The Washington Diplomat / June 1998
By Larry Luxner
After years of being relegated to the back burner of U.S. foreign policy, the divided island of Cyprus is grabbing headlines again.
Cypriot Ambassador Andros A. Nicolaides says 1998 could be a "pivotal year" for his Eastern Mediterranean island, 37% of which chafes under Turkish military occupation.
"We're in the news now extensively, because of three basic factors," Nicolaides told us during a one-hour interview May 15. "The first new element is the European Union's decision Mar. 31 to begin accession negotiations for Cyprus. The second is the continuation of interest by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on negotiations [between Cyprus and Turkey]. The third important element is the decision by President Clinton to assign one of his most distinguished diplomats, Richard Holbrooke, to handle the Cyprus situation."
That volatile "situation" has its roots in Turkey's Ottoman Empire, which conquered Cyprus in 1571 and ruled it for over three centuries. In 1878, as the empire began crumbling, the Congress of Berlin placed the island under British administration. Just as the First World War erupted in 1914, Cyprus was annexed outright by Great Britain, whose leaders Nicolaides says "planted the seeds of division in Cyprus." Eleven years later, the island became a British crown colony -- a status that remained until 1960, when the Republic of Cyprus achieved full independence under an agreement that included guarantees of the rights of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
The accord also prohibited either political union with Greece (an option backed by Greek Cypriots but strongly opposed by the Turks), or partition of the Puerto Rico-sized island into two separate republics.
Yet following independence, the Greek Cypriot majority curtailed the rights of the country's Turkish citizens, launching what the Turks say was a violent campaign to force Turkish inhabitants into fleeing. In 1964, UN peacekeeping forces had to be sent in to quell the worsening communal violence. The situation finally exploded on Jul. 15, 1974, when a military coup by officers favoring union with Greece deposed the Makarios government. Five days later, Turkey invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern two-fifths of the island. The following year, the Turkish government announced a de facto partition of Cyprus.
In 1983, the Turkish sector proclaimed its independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus -- though not one country in the world outside of Turkey has officially recognized this entity.
"Turkey has violated the agreements through which it was a guarantor power," says Nicolaides, 59, who hasn't seen his own home in Famagusta since the 1974 invasion. Like Berlin before German reunification, the Cypriot capital, Nicosia, is a divided city, with barbed wire and a no-man's land running through the center of town.
Cyprus currently has 739,000 inhabitants, of which 85,000 to 90,000 live in the Turkish-occupied zone. Following the invasion, claims Nicolaides, an estimated 170,000 Greek Cypriots were forcibly expelled, and thousands of Turks from Anatolia were brought in to populate the area. Today, the island's ethnic breakdown is 84.7% Greek, 12.3% Turkish and 3% foreigners. At least 40,000 Cypriots are living in the United States, and over 200,000 in Great Britain.
"Turkey has become a jailer in Cyprus, and they keep both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots as hostages. This is unprecedented in history," said Nicolaides, adding that Turkey is not interested in helping the Turkish Cypriots. "If they were, they would champion the accession of Cyprus to the EU. Then they'd all become proud Europeans, with all the benefits of EU membership and a bright future for their children. But they are not free people."
Despite economic stagnation and high unemployment in the Turkish enclave, the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus is prosperous, with a projected 1998 gross domestic product of $8.9 billion and a per-capita income approaching $14,000 (compared to $3,900 in the Turkish-occupied area). Economic growth is running at a healthy 4.5%, and last year it earned $1.6 billion from tourism alone, making that industry the country's top foreign-exchange earner.
Furthermore, unemployment is only 3.1%, inflation has fallen to 3.0%, and Cyprus appears to have met nearly all the conditions for EU membership spelled out in the Maastricht Treaty. It has the healthiest economy of the six nations included in the current round of EU accession talks. But Turkey opposes Cypriot entry to the EU as long as Turkey itself is excluded from the club -- a position Nicolaides calls hypocritical.
"While Turkey, with the support of the United States, tries to convince Europe that Turkey is a European nation and should be admitted to the EU, at the same moment it denies the Turkish Cypriots from becoming Europeans," says the diplomat.
"They use as an excuse [for the occupation] the plight of the Turkish minority in Cyprus, just as Hitler used the same excuse to invade Czechoslovakia. They demand equal rights and equal recognition, yet they contradict themselves by their behavior towards Turkey's Kurdish population. They say recognizing the existence of a Kurdish minority would dismember the Turkish nation."
Nicolaides, a lifelong diplomat who began his career in 1960 -- the same year Cyprus became independent -- has been posted to Washington twice before, in 1968-73 and 1974-79. He also served as his nation's envoy to India, the UN Office in Geneva, Italy and Germany before taking up his current job as ambassador to the United States in December 1996. At the small Cypriot Embassy on R Street, Nicolaides supervises a staff of 14; Cyprus also has a consulate general, trade mission and maritime office in New York.
Yet since the 1974 invasion, Cyprus has had no diplomatic relations with Turkey. The chill between the two nations is evident in Washington as well.
"I'm not shy about talking to Turkish diplomats, but they try to avoid us," said Nicolaides, whose office is dominated by a large abstract painting by his daughter Melina, an accomplished artist. "I haven't met the new Turkish ambassador yet, but I want to tell him it's about time for Turkey to change its attitude."
Apparently, special envoy Holbrooke thinks so, too. The presidential mediator ended his unsuccessful three-day trip to Cyprus on May 4, charging that the demands set by Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash make "meaningful exchange not possible," and that Washington strongly supports the unconditional entry of Cyprus into the EU.
On the other hand, Holbrooke says it isn't all Turkey's fault, telling The New York Times in an interview that "the Turks were badly treated by the EU in December, when 12 countries applied for membership and 11 were told they could apply, with Turkey being left out in the rain." He added that "the only way this can be reversed is if the EU opens its doors at least a little bit to Turkey and treats it as it should be treated, as a European nation. The Turks, for their part, have to ease up on their negative approach to Cyprus."
Adding to the rising tension is a recent announcement by President Glafcos Clerides that Cyprus will buy a battery of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia -- a decision Nicolaides justifies as part of Cypriot efforts to protect itself from Turkish aggression.
"There is an understanding that Turkey should be blamed for the unsuccessful visit of Holbrooke to the island," said the diplomat. "For so many years, Turkey exploited its position during the Soviet rule of Eastern Europe, using the fear of Islamic fundamentalism to scare the West in order to receive military, political and economic support."
Now, he argues, the United States must use its enormous leverage with Turkey to convince Ankara to pull its estimated 40,000 troops out of northern Cyprus, noting that the U.S. Congress has repeatedly declared that "the status quo on Cyprus is unacceptable and detrimental to the interests of the United States."
While EU membership isn't a substitute for a solution to the Cyprus dilemma, he says, "the EU is in a unique position to help, because [membership] will provide Cypriots with a strong sense of security and belonging, and will allow them to bury old animosities, suspicions and confrontations."
Asked if that's a realistic goal, Nicolaides says his tiny country has no choice.
"Whatever happens, our accession process will continue. The situation will not stop Cyprus from harmonizing itself with the EU," he concludes. "We have to be optimistic. I don't know how long the Turkish intransigence will continue, but one day they will have to pay the price."