International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


Turkey and the Cyprus Question 1
By Hansjörg Brey


Cyprus as an issue of Turkish foreign policy

The Cyprus issue has long been of eminent relevance for Turkish foreign and domestic politics alike. In early 1998, Vice Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit was reported to have stated that Cyprus is of indispensable strategic interest to Turkey and Ankara would not withdraw its troops from the island even if there were not a single Turkish Cypriot living on it. 2 Indeed, it seems that Turkish politicians have never before expressed their determination to defend the Turkish presence in Cyprus more vigorously than during the past two years. 3

Cyprus is located only 80 km from the Anatolian coast and is thus, metaphorically, very close to the “soft belly” of Anatolia. Its location makes the island an ideal base for both protecting Turkey and controlling the Eastern Mediterranean area and the Middle East. The argument of protection has become forceful since Ankara — legitimately or not — sees its future economic and strategic options related to the establishment of oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia across Anatolian territory to the Mediterranean. If Ankara’s options materialise, the port of Ceyhan in the Bay of Iskenderun will be of great strategic importance as a terminal point of these pipelines. At the same time, the role of Cyprus as an important military base may have received new impetus in the context of Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel, and the prevailing Turkish feeling of being confronted with enemies in the direct neighbourhood.

Equally important, the Cyprus issue is at the very core of Turkey’s delicate relationship with neighbouring Greece and the European Union (EU). In the European Union, Ankara’s conduct in Cyprus has been seen as proof that Turkey is constantly violating human rights and international law and is therefore not eligible for a closer relationship with the EU. Critics of Ankara’s policy in Cyprus, supported by numerous resolutions of such international bodies as the United Nations, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, 4 claim that

Instead, Rauf Denktash, the leader of the Turkish Cypriot Community, and the leadership in Ankara have always argued that the 1974 military intervention and occupation of part of the island was a “peace operation” legitimised by the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee which is a part of the constitution of the Republic of Cyprus, established in the same year. According to Denktash, the Greek Cypriots had already destroyed the basis for ethnic cohabitation in 1963-64. 6 Turkey is the only country which has recognised the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared by Rauf Denktash on 15 November 1983.

The leadership in Lefkosha (North Nicosia) considers the military presence of Turkey to be indispensable for the security of the Turkish Cypriots. Ankara has stationed about 35,000 soldiers of the Third Turkish Army as well as 350 tanks on the island. The force is commanded by a general who reports directly to the Chief of Staff in Ankara. There is an additional Turkish Cypriot security force of 4500, mostly consisting of conscripts and largely deployed to guard the buffer zone in the Nicosia area. The force is commanded by a Turkish mainland brigadier who reports directly to the commander of the resident Turkish mainland forces. By comparison, the Greek Cypriot National Guard consists of 19,500 men plus a reserve force of 100,000 (the population in Southern Cyprus was about 658,000 in 1997). The commander and most senior officers are Greek mainlanders. Additionally, Greece maintains a contingent of about 2000 men in the south, known as ELDYK . 7

In the past, Ankara’s aspirations to achieve a closer relationship with the European Union were, at least theoretically, an incentive to show some will to compromise in the Cyprus question. After the rebuff of Turkey’s bid for EU membership by the Luxembourg European Council in December 1997, this incentive has lost importance. Turkish politicians now have little reason to hide their political and strategic concepts and options behind diplomatic formulas.

Not only did Turkey see its interests violated by the EU’s rebuff, it feels doubly snubbed by the consideration the EU is giving the 1990 Greek Cypriot application for full membership. From Ankara’s perspective, Greece was in a position to blackmail its EU partners to act according to its interests, whereas Turkey had to remain helpless without being able to exert much influence. 8

At this point, a short review of recent Cyprus-EU relations seems appropriate. 9 On 3 June 1990, the government of the Republic of Cyprus formally submitted its application for full membership to the EU. Three years later, on 30 June 1993, the Commission of the European Community presented its Opinion on the Cypriot application, 10 in which it recognised as legitimate the application of the Republic of Cyprus in the name of all Cypriots and stated that Cyprus met the requirements of the EC Treaty and other relevant legal frameworks. Nevertheless, the Commission addressed two major problems that were implicit in the Cypriot application: 1) whereas the south of the island presented no major problems concerning adoption of the acquis communautaire, economic competitiveness and other factors, this was not true of the north. For example, GDP per capita reached 55 percent of the EC average in the south but only 19 percent in the north; 2) the Commission stressed that the integration of Cyprus into the European Union must imply a peaceful, just and durable solution of the Cyprus question.

The latter statement of the Commission could easily have been interpreted as a demand for a solution of the Cyprus question prior to accession. However, the key question of “solution before accession?” was put aside in the subsequent political process. In June 1994, the European Council in Corfu decided to consider the Cypriot application in the next round of EU enlargement. On 6 March 1995, the Greek Cypriots and Greece obtained a substantial breakthrough when, in return for Greeces renunciation of its objections to the establishment of a customs union between the EU and Turkey, accession negotiations with Cyprus would be able to start six months after the commencement of the Intergovernmental Conference (Maastricht II). This decision was reconfirmed several times at later European Council meetings. As concerns the connection between the Cyprus membership and a solution to the Cyprus question, the hope was expressed that the ongoing accession process would act as a catalyst for solving the Cyprus problem. The Luxembourg European Council in December 1997 stated that “the accession of Cyprus should benefit all communities and help to bring about civil peace and reconciliation. The accession negotiations will contribute positively to the search for a political solution to the Cyprus problem through the talks under the aegis of the United Nations which must continue with a view to creating a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation. In this context, the European Council requested that the willingness of the Government of Cyprus to include representatives of the Turkish Cypriot community in the accession negotiating delegation be acted upon.” 11

The Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaderships have repeatedly expressed their refusal to accept the EU’s approach towards Cyprus. 12 According to the Turkish position, the application of the Republic of Cyprus is illegal as it does not reflect the will of the Turkish Cypriot community. The accession of Cyprus to the EU is considered to be a disguised Enosis (union) with Greece. The Treaty of Guarantee, according to the Turkish position, rules out any accession to political units such as the EU. Finally, the accession of Cyprus to the EU should not be considered before the Cyprus question has been solved and before Turkey itself has become a member. In keeping with these positions, the Turkish side rejected the offer put forward by the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Glafcos Clerides, to include Turkish Cypriots in the Cypriot delegation attending the accession talks.

Another reason for Ankara’s present hard line position towards Cyprus may be the changing strategic situation in the southern part of the island. At the end of January 1997, the Clerides government announced that it had ordered 4 systems of modern S-300 air defence missiles (each system consisting of 12 missiles) with a range of 160 km from Russia to be installed on southern territory. In Turkey, the announcement provoked vehement reactions: Then Prime Minister Tansu Çiller threatened to destroy the missiles. The strategic purpose of deploying the S-300 was obvious: stationing the missiles would, for the first time, enable Greek Cypriots to defend their airspace against the Turkish airforce and even hit Turkish aircraft beyond the Anatolian coastline. Nevertheless, military experts agree that the S-300 do not endanger the absolute military superiority of the Turkish army on the island. Turkey’s strong reactions to Greek Cypriot armament plans can only be understood if the new role that Greece is playing on the island is considered. Only recently a new airbase was established in Pafos on which Greek F-16 fighters will be deployed. Furthermore, it has been decided to build a new port in Cyprus for Greek military vessels. With its new bases, Greece is meeting two requirements. The first is connected to the common defence policy inaugurated between Athens and Nicosia in 1993 when Cyprus was declared part of a new Greek “defence doctrine”. The deployment of Greek aircraft is indispensable for the Greek army to support the Cypriot National Guard effectively, thereby giving some substance to the common defence policy. Second, with the new Greek airbase, the reach of the Greek airforce is extended far into the Eastern Mediterranean area. Thus, much more than by the S-300, the generals in Ankara are alarmed by the idea that Greek aircraft could use the Greek air base on Cyprus to attack Anatolia’s sensitive “soft belly”. 13


Cyprus as an issue of Turkish domestic policy

Thus, Cyprus plays a manifold role in the foreign and military policies of Ankara. But Cyprus has also long been an issue of Turkish domestic policy. The fate of the compatriots in Cyprus has stirred up national feelings in Turkey, consequently no government in Ankara has ever dared to exercise severe pressure on the Turkish Cypriot leadership for substantial concessions in the Cyprus question. Turkish politicians fear being denounced as national traitors at home. More recently, Cyprus has become an issue of domestic Turkish policy in yet another sense: in a common declaration made on 20 July 1997, Turkish President Demirel and TRNC-leader Denktash agreed on a partial integration of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus into Turkey; Turkey is to take over the responsibility for the foreign and defence policy of the TRNC. Furthermore, at the end of March 1998, Turkey and the TRNC agreed to establish an economic union. “From now on we are considering the KKTC [Turkish equivalent of TRNC] as a part of ourselves”, Turkish Minister of State Gürel has been quoted as saying. 14 Turkey’s motives for intensifying ties with the TRNC (considered by critics as a partial annexation) have been outlined above. Ankara may want to put the blame for its Cyprus policy on others; still, it continues to provide additional arguments for those within the EU who prefer Turkey to be left out in the long run.

At a press conference on 31 August 1998, Denktash, accompanied by Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, presented a document containing proposals for a solution of the Cyprus question. 15 According to Denktash, his new unilateral initiative constituted a last effort to bring about an acceptable and durable solution in Cyprus. The document called for the establishment of a special relationship between Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and Greece and the “administration” in Southern Cyprus respectively, by means of analogous treaties. The Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriot side should recognise each other as sovereign states with equal rights. The two states on the island should then form a “Cyprus confederation”. If both parts of the confederation agree, it could then apply for EU membership.

A comparison of the latest proposals with earlier positions taken by Denktash reveals that they do not contain many new elements. As concerns Turkey’s relationship with the TRNC, they merely confirm the de facto situation of the TRNC as a protectorate of Turkey. But although they clearly state the Turkish position, Mehmet Ali Birand, a well-known Turkish journalist, had criticised the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot policy some months earlier in this very sense; according to Birand, Turkey and the leadership in Lefkosha have always wanted a partition of Cyprus but instead pretended that they were ready to negotiate on a federation. 16 Indeed, maintaining the status quo has always been the option favoured by Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership since 1974. The Turkish side has never shown willingness to give up part of the TRNC’s sovereignity in favour of a federation. 17

Some Greek and Greek Cypriot politicians alleged that the US administration was not thoroughly opposed to the new Denktash proposals. But Madeleine Albright and other US officials have rushed to stress instead that they support the UN proposals as a basis for negotiations; 18 that is, any solution of the Cyprus question should be based on a bi-communal, bi-zonal federation. This formula is in principle widely accepted also by the EU member states and, last but not least, by the Greek Cypriot majority on the island.


Prospects and strategies for Cyprus

Under the specific circumstances of Cyprus, what are the possible scenarios of the island’s accession to the European Union? Much depends on three crucial questions:

1) Can the armament race on the island (with its most acute issue being the planned deployment of the S-300 missiles) be stopped before the outbreak of a new armed conflict (eventually involving Greece and Turkey)?

2) How is the discussion process in the EU likely to develop in relation to the political situation in Cyprus and the EU’s own evolution?

3) Is there any hope still of a negotiated solution of the Cyprus question that would be acceptable to both the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots as well as the international community?


Maintaining peace and reducing security risks on Cyprus

Preventing an armed conflict on and around the island is the immediate task of all parties interested in the security and stability of the area. In more concrete terms, the following issues have to be addressed:


Accession talks with the European Union

On 10 November 1998, the EU simultaneously started accession talks with the Republic of Cyprus and the Central and Eastern European countries of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia. A few days earlier (4 November), the European Commission in its first Regular Report on Cyprus concluded that “in the economic field, developments since 1993 [the date of the Commission’s first Opinion on the Cyprus application] confirm that the Cyprus economy possesses the ability to adapt to the challenges posed by the adoption of the acquis”. 24 Although substantial efforts still have to be undertaken, in particular in the offshore and financial sectors, the economic performance of the Republic of Cyprus is excellent. 25 Concerning adoption of the acquis and economic competitiveness, the accession of Cyprus is becoming an increasingly realistic prospect.

Yet more and more EU members seem to feel uncomfortable about the idea of Cyprus becoming a member. The S-300 issue as well as the deadlock in intercommunal negotiations are there to remind the EU that the Cyprus dilemma has not been solved, only banished. At the Luxembourg EU Summit of 5 October 1998, French Foreign Minister Védrine stated that Cyprus could not become a member of the European Union without a prior solution of the Cyprus question. This position was supported by other countries. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel on an earlier occasion had expressed the view that the accession of a divided island is hard to imagine. Nevertheless, according to Kinkel, Turkey should not have the right to veto the accession of Cyprus. 26

In addition, the EU partners feel uneasy about Greece continuously trying to block payments due Turkey according to the financial protocols. Equally important, the December 1997 Luxembourg decisions concerning Turkey have left some of the EU leaders with a bad conscience and the US, on the other hand, has been pressing for a change in EU policy towards Turkey.

Notwithstanding all the reservations of the EU partners, the Republic of Cyprus has at least one ally within the EU that acts as a lobbyist for Cypriot interests, namely Greece. Not surprisingly, it is Greece which objects to setting any new preconditions for the accession of Cyprus and has repeatedly made it clear that, if they are, it would veto the EU’s Eastern enlargement. Taking into account the present situation within the EU, there are three possible scenarios concerning the accession process of Cyprus to the European Union:

1) The accession talks stagnate as the existing diplomatic impasse remains unresolved; this might eventually also imply a failure of the whole Eastern enlargement of the EU with Greece exerting its veto power;

2) Only the Republic of Cyprus is accepted as a member, giving Turkish Cypriots the option to join later (this option seems to be acceptable to the Greek Cypriot leadership and Greece). The provisions of the Treaty of Rome concerning the divided Germany have been indicated by the Greek and Greek Cypriot side as relating to a similar case (even though the situation is quite different). Members of the EU Commission have stated that unilateral accession of the South would imply some technical problems but would, in principle, be feasible.

While such a scenario would meet the European aspirations of the Greek Cypriots, it would most certainly shatter all hopes of unification of the island. Turkey would probably react with the definitive annexation of Northern Cyprus. There has been little discussion of the victims of such a scenario: certainly, they would be the Turkish Cypriots, in danger of finally losing their Cypriot identity.

3) Cyprus becomes a member in its entirety. In reality, this is the least likely option as it is predicated on a solution of the Cyprus question in accordance with the concepts of the Greek Cypriots and the United Nations. The provisions of the EU treaties require a strong central government that acts as a legal personality, controls economic policy and guarantees the functioning of the common market on the whole territory. In short, such an option would require the “Cyprus knot” to be cut without cutting the island into two parts.


Negotiating a solution for Cyprus

If a solution of the Cyprus question is defined as a true alternative to the status quo, it may be postulated that all the elements of such a solution have already been on the agenda of earlier negotiations. 27 A future coexistence of Greek and Turkish Cypriots would have to be based on the model of a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation; this has repeatedly been stipulated by all relevant international actors. The elements required to safeguard the security needs of both communities would be confidence-building measures, demilitarisation and the establishment of an international military force. The Turkish Cypriots should be granted economic incentives to narrow the gap in living standards between the two communities. Boutros Ghali’s 1992 Set of Ideas could provide a useful quarry of elements for a comprehensive settlement. 28

The question remains, however, who will eventually be able to cut the Cyprus knot and bring about a solution to the Cyprus question? The United Nations recently (end September 1998) launched another Cyprus initiative. The previous ones involving intercommunal negotiations at Troutbeck, New York (July 1997) and in Glion, Switzerland (August 1997) failed like countless others. At Glion, Denktash demanded prior recognition of the TRNC as a sovereign state and withdrawal of the Greek Cypriot application for EU membership. With Turkish resistance to a federal solution now clearer than ever before, the prospects for the new initiative are anything but bright. It seems that the UN’s means of offering good services for a negotiated settlement have been exhausted.

The European Union is itself interested in a solution. But it has neither the mandate to act as a negotiator nor — with Greece as a member — is it a credible or independent mediator. US initiatives, like Richard Holbrooke’s recent mission, have also failed. The EU’s hope that the accession process would act as a catalyst to a solution seems to have been wishful thinking. The most probable option for the years to come is the preservation of the status quo on the island, with occasional interventions from mainly the US to preserve peace and prevent armed conflicts. With both sides armed to the teeth, this task will be difficult enough.

In the end, Ankara retains the key to allowing a political settlement in Cyprus. Yet, it would have to give up Northern Cyprus as a military base to permit the establishment of a bi-zonal and demilitarised federation. This implies that Ankara should be given substantial incentives. The EU must provide Turkey with a clear prospect of future membership. As with other applicants, the EU has to define its preconditions precisely. Binding Turkey more closely to Europe seems to be the only strategy that may finally cut the Cyprus knot and it is a strategy that is in the interests of Europe and the US alike.



In December 1998, UN Security Council Resolution 1218 called on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to work intensively in agreement with the two sides to prevent the threat or use of force in resolving the Cyprus problem and get them to commit themselves to reducing troop levels and armaments on the island. As concerns the S-300 issue, President Clerides finally gave in to international pressure. On 29 December 1998, he announced his decision not to deploy the S-300 on the island. After intense consultations with the government in Athens it was decided to deploy the missiles on the Greek island of Crete. Clerides sees his decision as a major step towards the demilitarization of the island. It has also eliminated one of the major obstacles in Cyprus’ way to the European Union. Clerides is now expecting his action to be answered by substantial compromise on the Turkish side. Indeed, international pressure on Turkey and the TRNC to show some compromise in the Cyprus question is likely to increase. But Clerides’ renunciation has been celebrated in Ankara as a political victory and there are no signs for the moment that it might reconsider its hard line position in the Cyprus question.


Hansjörg Brey is Executive Director at the Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft, Munich




Note 1. This is a revised version of a paper presented to the IAI conference on “US-European Common Approaches to Turkey”, held at Palazzo Rondinini, Rome, on 20-21 November 1998 and funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.Back

Note 2. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 April 1998. Back

Note 3. For a comprehensive analysis of Turkey’s interests and options in Cyprus, see H. Kramer, “The Cyprus Problem and European Security”, Survival, vol. 39, no. 3, 1997, pp. 16-32. Back

Note 4. On 1 November 1974, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 3212 which called for “the speedy withdrawal of all foreign armed forces and foreign military presence and personnel from the Republic of Cyprus and the cessation of all foreign interference in its affairs”. Since then, numerous resolutions have repeated the terms of this resolution. See, for example: Report of the UN Secretary General, dated 30 May 1994 (document S/1994/629) or Final Document of the XII Summit of Non-Aligned Movement, Durban, 29 August 3 September 1998, pp. 46f. Back

Note 5. Drawn from European Commission : Regular Report from the Commission on Cyprus’ Progress Towards Accession. Brussels, 4 November 1998. See also the account of C. Ioannides, Turkey’s Image. The Transformation of Occupied Cyprus into a Turkish Province (New Rochelle: Aristide D. Caratzas, 1991). Back

Note 6. In November 1963, the President of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III, attepted to change the constitution in favour of the Greek Cypriot majority. This attempt unleashed massive intercommunal fighting in December 1993 and the months following. Hostilities, mostly from Greek Cypriot nationalist forces, were accompanied by “ethnic cleaning”. About 20,000 Turkish Cypriots had to leave their homes and were resettled in enclaves. Starting from March 1963, the boundaries of these enclaves were secured by UN peacekeeping forces. For comprehensive, yet relatively “ethnically unbiased”, accounts of the recent Cypriot history from a Greek and Turkish Cypriot perspective, see M. Attalides, Nationalism and International Politics (Edinburgh: Q Press, 1979); T. Bahcheli, Greek-Turkish Relations since 1955 (Boulder, London: Westview Press, 1990). Back

Note 7. Recent numbers are drawn from European Commission: Regular Report from the Commission on Cyprus’ Progress Towards Accession. Brussels, 4 November 1998. Back

Note 8. For the Turkish (Cypriot) arguments, see S. Sonyel, “The European Union and the Cyprus Imbroglio”, Perceptions. Journal of International Affairs (Ankara), vol. III, no. 2, 1998, pp. 73-83. Back

Note 9. See H.J. Axt, "Cyprus on the Threshold of the European Union: Preconditions, Implications, and Scenarios”, in H.J. Axt and H. Brey (eds) Cyprus and the European Union: New Chances for solving an old Conflict? (Munich: Südosteuropa Gesellschaft, 1997) pp. 170-96. For the earlier history of the Cyprus-EU relationship, see J. Redmond: “From Association towards the Application of Full Membership: Cyprus’ Relations with the European Union” in ibid, pp. 89-99. For the "official” EU version, see European Commission, 4 November 1998, Conclusions of the European Commissions’ Opinions on the Membership Application of Cyprus, Brussels, 30 June 1993. Back

Note 10. European Commission: Conclusions of the European Commissions’ Opinions on the Membership Application of Cyprus, Brussels, 30 June 1993. Cited in European Commission Regular Report, 4 November 1998. Back

Note 11. Cited in European Commission Regular Report, 4 November 1998. Back

Note 12. See H. Bagci, “Cyprus: Accession to the European Union — A Turkish View”, in Axt and Brey, Cyprus and the European Union, pp. 159-69; S. Sonyel, “Reactions in the Turkish Republic of Cyprus to the Application by the Greek Cypriot Administration of South Cyprus for Membership of the European Union”, in ibid, pp. 151-8. Back

Note 13. See N. Kadritzke, “Zypern in der Raketenfalle”, Le Monde Diplomatique, September 1998. An English version of the article is provided on the internet site (“Cyprus hostage to Athens - Ankara confrontation”). Back

Note 14. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 April 1998. Back

Note 15. Press Release by the Turkish Embassy in Bonn, 31 August 1998. Back

Note 16. Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9 April 1998. Back

Note 17. H.Brey, “A Solution to the Cyprus Question: Options and Obstacles”, RFE/RL Research Report, vol.3, no.28, 15 July 1994, pp.18-25. Back

Note 18. Athener Zeitung, 4 September 1998. Back

Note 19. During mass demonstrations at the Green Line, Greek Cypriot demonstrators penetrated into the Buffer Zone and were stabbed to death or shot by Turkish military or radical civilian anti-demonstrators. Back

Note 20. Kadritzke, “Zypern in der Raketenfalle”. Back

Note 21. Ibid. Back

Note 22. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26 September 1998. Back

Note 23. Annex to the “Report of the Secretary-General on his mission of good offices in Cyprus”, 21 August 1992, Document S/24472. See M. Hadjipavlou-Trigeorgis, “Little Confidence in Confidence Building? Conflict Resolution in the Context of the United Nations”, in Axt and Brey, Cyprus and the European Union, pp. 36-54. Back

Note 24. European Commission, Regular Report. Back

Note 25. H. Brey, ”Economic Performance and Competitiveness: The Republic of Cyprus", in Axt and Brey, Cyprus and the European Union, pp. 55-62. Back

Note 26. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 October 1998. Back

Note 27. For an overview of the relevant positions in the Cyprus question, see H. Brey, “A Solution to the Cyprus Question: Options and Obstacles”, RFE/RL Research Report, vol. 3, no. 28, 15 July 1994, pp. 18-25. See also T. Bahcheli and N. Rizopoulos, “Beyond Partition”, War Report, no. 54, September 1997, pp.17-20. Back

Note 28. See D. Hannay, “Cyprus at the Crossroads”, Studia diplomatica, vol. L, no. 3, 1997, pp. 33-41. Back