Cyprus: Between East and West?
Cyprus and Saint Martin – two very different islands sharing one key property: both are split by their “mother countries,” Greece and Turkey in the case of Cyprus, France and the Netherlands in the case of Saint Martin. However, these two islands have known very different fates over the past several decades, which are worth exploring in greater depth. What makes Saint Martin successful in its division, while Cyprus has remained in a stalemate since 1974? Why have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build an amicable system despite the division, while Greece and Turkey still struggle over finding an agreement for Cyprus, with Nicosia remaining the last divided capita around the globe, the only militarily-divided city of Europe, and a seeming vestige of the past?
The earlier colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to blow over some of the initial tension that resulted from this dual presence, enabling the emergence of a stable border and the near-assimilation of the people of Saint Martin into a common identity. In many ways, however, the population of Saint Martin is much more diverse that of Cyprus, where the indigenous population remains starkly split between Greeks and Turks. Yet in such diversity, a degree of unity is also found. The difference in geopolitical tension may also be related to the much greater distance separating the island from its mother countries: if Saint Martin were as close to France and the Netherlands as Cyprus is to Greece and Turkey, would the two have been more inclined to have resisted their gradual relinquishing of control? Or is it that they do not see Saint Martin as enough of an economic asset, while Cyprus has just discovered great gas reserves that both Greece and Turkey desperately want to exploit?
On Saint Martin, over time the majority of the island’s population essentially became European, identifying closely with France and the Netherlands, but on Cyprus the colonial power, Britain, had “nothing to do” with the local population of Greeks and Turks and hence was never able to achieve such results. With the initial annexation of the island by the British Empire, the “Cyprus dispute” corresponded to the conflict between the people of Cyprus and the British Crown regarding the Cypriots’ demand for self-determination. The dispute was however soon shifted from a colonial to an ethnic register between the Turkish and the Greek islanders. The international complications of the dispute stretch far beyond the boundaries of the island of Cyprus itself, also involving the guarantor powers (Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom alike), and eventually the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. To what extent has the presence and interference of several international organization complicated the conflict rather than helping smooth it over?
With the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état’s installment of a pro-Enosis (the union of Cyprus and Greece) president and the responding Turkish invasion that same year (formally condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 1974/360), Turkey occupied the northern part of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. As the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been interspersed across much of the island a significant amount of “ethnic cleansing” and relocation subsequently occurred. Northern Cyprus soon unilaterally declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a sovereign entity that lacks international recognition—with the exception of Turkey, with which the TRNC enjoys full diplomatic relations. The United Nations has since created and maintained a buffer zone (the “Green Line”) to avoid any further inter-communal tensions and hostilities. This zone separates the Greek Cypriot-controlled south from the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north, passing directly through Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, though many also view Jerusalem as a divided city as well (a poll conducted in June 2013 found that 74% of Israeli Jews reject the idea of a Palestinian capital in any portion of Jerusalem, although 72% of the public regarded it as a divided city).
I visited Nicosia and walked by the wall and along the divide in 2003, which was the first year it was open to the public: it seemed to me like an odd vestige of the Cold War, frozen in time, absurd in the twenty-first century with the graffiti, the barbed-wire, and the sand bags at its foot, yet standing there still.
Another crucial factor is the intense cultural difference between the Greek and the Turkish populations. This split looms large in my memory as well. As a ten-year old child, I walked past the checkpoint from the Turkish to the Greek parts of Cyprus, and as soon as I reached Greek territory I was handed a small bottle of traditional Greek liquor, Ouzo. The two sides of the island seemed like a microcosm that revealed patterns of a much larger, global scale. Caught between the Western World and realm of Islam, at a crossroads of civilizations, Cyprus is split between the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and Sunni Islam.
According to a Eurobarometer report, Cyprus is one of the most religious states in the European Union, alongside Malta, Romania, Greece, and Poland. What is more, it is linguistically divided between its two official languages, Greek and Turkish, which do not even share the same alphabet. (English is, however, well spread across the island). This deep cultural divide makes the situation much more difficult for Cyprus than in the case of Saint Martin, where the two sovereign powers, France and the Netherlands, share many cultural similarities and have a long history of mutual understanding, unlike the two countries which ‘share’ the island of Cyprus. Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and in true French form, a few topless beaches. As I remember it, walking between the Greek and the Turkish sides of Cyprus was more like changing worlds: while the Greek side boasted a variety of international brands and had the lively feel of a capital city, the side-streets in the Turkish part of Nicosia were dominated by variety of repair shops selling hardware, pipes, and steel. There were more little stores, with a less touristy and more industrious ambiance, and the crux of the energy was concentrated around the very lively Souk. We visited a Turkish hammam, or public bath, located in a converted Catholic church, where the women and the men were sent to different parts of the edifice. We also enjoyed a honey-filled Turkish variation on a crepe in a lovely courtyard. It was pleasant, but all the time I remember feeling a distinct sense of unease, my ten-year old, pale and blonde self, walking around in these streets, feeling quite out of place. While the Greek side seemed open for leisure and tourism, the Turkish side seemed made for the local inhabitants.
This cultural rift lay at the heart of many debates after Turkey posted its candidacy to the European Union. Indeed, while Greece and Cyprus are members of the European Union, Turkey was and is still seen as a much more controversial candidate, due in part to fear of interethnic and inter-religious conflict between Christian Europeans and immigrant Muslim Turks, as well as concerns that Turkey would not integrate harmoniously into the European political system, as perhaps evidenced by the situation in Cyprus. The lack of resolution of the Cypriot conflict has long burdened Turkey’s candidacy, and if Turkey is serious about its integration of the union, it will most likely need to come to a better settlement with its Greek counterpart on the island. Equally problematic is Greek Cypriot recalcitrance on reunion. A 2004 UN-organized referendum on reunification was rejected overwhelmingly on the Greek half of the island but was supported on the Turkish side.
Any possible settlement of the Cyprus issue seems unlikely given the history of fear and mistrust between the two sides. The unrecognized Turkish Northern Cyprus territory covers only 36% of the island’s overall territory, thus starting Turkey out with weaker hand and giving the conflict an unequal feel. This 36% of land is, however, crucial to Turkey due to its proximity to its own ports. Indeed, Cyprus is only 65 kilometers from Turkey, and the island is close to Turkey’s southern harbors, such as Mersin. As such, all Turkey’s southwestern ports are under the cover of Cyprus and whoever controls the island is able to exert pressure on them. It should be of no surprise, then, that it has been a prime and long-standing Turkish objective that the island does not succumb to any potentially hostile power, especially its traditional enemy, Greece. Common membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO has never diminished Turkish concerns about these geo-strategic issues, nor will Turkey’s possible accession to the EU.
As such, reasons for the different fates of Saint Martin and Cyprus extend from historical to geographic, demographic, geopolitical, and cultural factors. The easy coexistence of two states on the former island and the on-going conflict on the latter, however, result from processes that are as multi-faceted as these islands are diverse, and truly pinpointing what could be learned from one situation to apply to the other is difficult at best. From an island in the Caribbean with significant self-determination and hundreds of years of colonial history, to an island in the Mediterranean split between its two native populations, significant situational differences which may not allow for comparison at all. However, as history tends to repeat itself, with a little bit of imagination and a little bit of creativity, there may be some lessons that each can learn from the other’s situation.
Regardless of such comparisons, the geopolitical situation on Cyprus remains extraordinarily complex. According to the diplomatic establishments of most countries, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure sovereignty across the island, yet in de facto terms Cyprus is of course split, with Northern Cyprus forming a separate state. But this is just the start of the complexity, as the United Kingdom still controls two military bases on the island over which it exercises sovereign power. These sovereign military bases, moreover, encompass several exclaves of the Republic of Cyprus, while Northern Cyprus has its own exclave on the northwestern coast.
And the U.N. Buffer Zone itself makes up yet another unit, as it is not a mere “line” but rather a territory in its own right that cover 346 square kilometers (134 sq mi) and is home to some 10,000 people. Parts of this buffer zone are essentially off-limits to people, and have thus become a haven for wildlife, much like Korea’s so-called demilitarized zone. Another complication of geopolitics on Cyprus is that the island has been as a tax haven for many international investors, especially the Russians, which has a significant effect on the Cyprus-Russia relations. Many Russian investors withdrew their funds when the Cypriot government forced bank depositors to pay their share of an international bailout in the spring of 2013, but now Russian investors are returning. There is also a fairly sizeable Russian community on the island, with its own online forum .
Finally, it is important to note that Cyprus plays an unusual international role in regard to Israel, as Israelis who want to be married in civil rather religious ceremonies generally do so on Cyprus. But recent discoveries of off-shore gas deposits in Israel’s waters may change the hereto peaceful relations between Israel and Greek Cyprus. Both Greek Cyprus and Turkey desperately want to import Israeli off-shore gas. According to one plan, Israeli gas would be exported directly to a facility to be set up in Vassilikos, in southern Greek Cyprus. Alternately, the gas could be delivered via an underground pipeline to the port of Jihan in southern Turkey, but en route the pipeline would have to cross under the territorial waters of Greek Cyprus to avoid crossing Lebanese and Syrian territory. Unsurprisingly, Turkey and Greek Cyprus cannot agree on this issue. All in all, it is difficult to find more geopolitical complexity and ambiguity than on Cyprus.
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