The ethnic conflict in Cyprus is turning into a greater game
Cyprus was already a rather complex problem. The discovery of natural gas reserves around the island has made it even harder to disentangle. There are two communities on the island: the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, both claiming to have their own sovereign states. The Greek Cypriot state is recognized broadly by the international community, while only Turkey recognizes the Turkish Cypriots. But whatever your politics on the issue, the reality on the ground is clear: the island is divided between two distinct communities. Mr. Demetris Christofias, the President of the Republic of Cyprus, issued a statement as the outgoing head of the European Union Presidency in Nicosia on the occasion of the New Year. Have you read his end-of-term speech? I highly recommend it. That was a true Cypriot speaking, not so different from his Turkish colleagues than one would think. They may be separated by language, religion and ethnicity, but in Cyprus, Turkish and Greek souls are both shaped by the same island. Should that reassure us on future stability around the gas-abundant Eastern Mediterranean? I do not think so.
Recent Cypriot history is not too heartening. A U.N. buffer zone called the Green Line effectively separates the island into North and South Cyprus. The line was first drawn by Major-General Peter Young, the commander of the British peace force, on a map with a dark green crayon in 1964 in response to intercommunal violence at the time. It became impassable after the developments following the 1974 Greek coup d’etat aiming to unite the island with Greece. The latter idea of union, or “Enosis” in Greek, still tingles minds, as in all ethnic conflicts. The 1974 coup forever disturbed the precarious balance of the bicommunal Republic of Cyprus, set up after the island gained independence from British rule in 1960. It also paved the way for Turkish military intervention in 1974, separating the two communities. That is the Cyprus problem for the uninitiated.
The problem has become more entangled with three developments of the last decade. Firstly, free elections have brought a change in leadership on the Turkish side but not on the Greek side. The second development is the Annan Plan referendum, in which the Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly voted for unification and the establishment of a new state, while Greek Cypriots voted against it. Thirdly, the EU accepted the territorially and politically divided island as a member. And now we find out that there are natural gas reserves around the island. Gas expeditions in the area have come as an additional source of tension for Cypriots, Turks and Greeks. In 2013, we have a more complex problem in the Eastern Mediterranean than we did a decade ago.
Greek and Turkish Cypriots are practically soul mates, despite the lines separating their island. Both are currently discussing what is called the “13th salary,” a bonus paycheck of one month on top of monthly wages, paid to public sector employees. Both are also going through fiscal crises. In his statement mentioned above, Mr. Christofias has noted that the basic goals were achieved regarding the island’s economic woes in negotiations with the troika. He specifically noted that his government “averted the privatization of profitable semi-state organizations that the troika pursued as well as preserving the Cost of living Allowance and the 13th salary.” It just so happens that a similar discussion was underway in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus at the same time. Privatization was not completely averted, leading to a Build-Operate-Transfer arrangement for the Ercan airport. What happened to the initial proceeds of the sale? The word is that they have been used to pay the 13th salary of the Turkish Cypriot public sector employees.