This is a view from my “penthouse” apartment in Girne/Kyrenia North Cyprus. It was always nice having dinner on my terrace watching the sun set over the Five Finger Mountains. The name of the mountains sound so much more romantic in Turkish (Besparmak Daglari), and not the euphemism for masturbation as it is in English.
This past week Cyprus experienced yet another new initiative to find a solution to the 40 year-old problem. The White House decided to dip their toes a little deeper into the problem, and sent their “special” child Vice President Joe Biden for a new round of whatever, who upon arriving aboard Air Force 2 to sunny Larnaca stated (the obvious) that it was “long past time” for a solution to the Cyprus problem.
The two respective Cypriot leaders on the island; on the Greek Cypriot corner President Nicos Anastasiades, and on the Turkish Cypriot corner, the “leader” Dervis Eroglu, stepped out of a dinner with Biden at the Ledra Palace, which is situated in the United Nations controlled Green Zone. Now I should clarify here that Eroglu is never referred to as “president” due to the fact that the Turkish Cypriot north of the island is not recognized internationally. Only the Turkish Cypriot north and Turkey calls him “president”. And it should be added that only Turkey recognizes the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Of course Turkish Cypriots are cringing right now, probably thinking, “How dare you say that”. Well, facts are facts. Does anyone outside of Turkey recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus? No. Is Dervis Eroglu viewed by anyone in the rest of the world as the president of the country that doesn’t officially exist? No. So basically it is semantics. Is he the leader of the Turkish Cypriot people, some would say yes.
Anyhow. They came out of a long dinner, Biden said what he had to say, which is basically what every other envoy to the island has said over the past 40 years, the decision for the re-unification of the island is ultimately left up to the people of the island. Yay! Cue the flags.
It never happens like that.
How many times were similar statements heard in the nearly 10 years that I covered the Cyprus problem for Reuters, and two national newspapers on the island? I heard countless world leaders and diplomats try to wax poetic on the Cyprus problem, and bring some more pressure, or some new plans, or new initiatives to bring the two sides together and unite the divided island. The common reaction from both sides on the island, at least the leaders, was similar to that of two school girls who liked the same boy in trouble in the principle’s office right before their parents were called in to take control of the matter.
Of course in this round of pressure from the US with Biden of the decades long debacle, like any, the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus side of the coin naturally is paid lip-service by the visiting dignitary so they don’t start whining, and the pariah state status holding Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is included in on the games with a backdoor not-s0-glitzy meeting with the colorful, blunderful Veep.
Its the same thing, different players. The Turkish Cypriots have a tendency to recycle the same tired old leaders, so nothing new is happening there. I have to kind of wonder if Eroglu actually bothered to learn English over the years since I had left the island?
Just a little sidebar here, elaborating on the history of Cyprus from the Turkish Cypriot perspective (in the perspective of a black-beard mainland Turk – black-beard is a derogatory term for a mainland Turk used by Turkish Cypriots). Pretty much since the start of the turmoil on the island, which hit the boiling point in the early 60s, one leader for the Turkish Cypriots stood out, and that was Rauf Denktas, a British educated lawyer. A little sidebar to the sidebar, Cyprus was a British Colony, hence why it is such a mess. Now what happened is that Denktas assumed the position of flag-bearer for the Turkish Cypriot community pretty much on the coattails of Turkish invasion of the island in 1974. Okay, another sidebar for clarification purposes here; Turkey invaded in response to a Greek backed coup conducted by a Greek Cypriot terrorist organization that toppled the existing government on the island that was headed up by Greek Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios. Sound messy enough? Of course I am glancing over much of the details. This is just the gist of the matter.
The invasion caused the division of the island resulting in an exchange of populations placing all of the Turkish Cypriots in the northern third of the island, and the Greek Cypriots in the southern two-thirds of the island. Done and dusted, and from that point onwards, Denktas assumed the leadership of the Turkish Cypriot community, of course with the blessings of motherland Turkey. He was pretty much the end-all-be-all in power till 2005, when he was voted out of office and replaced by a refrigerator repairman turned socialist party leader. The country is a democracy (I use that term loosely), and obviously there are no term limitations in North Cyprus.
Fact of the matter was that Denktas was the only Turkish Cypriot leader the international community listened to, the subsequent leaders are the same political players in rotation from the same rogues gallery, and now truly the puppets of mainland Turkey. In the past if anyone had problems with the Turkish Cypriot side and sought out the motherland Turkey to seek resolution, Turkey would consistently say, “Don’t talk to me, talk to Denktas”. The man had some clout. However now, it is a different picture, Turkey is like, “Step aside, let me sort this out”. Biden was even rumored to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to Erdogan (the Turkish Prime Minister, and douche), he’s my friend.”
My question is why it, meaning Cyprus, simply can’t be left alone? The Greek side of the debacle has to let the whole we-were-invaded-in-1974 thing go and move on, and the Turkish side needs to let the whole Turkish nationalistic pride thing go (and also agree to some sort of property deal). Compromise for a solution. I mean I’m sure Turkey is tired of bailing the Turkish Cypriot north out financially all the time. Seriously, its worse than a college kid running up his or her credit card up to the limit and beyond, and then hitting up his or her parents for more money.
But alas, there seems to be much more at stake here, and the main issue is the global exchange of property. A fact that cannot be avoided is that the land the Turkish Cypriot north sits on is pretty much all Greek Cypriot, and it is a fact that many Turkish Cypriots that were pretty much nothing before the war, barely farmers, found themselves a part of a huge land grab in the north and are for the most part, the wealthy businessmen and landowners in the north of the island. In the 10 years that I spent on Cyprus, I don’t think I once heard the words uttered out of any Turkish Cypriot’s mouth longing for their property in Larnaca, or Limassol or wherever tiny village or hamlet on the island…all for the shear simple fact that many of the Turkish Cypriots that were displaced into the north are living large.
So in all fairness, I would venture to say that what the Greek Cypriot side is requesting in a solution is not too far of a stretch. At the end of the day this is one of the main sticking points as to why a solution hasn’t been achieved for the divide on the island. And in all honesty, I think the Turkish Cypriot side is a bit wary, or even scared, because if there is a solution based upon the huge land-grab that happened after 1974, a lot of the Turkish Cypriot side’s dirty laundry is going to have to be hung up to dry.
The Greek Cypriot and officially recognized Republic don’t really have anything to complain about really. Yes, sure, they want to be compensated for what is rightfully theirs, but they did pretty okay after the ware with the tourism industry, especially since they were an internationally recognized country with direct flights (the north, people still cannot take a direct flight, all flights have to go through Turkey). The Greek Cypriots also did well with their offshore banking industry, and being a haven for money laundering, well, at least till they became a member of the European Union, in which case Europe frowned on their not-so-kosher banking practices.
And then there was the whole courtship between the Republic of Cyprus and Russia, which is directly and indirectly tied to the whole offshore banking industry. Which, this particular connection will bring me to the reason why all of a sudden Cyprus is important again.
With good ole Joe Biden’s trip to Cyprus, at first I thought, who really cares about Cyprus? Most people I talk to here in the US, and in particular Minnesota, have absolutely no clue where Cyprus is. I think one person I spoke to in the past year or so was in the ballpark and said, “Isn’t Cyprus off of the coast of Italy?” To which I naturally answered, “No, you’re thinking of Sicily (you idiot).” I think one person recently said they thought Cyprus was a part of Syria. Anyhow, I’m not turning this into a piece on the lack of knowledge of geography by the typical American.
Who really cares about Cyprus, and why is the United States government showing so much interest in this tiny island the size of the State of Connecticut all of a sudden? I guess the answer is pretty simple, after a few conversations with friends on the island, and that answer is Russia. More specifically getting Russian interests out of Cyprus. Russia has traditionally been a pretty major player in Cyprus, and by “Cyprus” I mean the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. As I said, up until the entry of Cyprus into the European Union in 2004, the southern two-thirds of the island was a haven for off-shore banking, and money laundering. The island’s banking system was notorious for cleaning up the money for the likes of despotic leaders such as Milosevic, and allowing autocratic regimes such as Syria to access the world economy.
Oh, and then there was Russia’s money too. Throw into the mix the potential for a nice warm water port for the Russian Navy. The latter I would assume to be a little more dicey to accomplish since there are two active Sovereign British military bases in Cyprus. Maybe a slight conflict of interest there, but who knows, Putin is crazy enough.
Now lets put things a bit more into perspective. The whole situation in The Ukraine with Russia, and Vladimir Putin basically ignoring the US and the rest of the world, was pretty much a big slap in the face for United States foreign policy-making abilities, and gave a huge shot of Viagra for Putin giving him a huge boner of power. And now, in an effort to save a little face, and earn back some much needed foreign policy brownie points, the US is upping its game a bit and pushing for a solution to the 40 year-old Cyprus problem. I mean as far as a problem to solve, it’s a relative benign one.
The results? A solution to the Cyprus problem…brownie point number one. The solving of the Cyprus problem has the potential of bolstering the position of the United States as a foreign policy leader. Getting Russia’s fingers out of Cyprus…brownie point number two. And last, but definitely not least, the huge brownie point; staking claim to the huge natural gas fields just off the coast of the island. Granted, a solution to the divide on the island or not, corporations worldwide don’t really care about political turmoil, as long as they can have a presence and make money, its all good to them. All about the Benjamins folks. And its not like that Cyprus is a war zone, or there is constant ethnic clashing, death and destruction. That’s all in the past. In relative terms, its pretty tame place. The roughest you get probably is bar brawls here and there, some Russian mafia elements in the South, and Turkish mobsters in the North.
Yes, since the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island – or “intervention” if you’re on the Turkish side of things – both sides have a pretty hefty military presence. The two armies stare at each other across a United Nations controlled green-line, which is definitely not the most exciting thing to do when its 100 degrees-plus during the day. The UN troops on the island, or UNFICYP, are on pretty much an extended vacation. They’ve been there 50 years and have experienced 179 fatalities in those 50 years, 97 of them as a result of accidents, and 44 as a result of sickness. So not a real dangerous place.
All is still quiet on the Cyprus front. Joe back in the comfort of the good ole US of A, having briefed the powers that be about the nature of the talks. I mean seriously, how hard can it be? There are more people living in the East Village, Greenwich Village and Lower East Side of Manhattan combined than that of the whole population of Cyprus…okay, maybe throw in Tribeca and Chelsea. The fact of the matter is that the whole damn country is the size of barely the southern tip of Manhattan. And this has stumped the diplomatic community for the past 50 or so years? Maybe Giuliani should be the next envoy to Cyprus. Heck, he cleaned up New York City in a single term.
Honestly, I can go on about Cyprus for a very, very long article. And another thing I’m tired about the Cyprus Problem are the biases. Yeah, I’m Turkish, yes I lived in the Turkish Cypriot North. But, I disagree with the bullshit that both sides dish out over a problem that I believe has been artificially prolonged for decades.
I remember breaking the story about the Turkish Cypriot side unilaterally opening their side of the border to Greek Cypriots, a decision that had to be reciprocated by the Greek Cypriot side, otherwise they would just look like dicks, and I’m sure there would have been rights in the Republic if they didn’t allow their people to cross over to property which many view as rightfully theirs.
That morning at the Ledra Palace checkpoint was very elated form of chaos. It was also funny watching the UN troops stationed at the checkpoint scramble to maintain a semblance of order. And many of them were griping about the crowds. I look at one British solider with the blue patch and commented, “Really? You guys sit around most of the time as if you’re on vacation, heaven forbid you do an actual day of work.”
I also had the honor of riding along with the first people to cross the border in nearly 30 years that day. The couple I was riding with were originally from Kyrenia, or Girne as it is known to the Turks. We stopped on the edge of the mountain pass road that leads to the picturesque view of the town on the edge of the Mediterranean. When they left because of the war, they had just gotten married, and Kyrenia was a mere village, a fraction of the size that they were seeing before them.
Our goal was to find their home, the home that they had been married in amongst lemon tree saplings. They told me that their house was on the edge of town near some carob warehouses. So we drove and drove and reached the edge of town. But, then I realized a simple factor I was overlooking – the edge of town for them was 30 years ago, so we were way off. Then I remember that there are some Turkish Army garages that are located just on the entrance of the town that I knew for a fact were old Greek Cypriot carob warehouses.
We found the home within five minutes. There was a new apartment building going up on the property, but the original home was still there. I found the contractors, and they were more than happy to let us on to the property. Everyone was smiling, and pleasant, the woman was tearing up and smiling. The couple looked up at the canopy of full-grown lemon trees that were mere saplings when they got married in that same garden. The contractor said that they would be demolishing the small single story house that the couple once knew as their home. The couple didn’t express any anger, the Greek Cypriot man told me to translate to the contractor (who didn’t speak Greek or English) that once the new building is complete, they would love to purchase an apartment in the building. He added, “Once there is a solution, and once we can freely move about and live in our country.”
That was my “wow” moment for Cyprus. This man was not angry, or held any grudges, he realizes the world that he know has changed, he moved on. Of course this is not representative of all Greek Cypriots who lost land in the North after the war, but it gave me a glimmer of hope. I remember writing this for Cyprus Today, but Reuters greatly edited this little human side of the division down. I’m not sure if it was an editorial decision for space, or an editorial decision based on politics, since I was actually in the coverage of this particular story was working through Athens instead of Ankara.
Anyhow, I have many anecdotes such as these as a result my 10-year tenure on the island.
In reality, I believe in many respects that the Turkish Cypriot side are sellouts. I’m sure if the dollar amount were right, many of the people in the North would convert to Christianity, sell their property and join the Republic of Cyprus and the European Union. With the exception of converting to Christianity, many Turkish Cypriots have already jumped on the EU bandwagon…okay, it is their right, but it wouldn’t take much for them to sell out for a solution either, the only thing preventing that from happening are the political interests of Turkey.
One term I heard on numerous occasions in my tenure in Cyprus was Gordion knot. It is a term used for a problem that has become so complicated, without really any sort of solution on the horizon that it requires a very rudimentary, almost crude solution…taking a pair of scissors and cutting the knot, and unfortunately in the decades since the inception of the Cyprus Problem, no one has had the balls to do it.