Cyprus History: Ignore at your own peril

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Scratch the surface of the Cyprus Problem and what will you find?

  • Anna Koukkides-Procopiou *

The ever-popular answer to that question could probably be the post-modernist, constructivist explanation of differing historical narratives of a local power-sharing struggle between two ethnic communities, whose perceptions and misperceptions of each other and of their history of conflict supposedly matter more than realities on the ground-such attempts even taking at times the form of a self-imposed Jesuit flogging of shame, especially among Greek Cypriots.

Egl 5eAlas, more often than not, we nowadays jump into an overt analysis of the inter-relationship between these two deeply divided communities-although there are actually a few more on the island- still struggling with their own identities, riddled by the past and confused by the future.

If only these perceptions and narratives changed- or so the story goes- perhaps a new sustainable bi-communal state can rise from the ashes of ethnic conflict and a common future can be established. But, then, separating analysis from emotion, history comes calling and its calling is not very sweet.

Enter history and the obvious becomes inescapable. Conflict in Cyprus has always been less of an ethnic and more of a political affair, reflecting power politics in the region. Historically-wise, who ruled the region ruled Cyprus, who ruled Cyprus ruled the region. Being the final yet incomplete chapter to the Eastern Question, there was undoubtedly little else to expect than the bloody mess we ended up with. With the last spoils of the late Ottoman Empire (still) open to the loot, history took its toll by repeating age-old patterns the moment the pot was stirred.

Sensing the danger of colonial instability sweeping the island in the first half of the 20th century, the British proceeded to divide and rule Cyprus, as they pretty much did elsewhere; first enlisting the local ‘Muhammadans’, as they called them, to poise themselves against the raging Greeks and then, as a last resort, inviting Turkey to take its pick- despite Ottoman claims having being waived by modern-day Turkey through the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. They, thus, added a regional game-changer to an otherwise ordinary, for its time, colonial struggle between peoples and empire, a struggle hitherto chaperoned on national grounds only by Greece. Thus, the scene was set for what was to follow.

The dynamics of this power mix were only made worse, but not truly created by the two communities themselves. Yes, they might have been completely oblivious to each other’s needs and concerns to which they did not pay proper heed, but this had always been the case in Cyprus. The way the two communities treated each other is deeply rooted in the island’s history, as past historical paths of these communities had never borne any semblance of commonality.  In Ottoman times, the Greeks were the slaves to their Turkish masters; in 1821, concurrently rising against such rule as other Greeks did elsewhere. In 1878, the very first day the British landed in Cyprus, a Greek delegation met their new rulers and petitioned enosis with Greece, while at that very same time the Turkish elites sent their own petition of fears and concerns about their new-found status on the island to the Sultan. Daily personal relationships aside, there had never been throughout the history of Cyprus a precedence of equal and rightful political co-existence of the two communities; they had been used to positioning and defining themselves against each other, had sometimes managed to survive side by side, but had never felt of or  with each other. Perhaps this would not have mattered much, had not Turkey decided to take up the Turkish Cypriot cause. And take it up it did. In the way Great Powers usually do.

In fact, the history of Cyprus and the way Cyprus has been treated throughout the centuries bears witness to the fact that the Eastern Mediterranean has never been much of a post-modern civilized place. In this part of the world, disputes had rarely been settled by refined arm-twisting and diplomacy, but instead mostly taken care of by the sheer force of the sword and the bayonet. As much as Turkey does now, aspiring regional hegemons did then: given the opportunity, they claimed Cyprus, as part and parcel of establishing and sometimes restoring the balance of power in the area. For thousands of years, the tide of history has washed states and peoples away on this very same Mediterranean shores, on which 40,000 ‘peacekeeping’ Turkish troops, aptly named after Attila the Hun, have now landed and laid claim, with Turkey still trying to administer at peace the land it has gained through war.

As steady as empires rise and fall, invaders have always come and gone to Cyprus. Missing the perennial power games in the international system and focusing only on the bi-communal proxy piece of the puzzle, as a convenient cause celebre, would be as naïve as offering the existence of a Turkish Cypriot minority as the reason and not the excuse for Turkey permanently stationing itself in Cyprus, as short-sighted as explaining the shipping of illegal settlers on the island as a humanitarian act of concern and not a strategic move to change the demography of the place- in the same manner this was done in Alexandretta (Hatay) and is now done in Afrin. In fact, history bears testimony to the cause of many similar military interventions in the name of ‘justice’- they have been as old as humankind.  Power is as power does.

  • So, power politics lessons aside, why else does history matter?

Blaming only the grand scheme of things offers no amends to the past and no hope for the future. Even if not the whole story, it is necessary, albeit not sufficient, to examine and understand community dynamics on the island. Glancing through history, on the one hand, the Greek Cypriots saw themselves as the rightful owners and heirs of the state structure which, although if initially for most of them was the means to another ultimate end, still was and is the direct product of their very own proud and rather painful struggle against the British Crown with whom, in fact, the Turkish Cypriots had sided early on. It was quite an affront to every sense of justice that the Turkish Cypriots had won, through Turkish patronage, disproportionate representation in a state for which they had never fought and to whose emergence had, in fact, placed immense obstacles. Simultaneously, the Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, had no sympathy for the Greek Cypriot Enosis attempt, majority or no majority- that is to formally establish Cyprus as a bastion of Greekness. Their only hope in the face of such calamity (their second fall from grace in the space of a less than a century) was the guiding hand of Turkey, which they, too, made sure they forced, on a number of occasions. As cliché as it may sound, you cannot understand evolving future dynamics unless you are able to understand what has preceded them in the past.

Thus, history matters because you can rarely escape from it. Trying to sweep history under the carpet, without at least first trying to understand it, creates a backlash at best or a time-bomb at worst. Keeping the ruthless exercise of powerby Turkey in the area and its predominantly growing importance steadfastly out of a community-based historical narrative will not exorcise Turkish presence in any way. Akinci or no Akinci, no one bites the hand that feeds him and Turkish Cypriot leaders have only felt this too well through their decades of climbing up the slippery ladder of hierarchy in their community – a ladder that is steadily guaranteed by the presence of the Turkish army and held in place by Turkish funds and Turkish endorsement and can be as easily removed as it was once placed from under someone’s feet.

Moreover, even if reconstruction of revised historical community-based narratives and perceptions could sometimes help remold memories of experience, it can rarely help reshape or change existing experience based on hard reality itself.  It is no coincidence that attempts for rapprochement between the two communities, have through the decades remained elitist, exclusive and have failed to trickle down or convince grass roots on either side, their perceived high-handedness and intentional ignorance of history often blocking  rather than helping any possible intra-community multiplying effect.  Turkish troops stationed in Cyprus are no perception. Properties defiantly occupied by illegal settlers are no perception. The refugees, the murdered, the missing, the raped, are products of no one’s imagination.

  • So, what is, then, the way forward?

Even putting the 1974 violent experience behind them (to which the Turkish Cypriots will quickly juxtapose the 1963 bi-communal troubles), for many Greek Cypriots, the 1990s lynching of Tasos Isaak by a manic mob, supervised by ‘police’ authorities, under the gaze of the UN, and the cold-bloodied murder of Solakis Solomou which followed (by someone, nonetheless, who still finds himself rooted in the upper echelons of Turkish Cypriot power structures, despite being on Interpol’s wanted list) act as strong reminders of the anarchy of lawlessness on the other side, only made worse by the absence of true democracy and the rule of law- an anathema to any citizen. For many decades, the two communities in Cyprus have trodden down increasingly divergent historical paths of social, economic and political development. Janus-faced as they have become, one is rooted in traditions of the West, the other fast headed towards traditions of the East. Any future discussions of a possible solution should bear this in mind. As much as the presence of army guarantees for one’s civic liberties in a state may seem acceptable to the mind forced to be comfortable with such a notion, the more preposterous this idea would seem to the other.

At the moment, the dictatorial Mr. Erdogan is no easy bed-fellow and certainly no guarantor of civil rights and liberties for his own citizens, let alone others.

No Greek Cypriot in their right mind would ever accept that he is. History is a stern teacher.

  • Senior Fellow Member of Advisory Board Center for European and International Affairs-University of Nicosia
  • Also published: InDepth & ModernDiplomacy

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