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.

Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait, by Yvonne Çerkez

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Judge Raif, although instrumental in helping Rauf to navigate through the intricacies of Cyprus’ politics, hoped his legacy would extend to more than Rauf becoming better informed. He also wanted to instil in Rauf the importance of becoming an active member of the law profession. The dedicated Judge had maintained an almost obsessive stance on the necessity to have educated Turkish Cypriots remaining on home sod. His opinions stemmed from the idea that knowledgeable citizens would not only advocate amendments to the law but also be in a position to challenge and produce effective changes beneficial for the Turkish Cypriot community.

I never met Rauf Denktaş, though I once walked past his car as it was leaving the presidential office in northern Nicosia, and he gave me a friendly smile and an amicable wave; I was on my way in, to a meeting with Mehmet Ali Talat, his successor, and I guess he had just been there for the same reason. I spent four years immersed in the Cyprus issue a few years ago, first with the International Crisis Group and then as an adviser to President Talat with Independent Diplomat; I stay in touch as best I can, though it has frankly gone off the boil in recent years.

This is an unapologetically positive biography of the Turkish Cypriot leader, written presumably on the basis of many conversations with him (he was famously talkative) and with no claims or pretence to objectivity. This is actually refreshingly honest; in Cyprus, as in many other conflicts, many writers feel the urge to prove that their own truth is the only truth, whereas here we are just getting Denktaş’s version of events. He had a remarkable career, a London-trained lawyer who rose to the top of a small embattled community and, for good or ill, created a state for them which still exists, even if unrecognised.

There is a lot of good chewy detail about Denktaş’s early years and family. (The half-way point in the book, page 150 of 300 pages of the main narrative, comes at the end of the 1964 crisis when Denktaş had just turned 40 and had almost another half century to live.) It’s a bit less satisfying once we get into the weeds of Cyprus politics, because the book is only interested in one person, and although he was indeed pretty important, there are other important figures too. Beyond a couple anecdotes of Denktaş arguing or joking with them (or both) we don’t get much of a feeling for Makarios, Küçük or Clerides, let alone any of the Turkish political leaders.

The most interesting thing politically for me was that Denktaş (by his own account) had to lobby very hard to get attention from Ankara to the Cyprus issue in the years up to 1974. The received wisdom by the time that I got involved was that Turkey and the TRNC were in a symbiotic relationship, and there were mutterings about the tail wagging the dog when Denktaş was at the height of his powers. But in fact Turkey did not take its treaty responsibilities very seriously at first, and in the 1950s and 1960s Denktaş was constantly frustrated by Ankara. (This is where a Turkey-focused perspective would have been really illuminating. The received wisdom is that Denktaş got a lot more help from Turkey than he allows here.)

The book skips over a lot of key questions, presumably because Denktaş himself didn’t want to talk to the author about them because he found the topics either embarrassing or boring (or both). What was the extent of his involvement with the TMT’s violence in the 1950s? How did he lose the confidence of both Ankara and his own voters at the end of his career? After everything that happened, was it all worth it?

But in the end, it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is; primary material, rather than a primer.

This was the very last book that I had acquired in 2015 that was still on my unread shelf. (Actually acquired rather early in that year, at a memorial service in London to mark the second anniversary of his death in January 2013.)

Last book acquired in 2015, read in November 2022 (Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait)
Last books acquired in 2014, read in October 2021 (The Empire of Time and Crashland)
Last book acquired in 2013, read in October 2020 (Helen Waddell)
Last book acquired in 2012, read in May 2020 (A Sacred Cause: The Inter-Congolese dialogue 2000-2003)
Last book acquired in 2011, read in October 2019 (Luck and the Irish)
Last book acquired in 2010, read in January 2019 (Heartspell)
Last book acquired in 2009, read in December 2016 (Last Exit to Babylon)

That opens up the books acquired in 2016, which I’ll hope to get through a bit quicker than I managed for previous years, starting in this order:

  • Hyperspace Demons, by Jonathan Moeller – shortest unread book acquired in 2016
  • To Rule in Amber, by John Betancourt – earliest acquired unread sf book
  • Faith in Politics, by John Bruton – earliest acquired unread non-fiction book
  • A Darker Shade, ed. John-Henri Holmberg – earliest acquired unread non-genre fiction book
  • Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by Lawrence M. Schoen – top unread book acquired in 2016 as by number of LibraryThing users who own it

Meanwhile you can get Rauf Denktaş, a Private Portrait here.

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak; and a brief note on the Green Line in Nicosia

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The heat had started in the small hours of the morning, swiftly building up. Around ten o’clock, it had fully erupted into being, just after Turks and Greeks on each side of the Green Line had finished their morning coffees. Now it was past noon and the air was stiff, difficult to breathe. The roads were cracked in places, the tar melting in rivulets, the colour of charred wood. A car somewhere revved its engine, its rubber tyres struggling on the sticky asphalt. Then, silence.

A novel set in Cyprus and London, by well-known Turkish writer Elif Shafak, telling several parallel stories of forbidden love and tragic death from the points of view of the protagonists and also from the perspective of the fig tree in their garden, both on the smaller island and a shoot from it that is planted in the London garden. I confess that because I am already familiar with the history and current situation of Cyprus, I was not very surprised by any of it, and I found the imagery frankly a bit clunky (eg the parallel between the fig tree, buried for its own protection, and the corpses of civilians killed in 1974, thrown down a well to protect their killers). But if the novel brings the island’s story to a new generation of readers who aren’t as familiar with it, that’s fine by me. You can get it here.

Reading it did make me dig into the archives and find the original Green Line map of Nicosia as drawn by a British officer, Major-General Peter Young, in 1963, and compare it with the current situation (ie since 1974) on OpenStreetMaps. It’s striking that in the city centre, very little has changed at all, and there’s not a lot of difference in the nearer suburbs either. Further out, of course, is a different matter.

I used to have fantasies of some day opening a long-shut cupboard in the Green Zone to find a bunch of tapes of lost Doctor Who stories, abandoned by some luckless TV technician in 1974, but in fact now that I’ve established that the Green Zone in Nicosia is still basically where it was when established in 1963, I accept that this is never going to happen, especially not to me.