Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 3   No. 12 Table of Contents
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December 2001 

Last Tango in Nicosia
by Thomas Patrick Carroll

Thomas Patrick Carroll is a freelance writer and former officer in the Clandestine Service of the Central Intelligence Agency.

If ever there were a permanent fixture in Eastern Mediterranean politics, it would have to be the Cyprus dispute. For decades, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots - led, respectively, by Glafcos Clerides and Rauf Denktas - have been conducting on-again, off-again talks aimed at reconciling their two estranged communities. But the years have rolled by and the talks have gone nowhere, despite the coaxing and cajoling of a host of states and international luminaries, including the UN Secretary General, an assortment of European foreign ministers and parliamentarians, more than one American Secretary of State, and even, on occasion, the Pope.

Now, however, that seemingly endless stalemate may be giving way.

On December 4, 2001, Clerides and Denktas got together for a meeting in a house in the buffer zone that separates the Turkish north from the Greek south. The meeting lasted about 75 minutes and was the first time Clerides and Denktas had seen each other in over four years. It also marked the end of Denktas's 13-month-old boycott of the UN-sponsored reunification talks. When the meeting was over, both Clerides and Denktas said they would resume talks on January 16, 2002, amid unprecedented optimism. But why the optimism? There have been talks before - lots and lots of talks, all for naught. Why should this new round be any different?

There are two reasons. The first (and most significant) involves Cyprus's application for membership in the European Union (EU), and the second springs from America's war on terrorism. Together they put unprecedented pressure on the two sides to come to agreement on a reunification scheme, and to do it quickly.

Denktas referred to this new series of talks as "the last tango", meaning that if negotiations fail this time, Cyprus may not get another chance. Denktas is right. And if this opportunity is indeed lost, the consequences for all - Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, the EU, and the United States - will be grim.

Cyprus through the Centuries

What the island of Cyprus lacks in size (140 miles long and 60 miles across at its widest spot), it makes up for in history. Beginning life as a Mycenaean colony in the 14th century BC, Cyprus has seen almost continuous foreign rule. The Mycenaeans were displaced by the Assyrian conquest, which in turn was followed by the Persian, Roman, and Byzantine empires. England's Richard I took Cyprus in 1191 during the Third Crusade, and it remained part of Western Christendom until 1571, when it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans at that time already controlled Asia Minor and the Levant, including Egypt, so the acquisition of Cyprus was probably inevitable.

The Turks held Cyprus for over 300 years. Then, in 1878, a much-weakened Ottoman Empire was obliged to lease the island to Great Britain under the provisions of the Treaty of Berlin. The British formally annexed Cyprus in 1914, and made it a crown colony in 1925. Just about then, London began to realize it had a problem, and the problem had a name: enosis.


War between the Greeks and the Turks goes back to the 11th century, when the Seljuk (Turkish) Empire first began taking chunks of Asia Minor from the Byzantine (Greek) Empire. The Ottoman Turks succeeded the Seljuks at the end of the 13th century, and vigorously continued the Turkish conquests of Byzantium. By the time Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, almost all formerly Byzantine territory was in Turkish hands, including all of what is today modern Greece. The last holdout was the Empire of Trebizond, a tiny Greek sliver on the Black Sea coast, which fell to the Turks in 1461.

The conquered Greek minority lived well under the Ottomans, or as well as subject peoples ever do. The Turks recognized a Greek millet within the Ottoman Empire, and allowed it a fair degree of self-rule. (Other minorities, such as Armenians and Jews, were also given semi-autonomy as separate millets.)1

The Greek millet prospered in both commerce and government, with many Orthodox Greeks achieving high office at the Sublime Port in Istanbul. But however enlightened it may be, foreign rule never engenders much loyalty from the conquered. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the nationalist bug was spreading among the Greeks, helped along eagerly by their Orthodox brethren in Russia.

At last, in 1821, the Greeks rebelled. After a bloody war that lasted almost ten years, they won independence from Istanbul in 1830. But the newly independent country was only half the size of modern Greece. In the eyes of the nationalists, more "Greek" territory was waiting to be seized from the fading Ottoman Empire. It was then that the modern concept of enosis was born.

Enosis is a Greek word meaning "unity". The unity of enosis was the unity - or, better, the unification - of historically Greek and Byzantine land with the newly liberated Greek territory in the southern Balkan Peninsula. Enosis was a project of Greek nationalism, right from the start.

The first instance of enosis was in 1881, when Greece won Thessaly from the Ottoman Empire. Crete then took up arms against the Ottomans in 1900, achieving enosis in 1913. Also in 1913, enosis came to the islands of Lesbos and Samos, and to the northern lands of Epirus and a part of Macedonia. Western Thrace joined Greece in 1923, and the Italians handed Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands over to Athens in 1948.

But the cries for enosis did not stop there. In the early 1950s, they came to Cyprus as well.

Downward Spiral

The Greek government in Athens publicly raised the possibility of Cypriot enosis in 1954. At that time, Ankara's position was that the British should return Cyprus to Turkey. Negotiations were held in London, but got nowhere.

In 1955, the situation on the island started to deteriorate. The famous Greek Cypriot terrorist group EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kypriou Agoniston; or National Organization of Cypriot Fighters) was founded in that year, as was its Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Volkan, which later became TMT (Türk Mükavemet Teskilati, or Turkish Resistance Organization).

By 1960 the British had had enough. They gave Cyprus its independence under an elaborate constitutional system that provided safeguards, and even privileges, to the Turkish Cypriot minority.2 The system broke down in 1963-64, with an ugly eruption of intercommunal violence. Cypriots on both sides were terrorized and murdered, but the Turkish Cypriots definitely saw the worst of it. Tension was high.

The next milestone on the road to catastrophe was April 21, 1967, when a rightwing military junta, led by Colonel George Papadopoulos, staged a coup and seized power in Athens. The "Greek Colonels", as they came to be known, were Fascists - just the sort one would expect to take an idea like enosis and use it to get a lot of people killed. Especially vile was Brigadier Ioannides, who removed Papadopoulos from power in 1973 and took control of the junta.

The Greek Colonels ruled that unfortunate country for seven years. Their "bridge too far" was the 1974 decision by Ioannides and company to overthrow Cypriot President Makarios. (Makarios was Primate and Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Cyprus, as well as the elected President.) The Greek junta, in league with its cohort on Cyprus, launched the coup against Makarios on July 15, 1974. The Presidential Palace in Nicosia was fired upon, but Makarios escaped unharmed.

Nicos Sampson, a well-known local rightwing hoodlum and killer, declared himself the new "President" of Cyprus. Sampson was a founding member of EOKA, and was famous for his hatred of Turks.

Ominously, Sampson's first official act was to declare enosis with Greece.

Turkey Responds

Turkey simply could not tolerate the coup in Nicosia. Ankara was not only concerned about the danger Sampson posed to Turkish Cypriots, but was also alarmed by the strategic implications of the coup. After a quick and unsuccessful attempt to convince the British government to intervene under the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit ordered his military to invade Cyprus.

The Turkish invasion occurred on July 20, just five days after the Sampson coup. This first invasion (there was to be a second) was clearly the most justified. To begin with, as a Guarantor state under the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee (Greece and the UK were the other two Guarantors), Turkey arguably had the right, and even the duty, to intervene to ensure the integrity of the government in Nicosia. Second, the Turkish Cypriots were genuinely threatened and nobody else was going to act on their behalf.

Finally, the consequences of the July 20 invasion were beneficial to all. Because of the invasion, Sampson's power grab fizzled, saving all Cypriots - Greek and Turkish alike - from a dangerous megalomaniac. Makarios was reinstated as President, a post which he held until his death in 1977. And the Greek junta in Athens fell as well, largely due to the Turkish invasion and the political fallout it caused. So Greece and Cyprus were both freed of Fascist rulers and the Turkish Cypriots were saved from a potential blood bath.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there.

On August 14, 1974, Turkey launched a second Cyprus invasion. This one occurred after both the Greek junta in Athens, and Sampson in Nicosia, had been removed. Relations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots were tense, but generally nonviolent, so the rationale for the initial military action had pretty much disappeared. In August, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots simply were not dealing with a threat comparable to the one they faced in July.

But Turkey invaded nonetheless, splitting the island into the two halves we see today - the Turkish north, home to a permanent garrison of 35,000 troops from mainland Turkey, and the Greek south.

The division was solidified further on November 15, 1983, when Rauf Denktas declared the north an independent state, the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). To this day, the only country to recognize the TRNC is Turkey.

It has now been 28 years since the invasion. Almost two generations of Greek and Turkish Cypriots have grown up knowing nothing but partition. Reconciliation talks have sputtered along lazily over the decades, punctuated by periodic walk-outs and accomplishing nothing. The Turkish Cypriot side, perennially represented by Denktas, has demanded a loose federation of two sovereign states, i.e., the TRNC and the (Greek) Republic of Cyprus, while the Greek Cypriots have steadily pushed for a single state with broad local autonomy for the Turks. Neither side has budged, and there was little reason for hope. Until now.

The Situation Today

Enter the EU, with its plan for a 10-nation expansion over the next several years. First in line for membership is Cyprus, which is expected to join in 2003. This impending EU membership has transformed the dispute from a regional nuisance into a potential international debacle.

For starters, the EU is not eager to admit into its ranks a country bifurcated into mutually hostile camps. But Greece has said that if the EU puts off membership for Cyprus, it will derail the entire expansion program, blocking membership for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and the others.

On the other hand, if Cyprus joins the EU with the TRNC still claiming sovereignty over 40% of the island, then Turkey, with its 35,000-strong garrison in the north, would suddenly have an illegal army of occupation within an internationally-recognized EU country. Among other troublesome consequences, Turkey's own application for EU membership would be torpedoed, probably for good. And the Turks in northern Cyprus, already economically beggared and internationally marooned, would find themselves in even worse shape.3

Most Greek Cypriots understand they would be far better off if they entered the EU with their Turkish cousins alongside. Enhanced personal safety and national security are the first of many benefits that would flow from full EU membership for the entire island. The Turkish Cypriots generally understand this, too. They do not relish spending another generation in isolation and poverty.

A second component - separate, but related - is America's new war on terrorism. Turkey is America's most reliable ally in the Muslim world - indeed, one of its staunchest allies anywhere. As the war on terrorism unfolds, America will depend heavily on Turkey for diplomatic and military support, especially if the Bush administration decides to attack Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein. The last thing Washington wants to see is a political crisis between Ankara and the EU (or NATO) over Cyprus, or, far worse, a military confrontation between Turkey and Greece.

Clerides and Denktas are well aware of all this. They are under more pressure than ever before to reach an agreement, and to do so by the end of this coming summer. If anyone can deliver a solution, it is these two. Each has the political muscle in his respective community to make promises and ensure they are kept. The same cannot be said of any other political players on the island, Greek or Turkish.

The boat is leaky and the storm is fierce, but land is finally in sight. Greek and Turkish Cypriots alike hope that Clerides and Denktas don't snap an oar.


  1 As was common in traditional Islamic societies, people were categorized by their religion. So the Greek millet would be more accurately described as the Orthodox Christian millet. The same holds true for the Jewish, Armenian, and other millets.
  2 The Turkish Cypriots made up about 18% of the island's population in 1960, just as they do today.
  3 According to the 2001 edition of the CIA's World Fact Book, the Turkish Cypriots have an annual per capita GDP of $5,300, as compared with $16,000 for the Greek Cypriots.

2001 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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