Reports in the media of late are replete with ominous predictions related to frozen conflicts across the globe. Well-known frozen conflicts include Armenia’s occupation of 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory (complete with ethnic cleansing and the displacement of 1 million Azerbaijanis) and Abkhazia’s/South Ossetia’s “liberation” by the Russians from Georgia. However, one frozen conflict rarely reported upon will likely boil over if not addressed: Cyprus.
Simply framing the Cyprus conflict as a Turkish occupation is exceedingly misrepresentative. It is extensively documented by the UN and other international organizations that the Cyprus conflict began in 1963 when Greek Cypriots attempted the ethnic cleansing of Turkish Cypriots. As a child, I experienced the horrors of those very massacres.
Initially and equitably, Cyprus was to be an independent republic, co-founded by Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Instead, Turkish Cypriots were forcefully ejected from the government and the state they co-founded was systematically stolen from them. Although Turkish Cypriots held title to nearly 30 percent of the land in Cyprus, they were forced to live in open air prisons amounting to 3 percent of the island’s area. In addition, between 1963 and 1974, thousands of Turkish Cypriots were killed and dumped in mass graves. The Turkish Cypriots who did not flee the island were disenfranchised – denied their basic rights of voting, unrestricted travel, and even residency.
By 1974, Greece engineered a coup to topple the Greek Cypriot government with the goal of annexing the island. The plight of Turkish Cypriots had deteriorated to such a point that Turkey was forced into military action to forestall the unfolding humanitarian crisis and protect its own security. As Greece and Greek Cypriots were in violation of the international agreements on which the Republic of Cyprus was founded, Turkey’s intervention was legally justified.
In contrast to the 650-mile expanse of sea that divides Greece and Cyprus, Cyprus lies just 40 miles south of the Turkish coast, hence posing a clear security concern for Turkey. Some perspective: the U.S. nearly went to war with the Soviet Union over Cuba, which was 90 miles off Florida. Yet, unlike Turkey’s involvement with the Cyprus conflict, the U.S. had no international agreement paving the way for military intervention.
Today, Turkish soldiers necessarily remain on Cyprus to protect Turkish Cypriot citizenry following Greek Cypriot refusal of various reunification plans proposed by the UN and backed by the EU, U.S. and Turkey. It seems odd that despite their rejection of reunification plans, Greek Cypriots were awarded EU membership while inhumane embargoes on the Turkish Cypriots continue.
Recently, again, Greek Cypriot leaders walked out on negotiations. Apparently, Greek Cypriot leaders took exception to the declaration of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Mediterranean Sea. Seemingly forgotten by Greek Cypriots is that Turkish Cypriots have joint ownership rights to all natural resources on Cyprus and thus may explore for resources in the surrounding waters. Prior to the Greek Cypriot walkout, Turkish Cypriots made several proposals for joint decision making on the exploitation of the hydrocarbon discoveries, but each was rejected. In reciprocity to unilateral Greek Cypriot actions awarding exploration rights to foreign oil companies, Turkish Cypriots awarded exploration rights in their economic zone to a Turkish company. Turkish Cypriots are simply, and legally, exploring for hydrocarbons in their own maritime zone; Turkey is not trespassing the Cypriot waters.
Recent negotiations on Cyprus began in February 2014 with a joint communique providing the framework for reunification through the efforts of both the U.S. and Turkey. It was agreed that one side cannot impose authority over the other. Turkish Cypriots were joint holders of ownership rights of the resources of Cyprus. Therefore, by acting unilaterally on the hydrocarbons issue, the Greek Cypriots are violating both the letter and the spirit of the agreed upon framework.
Last week, with an overwhelming majority, Turkish Cypriots voted for a European future by electing Mustafa Akinci as President. Mr. Akinci is a moderate strongly in favor of vigorous resumption of the inter-communal talks for reunification. Greek Cypriot leader Anastasiadis has welcomed Mr. Akinci’s election and promised to return to the talks.
If Greek Cypriots have a genuine desire for reunification and power sharing, they should demonstrate it at the negotiating table. Otherwise the partition of the island may become permanent with serious consequences for the security of the hydrocarbon resources of the Eastern Mediterranean. These resources, which are needed to lessen Europe’s dependency on Russia may never be developed because of the competing claims.
For the U.S. and EU’s part, it behooves each to become more robustly engaged in this frozen conflict. Successful resolutions to this conflict lend stability and security to this increasingly important and strategic region. Success will go far to stunt Russian geographic expansionism and Iranian ideological and military expansionism…not to mention the energy security of Europe and world markets.
Mustafaoglu is the Honorary Representative of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.