On Feb. 13 Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders and the United Nations announced agreement on a historic framework that could result in the reunification of Cyprus by May 1. Agreement on the “Annan Plan,” named after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, comes after 30 years of struggle to end the partition and Turkish occupation. John Bachtell visited the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, located due south of Turkey, in June 2003 and conducted several interviews there. He files this report.
NICOSIA, Cyprus – The walk through the UN-administered buffer zone is eerie. Concrete block walls are crowned with barbed wire. Armed UN sentries peer from observation towers. This is the famous 187-mile-long Green Line dividing Cyprus and its population of Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots ever since the 1974 Turkish invasion and occupation.
But something new is happening. The Green Line is opening. Turkish and Greek Cypriots are getting reacquainted after years of separation. “Rapprochement” has totally discredited the idea that “Greek and Turkish Cypriots can not live together,” Andros Kyprianou told a visitor. Kyprianou is international secretary of the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) and a member of parliament.
In the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections in the Turkish-occupied north, the pro-reunification Republican Turkish Party (RTP) in alliance with the Peace and Democracy Movement won 48 percent of the vote, slightly more than the ruling parties. The victory overcame intimidation from the regime of Raul Denktas, the Turkish Cypriot nationalist in power since the 1974 invasion.
Despite the deep divisions in the north, the election gives hope the wall will come tumbling down.
Cyprus: strategic Mediterranean island
The island nation of Cyprus (population 900,000), the mythological birthplace of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, is located in the far eastern Mediterranean. Geography has chosen Cyprus to be a strategic crossroads of trade, occupation and spoil of war for thousands of years. Its name is derived from the word “copper” whose rich deposits were exploited for centuries. Today the copper mines are closed and the Cyprus economy is based on tourism and international banking.
Successive empires, including the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and Turkish Ottomans ruled it, resulting in the current population of Greek Cypriots (78 percent), Turkish Cypriots (18 percent) and other smaller minorities.
The British began colonizing Cyprus in 1878 and annexed it in 1914 at the start of World War I. This sparked a bitter independence struggle, which accelerated after the Second World War. The British maintained rule by dividing Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Nationalism was inflamed by dangling annexation of Cyprus before both Greece and Turkey. The British coaxed Turkey to infiltrate paramilitary goons to terrorize Turkish Cypriots advocating bi-communalism. Meanwhile discrimination against the Turkish Cypriot minority went unchecked.
The Cypriot independence movement was victorious in 1960. However, the new country was forced to concede to the British territory for two large military bases. The bases quartered 10,000 troops and were staging areas for British military operations in the Middle East.
The Green Line is drawn
The leader of the Cypriot independence movement was Greek Orthodox Church Archbishop Makarios (1913-1977). After independence he became the first president and guided Cyprus on a path of non-alignment in foreign affairs and relations with the Soviet Union. This alarmed British and U.S. imperialism, which feared a “Cuba in the Mediterranean.” Plans were hatched to overthrow the democratically elected government.
It was not until the early 1970s that U.S. ruling circles felt an urgency to “solve the Cyprus problem once and for all.” Faced with a fiscal crisis, Britain’s Heath Labor government proposed closing one of the bases. Alarmed, the Nixon administration swung into action.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, architect of the bloody coup in Chile, arranged a deal between Greece and Turkey to partition Cyprus. The plot unfolded when the U.S.-installed military junta in Greece carried out a coup of the Makarios government on July 15, 1974, and signaled its intention to annex Cyprus. The Turkish military government responded by invading and still occupies 37 percent of the island with 40,000 troops.
Over 3,000 people were killed or disappeared. Turkish Cypriots living in the south were forced to move to the northern occupied area and Greek Cypriots were forced to move south. Over 30 percent of the island’s population became refugees.
For years the military establishment in Turkey sought to formalize the annexation of the occupied area. About 120,000 peasants from Turkey’s Anatolia region were resettled there in direct violation of international law, and were awarded property belonging to Greek Cypriots who had been expelled. But occupation and international isolation has kept the northern part of Cyprus in a state of poverty. Over 50,000 Turkish Cypriots have been forced to emigrate.
Partitioned and dominated by NATO, Cyprus would be used for Cold War strategic purposes and became one of the most heavily militarized places in the world. U.S. imperialism used the British military bases and its own secret installations in the north to spy on Soviet military forces. They were vital to domination of Middle East oil reserves and protection of the Mediterranean Sea shipping lanes. Nuclear weapons were stationed off the coast.
After the Soviet Union collapsed the independence struggle confronted new global realities, including U.S. imperialism’s sole superpower ambition. Today Cyprus is not only coveted for its strategic location and the British military bases. U.S. policy is also related to immediate and long-term regional interests: the cohesion of NATO in the southern region, stable Greek-Turkish bilateral relations, and Turkey’s EU aspirations. As a key U.S. ally, Turkey is integral to plans for the Middle East region and developing an east-west corridor to Caspian Sea and Transcaucasian oil.
The election of today’s Erdogan government in Turkey brought a change in attitude toward Cyprus, opening the door for UN mediated reunification talks. But these collapsed in March 2003 when the Bush administration promised Turkey’s still powerful military leaders support for annexation of the occupied sector. In return Turkey would support the invasion of Iraq.
Rapprochement transforms Cyprus
Over the past 10 years the friendship movement between Turkish and Greek Cypriots has blossomed. Bi-communal events and festivals have been held between trade unionists, teachers, youth, artists, athletes and others. There is majority sentiment for ending the partition.
Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriot workers have been maintained all along according to Pambis Kyritsis, head of the 70,000 strong Pancyprian Federation of Labor (PEO). “In the past we had thousands of Turkish Cypriot members. But (with partition) they were obliged to have their own union. After 1974 we started intensive efforts to bring the communities together,” he said
“Today an All-Cyprus Trade Union Forum gathers all trade unionists in Cyprus – Greeks and Turks. This is the only bi-communal platform that has developed clear solutions for reunification of the country,” said Kyritsis.
PEO is aiding the Turkish Cypriot workers employed in the free area of Cyprus. They are fighting to prevent discrimination, essential if rapprochement is to be successful.
The friendship movement has radically transformed Cypriot politics. In February 2003 a new center-left coalition government was elected advocating reunification. The coalition is made up of AKEL (formerly the Communist Party of Cyprus), the leading party with 35 percent; the Democratic Party of the current president Tassos Papadopoulos (17 percent); the Socialists, Greens and some other minor parties and movements.
Shift among Turkish Cypriots
Izzet Izcan and Ozker Ozgur are two leaders of the United Cyprus Party (UCP) based in the Turkish-occupied area. Sitting at a café on Lidras Street in Nicosia, which abruptly ends at a UN barricade, they are approached by a steady stream of well wishers.
The Dec. 15 vote reflected a sweeping shift in thinking among the Turkish Cypriot population toward reunification.
With the influx of Turkish settlers and exodus of Turkish Cypriots, “people have realized that unless they act, it’s the end of the Turkish Cypriot community. The EU process, the Annan plan, the new government in Turkey and the economic crisis in the north have all contributed to the mass uprising,” said Izcan.
The UCP is just a year old but was instrumental in initiating the Peace and Democracy Movement and the alliance with the Turkish Republican Party in the elections.
“Even though the Annan plan is a compromise, it is the basis of a broad coalition of forces that encompasses the entire Turkish Cypriot community,” explained Ozgur.
The Annan Plan and the European Union
Only Turkey officially recognizes the Denktas government. This isolation was instrumental in forcing Denktas to open the Green Line on April 23, 2003, and to seriously negotiate. The Annan Plan resulted from years of talks. It calls for a unified country with a single citizenship residing in two equal states. The parliament would be composed of two chambers, one with equal representation and the other proportional to population. The plan calls for the removal of Turkish troops, but not the British bases.
Reunification has also been boosted by Cyprus’ acceptance to European Union (EU) membership May 1. Without an agreement, the EU will only recognize the Cyprus government and not the northern occupied area. Turkish ruling circles fear that obstructing a solution will harm Turkey’s application for EU membership.
AKEL, which had formerly opposed joining the EU, changed its position in 1995. They concluded that due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the weakening of the non-aligned movement, unfavorable conditions for unification now existed.
On this issue they differ with most European Communist parties who have opposed the formation of the EU and its expansion. No one disagrees that the EU policies favor European monopoly corporations and promote militarism. But AKEL says all possibilities should be taken advantage of.
Nor is AKEL naïve about problems accompanying EU membership. The new government is taking steps to ensure the public sector is modernized to effectively compete against monopoly corporations and privatization. AKEL will join with other European trade unions and social forces fighting to protect worker’s rights.
“We will keep up our principles and fight inside for the people,” said Kyprianou. “Nothing is easy. We are ready for difficult struggles.”
Deeply rooted in the independence and bi-communal movement, AKEL never suffered significant losses like many Communist parties after 1991. Their popularity grew throughout the 1990s. As the leading party, AKEL has four ministers in the new government and holds 26 mayoralties.
AKEL’s modest offices sit in a residential neighborhood in Nicosia. This is where one can meet Kyprianou. He recounted that after the 1974 invasion, AKEL was the lone voice for reunification.
“At the height of hostilities between the two communities, AKEL began a campaign that the ‘Turkish Cypriots are not our enemies. They are our brothers.’ AKEL members were accused of being traitors,” said Kyprianou. “We fought both Turkish and Greek nationalism. We never wavered and persistent struggle paid off.”
AKEL has been the key political force influencing public sentiment and the architect of the broad alliance for reunification. EDON, the communist youth organization, has also grown in popularity. EDON has increased its vote from 12 percent in 1994 to 42 percent in 2003 in university government elections.
AKEL envisions a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation based on total equality between the two communities. The Turkish Cypriot region would be autonomous and under their own administration. But the two communities would live together in every sense of the word. AKEL doesn’t see the Annan Plan as the final solution.
“It is very difficult to reach an ideal political solution for Cyprus. When you have broad alliances the solutions are based on how far coalition partners are willing to go,” said Kyprianou. Following unification the struggle will continue against the effects of corporate globalization, for independence from British and U.S. influence and a socialist Cyprus.
In the meantime the pressures for reunification have become unstoppable. The acceptance of the Annan Plan marks the opening of a new stage in the struggle to reunite Cyprus. The road ahead will be difficult, but confidence is strong the wall will yet come tumbling down.