops to Athens for obvious reasons.

When Makarios began his methodical campaign for a recourse to the UN, Greece still had many wounds. From the end of the German occupation (October 1944) until 1952, the country had changed 26 governments. Apart from political instability, the war against Italy and Germany, the German occupation and the civil war that followed resulted in the economic disintegration of the country.

With all these pressures, Greek political leaders found it inconceivable to turn against British interests.

From the first unofficial overtures to London by Greek governments, it became evident the British were strongly opposed to giving up sovereignty over Cyprus. However, all indications are that the Greek leaders believed that the British refusal was temporary and that the long-standing and traditional Greek-British friendship, reinforced by the more recent military cooperation during World War II and later in the civil war, would be a sufficient basis for settling the Enosis issue through bilateral friendly talks in the future. This conviction was reinforced by the post-war liberal and anti-colonial spirit of the time.

Aside from Greece’s long friendship, alliance and dependence on Britain that caused Greek leaders to oppose a recourse to the UN, other Greek interests would have been very negatively affected if Athens tried to internationalise the Cyprus issue.

Entering the 1950s, apart from the rivalry caused by the Cold War, there were many other local rivalries. In addition to the wounds and the sharp political divisions caused by the civil war, Greece also felt insecure from external threats.

As former foreign minister and author, Evangelos Averoff wrote, all this “greatly worried” the politicians of the Balkan Peninsula countries. “The ‘threat from the north’ was immediate, pressing, one might say, almost tangible. That is why Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey were at pains to secure their borders, including through international alliances.” Greek-Turkish relations, in particular, were “very friendly”, which was why “the two countries cooperated closely in all areas. The common basic objective of their foreign policy was to join the then powerful Atlantic alliance of Nato”. They achieved this in 1952.

Also, Yugoslavia, after Stalin’s break with Tito in 1948, was “isolated, weak and felt exposed to many threats”. That is why it began to make overtures to Greece and Turkey. In early 1953, the three countries signed a “Friendship and Cooperation Agreement” and the following year a “Treaty of Military Cooperation”. According to Averoff, this development gave “Greece a special and important status: that of an indirect link between Nato and Yugoslavia…but this status was also decisively influenced by the continuation of good relations between Greece and Turkey.” (Averoff, E. “History of lost opportunities”, volume 1, pp.58-59).

On the other hand, Britain, after the dissolution of its empire, focused its attention on the Eastern Mediterranean, where it had vital interests in controlling the Suez canal and the oil-producing countries. In the early 1950s, British military plans in the Middle East were based mainly on the Suez region and Cyprus.

In the summer of 1952, however, a revolutionary movement of Free Officers in Egypt, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, began and overthrew King Farouk. The gradual victory of the rebels, apart from helping to spark other movements within the Arab world, eventually led to the demise of Britain’s control over Egypt. This development contributed to Cyprus’ increased importance for the British. Hence the construction of the military base at Dhekelia in 1952 and Episkopi in 1953.

Another important factor was the change of US policy in the spring of 1954. The Americans were seemingly neutral or implied that they did not exclude the possibility of supporting Greek interests in Cyprus. In the early months of 1954 the Americans, apparently to prevent the spread of Nasser’s influence in the wider Arab world, began to put pressure on the British to abandon the Suez canal. The result was that on July 27, 1954 the Suez agreement was signed, whereby Britain undertook to withdraw its troops from Suez completely within 20 months. In abandoning Suez, Britain began to transfer its military forces and area headquarters to Cyprus. It is clear that in their attempt to persuade the British to sign the Suez Treaty, the Americans promised support in Cyprus. This agreement, however, led the Conservative Party into an alarming internal division.

Many Conservative MPs did not accept it and were strongly and relentlessly critical of the government. Within the party, the so-called ‘Suez group’ was formed, and whenever issues relating to the Middle East surfaced, voices were raised that ‘it is the Americans who got us out of Suez’, that this agreement is ‘a sell-out, a betrayal, a surrender’ and so on.

In other words, the Conservative government was under unbearable pressure. Cyprus was all that remained for Britain’s military plans in the region, so any retreat in Cyprus seemed unthinkable to the Conservative Party.

 

Leontios Ierodiakonou is a former Disy deputy who also served as minister of communications in the Clerides government. He is author of books on the Cyprus problem, including Fatal Leadership (1948-2021): Makarios and his Continuers

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