The issue of northern Cyprus has roiled Ankara’s foreign policy ever since July 20, 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern region of the island in “Operation Atilla,” a combined land, air and sea operation. More than 30 years after the incursion, which effectively divided the country, changing internal and international political considerations seem to be nudging the island toward healing its political divisions.
The 1974 Turkish operation was intended to restore Cypriot constitutional order five days after a Cypriot National Guard coup orchestrated by the ruling junta in Athens removed President Makarios III from power, after he demanded the removal of Greek army officers assigned to the National Guard on the well-founded charge that they were using their position to subvert his government. The issue has bedeviled Turkey’s foreign relations ever since, with only Ankara recognizing the Kuzey Kibris Turk Cumhuriyeti – KKTC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -TRNC), which declared independence in 1983. Approximately 35,000 Turkish troops remain stationed in the TRNC, in addition to 4,500 Turkish Cypriot Peace Forces Command (KTBK), composed of Turkish Cypriots.
Three decades later, in an April 2004 referendum, Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly approved a United Nations initiative by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to reunite the island, with 64.9 percent voting “yes,” but 75.8 percent of Greek Cypriots voted “no.” The following month the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus joined the European Union. Events of the last two months give tantalizing glimpses that reunification talks, gridlocked for the last four years, might again be moving toward a resolution of issues still dividing the Mediterranean’s third-largest island.
On March 21 TNRC President Mehmet Ali Talat met in Nicosia with Republic of Cyprus President Demetris Christofias in the first high-profile talks since 2006 and agreed to revive discussions on reunification, which had stalled since the 2004 referendum. Bilateral technical committees followed up the meetings with preparatory talks, agreeing to begin formal negotiations in July.
Besides the ongoing efforts of the United Nations to resolve outstanding issues, a new “honest broker” has emerged on the scene, as the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is also showing increased interest in assisting Cypriot efforts to reunify their country. On May 12 Talat met with OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu in Lefkosa behind closed doors. Following the meeting, Ihsanoglu, on his second visit to the TNRC and himself a Turk, told reporters, “As the OIC, we support the initiatives of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Cyprus. We want the island of Cyprus to become one of peace in which the two regions live in political equality” (Anadolu Ajansi, May 12).
Ihsanoglu also addressed recent remarks made by President Marios Karoyan of the Republic of Cyprus House of Representatives that “the OIC Secretary-General’s efforts in the TRNC cause problems.” Ihsanoglu emphasized that “the OIC does not want to make the tasks of any one more difficult. On the contrary, we want to make the job of every one easier. What we are trying to do is to end the unjust treatment that Turkish Cypriots face on their own land. We want to see the Turkish Cypriots receive equal treatment as the owners of these lands and as citizens as well as human beings. Aside from that, we do not want to cause any problems for any one. We are ready to explain our good will to those who experience difficulty in understanding our position.”
The same day that Talat met with Ihsanoglu, Karoyan met with Greek Speaker of Parliament Dimitrios Sioufas in Athens, after which Sioufas commented, “Greece and the Greek parliament welcomed the March 21 Agreement between Cyprus President Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat and we will continue in the same unwavering way to support the efforts by President Christofias in this direction” (Cyprus News Agency, May 12). According to Talat, of the outstanding issues dividing the island, the issue of property remains the most intractable. Talat said, “The toughest issue is property. It is a very complex problem: 30 to 40 years have passed [and] the properties have changed owners many times. Besides, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are very sensitive about this issue. Therefore it is a tough issue” (Turk Ajansi Kibris, May 11). Talat nevertheless remained optimistic about his forthcoming talks with Christofias, saying, “There has never been such a good chance for a solution” (Hurriyet, May 11).
Fiscal considerations aside, Ankara remains guardedly optimistic about the outcome of the current state of negotiations, with Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan saying in an interview with a Cypriot Greek newspaper that a positive outcome would encounter difficulties if one party were interested in sustaining the impasse in negotiations. Babacan added that Turkey and Turkish Cypriots remained committed to resolving outstanding issues, as the 2004 referendum proved (Phileleftheros, May 10).
The benefits to Turkey of a reunited Cyprus are obvious; Ankara could shed the fiscal burden of assisting the TNRC and its attendant garrison, while gaining significant advocates in its quest for European Union membership. Participation in resolving the Cypriot issue would give the OIC increased standing in the Islamic world, which remains rife with disputes and conflicts and in need of mediation. While in the past Athens and Ankara have jockeyed for influence over their ethnic kinsmen on the island, events since 2004 seem to have inculcated a new political maturity in the Cypriot communities on both sides of the “Green Line,” and the involvement of the international community seems increasingly to be allaying fears that rights might not be respected. A Turkish proverb states, “Great patience is the key to joy.” The recent political optimism on the island has been gestating for more than 30 years and may yet soon produce “joy,” if the respective communities’ regional patrons allow more dispassionate internal organizations to advance reunification.