He didn’t need the word “virtually”. The outcome of the recent election in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus means that the status quo that has prevailed on the divided island for the past 36 years will become permanent –– but it also means that the broader strategic realities in the region will start to change. The changes will not be to the long-term advantage of the Greek-ruled Republic of Cyprus.
Most of Cyprus’s people have spoken Greek for three thousand years, but there has also been a Turkish-speaking minority since the Ottoman conquest in the 16th century. The seeds of inter-communal conflict were already there under Ottoman and British imperial rule, but they only grew into a full-scale confrontation when the EOKA guerilla movement launched its campaign to drive the British out in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, EOKA was not actually seeking independence, which the Turkish minority on the island and Turkey itself would have accepted. Its goal was “enosis”, union with Greece, although the Greek mainland was 800 km to the west and the Turkish coast was only 75 km away. Neither the Turkish-Cypriots nor Ankara would accept that, and the Turkish-Cypriots began to arm themselves too.
Turkey, Greece and Britain were all much more concerned about the Soviet threat in the region, however, so in 1960 they imposed a deal on Cyprus that gave the island independence as a bi-national republic. The Turkish-speaking minority got 30% of the seats in parliament and a veto on any changes in the constitution.
Britain, Greece and Turkey all guaranteed the settlement, but it only lasted three years, mainly because EOKA remained a strong force in the island and was still determined on “enosis”. Fighting broke out in 1963, and the Turkish-Cypriots were driven into enclaves that were effectively besieged by Greek-Cypriot forces.
The United Nations sent in a peace-keeping force that froze the situation for the next eleven years, but in 1974 the Greek military junta sponsored a bloody military coup in Cyprus. The elected government was replaced by a band of former EOKA fighters who promised to unify the island with Greece, and Turkey called on Britain (which still has military bases in Cyprus) to fulfill its duty as guarantor and intervene.
When Britain refused, the Turks invaded. 150 000 Greek-Cypriots fled or were driven south before the advancing Turkish forces, while 50 000 Turkish-Cypriots living in the south sought safety behind the Turkish lines. When the fighting ended, all the Turkish-Cypriots were in the north, and all the Greek-Cypriots were in the south.
The Greek-Cypriots had brought disaster upon themselves by ignoring strategic realities and bidding too high, and that pattern has continued down to the present. A UN-backed proposal to reunify the island as a federal republic (with a limited right of return for the refugees) was supported by the Turkish-Cypriots but rejected by the Greek-Cypriots in parallel referendums in 2004.
Negotiations between the president of the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (which is recognised by nobody but Turkey) continued down to last month, but yielded no result. The Turkish-Cypriots were no longer dramatically poorer than their Greek counterparts, and they were losing interest in reunification.
On April 18 Dervis Eroglu, who opposes reunification, was elected president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and for all practical purposes the long story reached its end. The island will remain permanently divided along the current lines, although it may be many years before other countries acknowledge that fact by formally recognising the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
This fact will have far-reaching consequences, for it means that Turkey will never join the European Union. Without a settlement in Cyprus, the Greek veto on Turkish membership is permanent –– but Greece’s leverage over Turkey will vanish once Ankara abandons its quest to join the EU.
There is no reason to believe that the present Turkish government would do anything to disturb the status quo in Cyprus. Perhaps no Turkish government ever will. But Turkey is re-emerging as the dominant regional power after a century-long gap: Greece is no match for it, and the EU is not a military organisation.
Greek-Cypriots may believe that their own EU membership is an adequate guarantee of their security, but it is not. In a future where Turkey is no longer constrained by the prospect of EU membership, their security will depend mainly on Turkish goodwill.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.