The Cyprus Conundrum

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

Why does Cyprus matter for the Armenians? Because its history is intimately intertwined with ours. At one point in history, Armenia’s destiny was bartered against Cyprus. The medieval Armenian kingdom of Cilicia had close relations with the Greek principalities on the island, until the Armenian kingdom fell victim to the Mamluks in Egypt and the island was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in 1571.

During the occupation of Cyprus, the Ottomans settled 40,000 Armenians on the island.

In modern times, the Armenian question was featured in the world political forum for the first time in 1878, at the conclusion of the Russo-Ottoman war, which allowed the victorious Tsarist army to arrive and camp at San Stefano, where a peace treaty was signed between the warring parties. The Russian side, posing as the protector of Christian minorities of the Ottoman Empire, was able to include Article 16 in the treaty, which demanded that the sultan carry out reforms in the Armenian provinces and report about those reforms to the tsar.

That left Britain apprehensive, as for centuries its policy was designed to keep away Russia from the warm waters of the Mediterranean. And with the new treaty, Russia also gained control over the Dardanelles Strait.

Britain’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was able to convene another conference, this time in Berlin, to revise the treaty. At the Berlin Conference of 1878, the Armenian question was placed on the back burner, this time by Article 61 of the new treaty, which had watered down the restrictions on the sultan. Thus, the noose was kept away from the sultan’s neck, to treat the minorities the way he had been treating them always — using pogroms, persecution, heavy taxing and abuse of human rights in general.

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As a sign of gratitude for the precious gift, the Sultan ceded Cyprus to Britain, to serve as a military base in the eastern Mediterranean until 1960, when Cyprus became an independent state. However, Britain has kept forces there to this day, titled British Forces Cyprus.

Cyprus, once again featured in Armenian history in 1917 when 4,000 volunteers were trained there to invade Palestine and defeat the Ottoman German forces in World War I.

After Armenians were evacuated from Cilicia in 1921, many of them found a safe haven on the island, where later on the Melkonian Educational Institute was built, which played a historic role in the development of Armenian intellectual life.

The Greek guerilla organization EOKA for four years waged a war of independence under Gen. Georgios Grivas, until a treaty was signed in Switzerland in 1960 and Britain finally gave up its colonial rule. However, there was a caveat in that treaty, which would jeopardize the independence of the country; Turkey, Britain and Greece were named as guarantors of independence.

The treaty gave an excuse to Turkey to invade the island in 1974 and occupy 38 percent of its territory in the north, which later would become the Turkish Republic of Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey.

There is a false narrative, which is gaining traction in the media and in history books. The Turkish invasion of Cyprus by Bulant Ecevit’s Altilla Forces, was concocted by the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. At that time, Greece was under the rule of a junta, similar to juntas throughout South America planted by Kissinger. The Greek colonels would act only under the orders of Washington.

Kissinger wanted to reward Turkey as an ally and to give a lesson to Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios, who was throwing in his lot at that time with non-aligned nations (Egypt, Indonesia, India and Yugoslavia).

Suddenly, Archbishop Makarios was overthrown and an adventurer named Nikos Sampson became the ruler and supposedly called for Enosis (union with Greece).

That gave a sufficient pretext to Turkey to invade the island in August 1974. When the Greek army tried to intervene, Mr. Kissinger warned that Greek forces would be intercepted by the US Air Force.

The United Nations condemned the aggression and called on Turkey to withdraw its forces. The US joined the condemnation with a cosmetic action: putting an arms embargo in place against Turkey (similar to Article 90 of the Freedom Support Act against Azerbaijan, a toothless and symbolic action.)

Forty thousand Turkish forces have been occupying Northern Cyprus and refusing all plans to unite the country. Before the occupation, Turks represented only 18 percent of the population. Later on, Turkey imported new settlers from the mainland to the chagrin of the Cypriot Turks who had more in common with the local Greeks than mainland Turks.

Demonstrations by Cypriot Turks against Turkish occupation made no difference.

Negotiations over many decades have led nowhere because of Turkish intransigence. In 2004, the plan submitted by UN Secretary General Kofi Anan, was overwhelmingly approved by the Turkish side and defeated with similar numbers of votes in the south, because the Anan plan simply asked that the entire nation of Cyprus, and not just the north, be brought under Turkish tutelage.

For a long period, the two sides were at loggerheads. Negotiations went nowhere. Contrary to Turkey’s objections, the European Union admitted the Republic of Cyprus (as opposed to the Turkish Republic of Cyprus in the north) as a member, which Ankara refuses to recognize.

However, the picture is changing now. During the last 20 weeks, the two parties have been back at the negotiating table. President Nicos Anastasiades and Mr. Mustafa Akinci have been carrying out intensive talks.

One would ask what factor motivated the two sides to negotiate in earnest this time. Huge deposits of gas have been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean. That caused a Greek-Israeli rapprochement and Cyprus began to develop plans for explorations with Israel.

At the beginning, Ankara threatened to intervene militarily. But, at this time, when Turkey is bogged down in Syria, waging a domestic war against the Kurds, it can ill afford to confront Israel. That is why Erdogan settled his dispute with Israel, because Turkey as well will be a beneficiary of the oil windfall if peace and stability are restored to the region. The other beneficiaries will be Lebanon and Syria.

Negotiations are focused on six chapters; four of them are almost wrapped up — governance and power sharing, property, economy and membership in the European Union. The Turks will give up some territory — from 38 percent to 29.2 percent — to have access to a rotating presidency in a federal system. Erdogan is insisting on the Turkish guarantee and has vowed to keep the Turkish forces on the island forever. The Greek side is pointing to the European membership for guarantees for all parties and has declared the 1960 treaty as obsolete.

The enticing prospect of economic benefit is so overpowering that it may eventually break Erdogan’s intransigence and bring peace to the island.