The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War, by Makarios Drousiotis; and the latest Crisis Group report

NB that this post is not a complete history of the Cyprus problem; it is more of a note to myself about why two different publications are interesting. I should also say that my employers, former and current, are under no obligation to agree with me on any of the below.

Second paragraph of third chapter of The Cyprus Crisis and the Cold War: USSR duplicity versus US realpolitik (1974-1977), by Makarios Drousiotis:

Military operations had displaced 160,000 Greek Cypriots – one-third of the population – from their homes. Most of them fled empty-handed. They were housed wherever they could be accommodated, with tens of thousands living in tents and under trees. Approximately 13,000 Greek Cypriots remained enclaved in the northern part, mostly in the Karpas peninsula. By the end of the military operations, 25,000 of the 120,000 Turkish Cypriots remained in the south. Of these, about 10,000 fearing reprisals, fled to the British Bases west of Limassol. Around 10,000 Turkish Cypriots lived in Paphos and a smaller number in Larnaca. Those who were close to the Attila line left easily for the north. The two-way movement of people, whether pushed out by force or prompted by fear, and the control of the northern part by the Turkish army created a new reality on the ground.

Second paragraph of third section of An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus, by the International Crisis Group:

The working groups set up through this process reached preliminary agreement on citizenship and voting issues, as well as much of the post-unification governance framework. In their first meeting off the island, during a round of negotiations in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, in November 2016, the two leaders agreed on a range for the area of the island’s territory the Turkish Cypriot constituent state would cover: from 28.2 to 29.2 per cent.

A quirk of fate threw these two documents together for me. They cover rather different periods of the recent history of Cyprus, but end up in depressingly similar places. Drawing on many official documents, including those recently declassified, Makarios Drousiotis has compiled a good and authoritative book-length account of what actually happened immediately before, during and after the Turkish military operations of July and August 1974, as a result of which the island has been divided between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot territory ever since (with also a UN-controlled buffer zone and two sovereign British military bases). Talks to reunify the island have made very little progress since then, or really since 1963.

Drousiotis’ explicit aim in writing the book was to puncture the myth that the Americans and Henry Kissinger in particular were behind the Turkish military intervention; and also the myth that the Soviet Union had been helpful and supportive of the Greek Cypriots throughout. Both of these propositions are widely believed among Greek Cypriots, and elsewhere. Neither, as Drousiotis shows, is true.

The contemporary evidence is clear: when the Greek junta attempted to kill Archbishop Makarios and overthrew his government, they were condemned by pretty much everyone, including the Soviet Union. The swiftness, extent and brutality of the second Turkish military operation in August came as a surprise to all other international actors, including the Americans. Drousiotis writes of personally witnessing a friend dying under the wheels of a British armoured vehicle during one of the subsequent protests.

The Americans, consumed by the domestic crisis leading up to Nixon’s resignation on 9 August, were concerned to keep Turkey on board with NATO, didn’t care too much about the government of Greece, and cared even less about Cyprus except in so far as it was a nuisance factor. The USSR on the other hand didn’t care about Cyprus at all except that they wanted to prevent the island being used by NATO, and if possible to use it to weaken Turkey’s relationship with NATO. There was no grand scheme to aid the Turkish intervention from the USA, and no coherent strategy of opposing it from the USSR.

The full detail of failed negotiations between Denktash and Clerides / Makarios over the next three years, up to the sudden death of Makarios, is actually rather tedious. Neither side was really interested in reaching a settlement, because both felt that they would be strengthened by the passage of time. Despite the massive investment of time and energy in the process from the United Nations, the UK, the USA and others (though not the USSR), negotiations were basically a sham to cover the race between the principals to be out of the door second. I found a compelling 1974 quote from Makarios on one of the key issues:

“If I have to choose between the 40% held by the Turks and the 28% that we shall probably end up with, I prefer that they keep the 40% even against our will, rather than that they hold 28% with our consent.”

Well, he got what he wanted, or at least what he wanted at that point.

It is striking just how poorly most of the Cypriots on both sides behaved. Makarios appointed Clerides as chief negotiator and then undermined him from the first moment. Denktash knew his side had won the ground war, and enjoyed watching the Greek Cypriots tie themselves in knots. Even Clerides, who generally gets a good press (and usually deserves it), decided at one point to ally with the remnants of EOKA B who had connived in the short-lived July 1974 coup. (Not mentioned here, but he had also overseen the expulsion of Turkish Cypriot MPs in 1963.)

In the last few months of his life, Makarios suddenly decided that he wanted a settlement after all, and was ready to concede bizonality, a vital Turkish Cypriot demand. But he had not prepared his own hardliners for this about-face, and was losing authority at the time of his death. Another good quote has him at this stage telling hardliner Vassos Lyssarides (who died only two years ago at the age of 100),

It is not sufficient to remain on the heroic ramparts but it is necessary to advance.

But it was too late – not just three years too late, but fourteen. In his closing summary, Drousiotis assesses Makarios’ record brutally; it was his choices and strategy that led to the Greece-backed coup and the Turkish intervention in 1974; even though the Greek and Turkish government obviously bear responsibility for their own actions, better choices by Makarios (and other Greek Cypriot leaders, but he was at the top) from the very beginning would have prevented the situation from getting to that stage.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. You can get it here. Next on that list is American Gridlock: The Sources, Character, and Impact of Political Polarization, by James A. Thurber.

The International Crisis Group’s latest report on the situation, An Island Divided: Next Steps for Troubled Cyprus, rehearses in convincing and depressing detail the internal (and external) blocks to any new negotiation process starting, let alone finishing. I was a bit stunned by the bleak conclusion; I am used to Crisis Group making virtuous if not always practical recommendations for what could be done to improve a particular situation, but in this case it’s just “the parties should try a more conciliatory approach”. Well, yes.

A helpful appendix lists 22 proposals related to trade, hydrocarbons and/or Varosha/Maraş which were put forward between 1978 and 2022. Eighteen of them were completely blocked, and only four of them were in any way implemented; the opening of checkpoints, the demining process, the EU’s regulations and the interoperability of the cellphone network. Otherwise we are where we were in 1974.

The report has particular resonances for me because 19 years ago, when I was Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director, I wrote an op-ed signed by my bosses, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, advocating the Annan Plan for the reunification of the island (NYT, ICG). I wrote then:

A failure to seize the opportunity of a peace deal now, against the imminent time-scale of EU membership, will mean years of further stalemate, with no refugees returning anywhere, continued armed presence on the island, and an EU member state government that controls only 60 percent of its own territory.

Well, I told you so. The plan was passed by the Turkish Cypriots but rejected by Greek Cypriots in twin referenda a few days later, and the situation now is exactly what I predicted in 2004. (I don’t claim any special genius in making this prediction; I was certainly not alone.)

Two years later, in 2006, I went to Nicosia, Athens and Istanbul to present Crisis Group’s first report on Cyprus. We were among the first to say directly that the Greek Cypriots had voted for continuing partition by rejecting the Annan Plan. This was not universally popular, and one newspaper accused me of coming to the island with “the impudence of a thousand monkeys”, “με αναίδεια χίλιων πιθήκων”. But I think it had to be said.

Shortly after, I left Crisis Group to join Independent Diplomat, where I became an adviser to Denktash’s successor as Turkish Cypriot president, Mehmet Ali Talat, a sincere and modest man who was genuinely committed to reunifying the island but lacked a serious partner on the other side. (Tassos Papadopoulos was too hardline, and Dimitris Christofias too stupid.) A Greek commentator, Marios Evriviades, in a blog post of around 2011 that has been widely reprinted on Greek nationalist sites (I won’t link, you can easily Google them), states:

Whyte, υπεύθυνος της ICG για την έρευνα και την συγγραφή της κυπριακής έκθεσης, εξαναγκάσθηκε σε παραίτηση διότι άρχισε να αντιδρά στο μακρύ χέρι της Άγκυρας και να διαφοροποιείται κάπως από τη μέχρι τότε απόλυτα φιλοτουρκική στάση του ICG.Whyte, ICG’s head of research and writing of the Cyprus report, was forced to resign because he began to react to the long arm of Ankara and diverge somewhat from the ICG’s until then completely pro-Turkish stance.

This is all completely untrue, and it is very much to Evrivriades’ discredit that he allows these untruths to continue to circulate years after I informed him of the facts. My ICG job was not head of research; I was not the major writer of the first Cyprus report, though I agreed with it and was its main editor; I was not forced to resign from ICG; I didn’t and don’t diverge from ICG’s stance which I think was and is largely correct; I don’t think that ICG’s stance was completely pro-Turkish, beyond the obvious facts; and in any case I moved from ICG to a job where I was actively working with the Turkish Cypriot leadership, which hardly supports the proposition that I was reacting against the long arm of Ankara.

President Talat lost the 2010 election, and my personal involvement with Cyprus ended there; I have only been back once since then. His successor was a hardliner; he was in turn succeeded by a pro-settlement leader; he too was unable to reach a deal at Crans-Montana in 2017, lost election in 2020 and has been replaced by yet another hardliner.

I no longer think it matters. Back in the day when I was involved, I did think that it was possible that there might some day be a convergence of a pro-settlement leadership on both sides of the island, with or without the blessings of Ankara and Athens. I think this has now been disproved by the failure of the rounds of negotiations since then. I know and admire several of the previous chief negotiators on each side, but I think their task is impossible.

Both Drousiotis’ book, dealing with the mid-70s, and the Crisis Group report, from almost half a century later, make it clear that there is not and has never been a critical mass in Greek Cypriot political discourse in favour of agreeing a deal with the Turkish Cypriots that will involve sharing power and territory with them. On reflection, I think that this has been consistently the case since at least 1963. The default position now is still Makarios’ “I prefer that they keep the 40% even against our will, rather than that they hold 28% with our consent”. It doesn’t matter who the Turkish Cypriots elect; the systemic blockage is on the other side.

As I said, I am no longer involved in the situation myself; I’m just saying that the status quo, which has now lasted since 1974 is likely to be the long term situation, and that’s probably a better basis for strategy than wishful thinking about any comprehensive settlement. I am very sorry about that. Cyprus deserves better, and so do we all.