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Cyprus: Still Hostage to History

Amnesia invariably overtakes Western policymakers when an issue or cause moves off the headlines and into the history books. Beyond a brief resurgence this spring, Cyprus today fits such a category: too big to forget, but too small to remember. The island’s financial profligacy may have captured the short attention spans of London’s establishment, but the country is slowly being driven into the ground: its people remain segregated, its land occupied, its capital divided.

Across Cyprus, evidence of the current fiscal morass is omnipresent. ATMs limit daily withdrawals and capital controls have constrained Cypriots’ dealings with banks. Over the past three decades, the island’s economic growth was coupled with flimsy regulation and a hushed attitude towards the illicit foreign dollars streaming into the nation’s banks. When the EU bailed out Cyprus in March of 2013 and made a harsh example out of the country, bank assets were eight times that of GDP.

A side-effect of such potent austerity medicine has been a shattering of trust between citizens and their leaders. Countless Cypriots now refer to their political and business elite as mafias and Caligulas beholden to Berlin. Dr. Rita Severis, Canadian consul in Nicosia, recounted to me the golden days of social harmony in Cyprus before conspiratorial whispers became commonplace and repugnance towards Russian and German dictates became widespread.

Worse than Cyprus’s financial disaster, however, is the forgotten fact in power corridors of the West that the island remains divided and occupied by a member of NATO, a potential EU member state, and an ally of the United States. One-third of Cypriots now live in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Barbed wire fencing, UN mediators, and AK-47-wielding Turkish soldiers roam the Green Line dividing Cyprus’s two halves.

As a tiny island nation with a population of barely one million and a geostrategic position forty miles south of Turkey and close to ports in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Israel, imperial powers have sough for millennia to either have a base in Cyprus or have Cyprus as a base. Long before Rudyard Kipling popularized the now clichéd “Great Game” to describe the Anglo-Russian chess match in Afghanistan, Cyprus was occupied by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and British. Benjamin Disraeli’s government in London virtually tricked the Ottoman Sultan into “loaning” Cyprus over to Britain, which explicitly backed union with Greece before tacitly backing partition along ethnic lines. Like Ireland, Palestine, and Pakistan, partition would result in the death of untold numbers of people and affect the lives of generations still unborn.

Even during Cyprus’s 1960 independence, Greece, Turkey, and Britain won the right to station troops on the island and inserted a clause in the Treaty of Guarantee (at Turkey’s behest) that each could militarily intervene if disorder ensued. The birth of this republic was thus no birth at all but was, as one senior Western diplomat put it, Britain putting “the naughty child of Europe” up for adoption.

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The problems plaguing Cyprus date back to those sweltering months in the fateful summer of 1974 when Turkey, a key NATO ally, twice invaded Cyprus, occupied 37% of its territory, and expelled or terrorized 180,000 Greek Cypriots from their homes. What followed was nothing less than a ruination of the island: the organized looting by the Turkish military of Cyprus’s treasures; the forced relocation of 10,000 Turkish Cypriots to the occupied north; the mass rape of women; and the introduction of Turkish settlers – many of them fundamentalists and criminals – into Northern Cyprus who today constitute the majority of the North’s population and are viscerally hated by Cypriots. There are no clear figures on how many Turkish troops occupy the north of the island today, though Sami Dayioglu, foreign secretary of the leftist Social Democratic Party, puts the number at 50,000.

Declassified documents have now also revealed that much of this was done with American arms, that Nixon and Kissinger knew in advance of Turkish military preparations, that Nixon’s 1968 campaign took illicit funds from Greece’s fascist junta, and that 15,000 British soldiers did nothing as Cyprus was colonized by another European power.

This island is both the jewel in Europe’s crown and one of its greatest modern failures. America is present throughout the island through USAID, rebuilding pieces of the country torn apart by bombs and bullets that were made in the United States. Yet, the West has largely forgotten about the tragedy that is Cyprus as the occupation has ossified and commentators have turned their attention to more pressing matters. Since World War Two, no other European country has been both occupied by a modern European empire and later annexed by another, as Cyprus was first by Britain and then Turkey. No other country has suffered through civil war, guerilla war, partition, occupation, and financial crisis in less than fifty years.

Unless Europe and the United States actively seek a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus question this island’s people will continue to wonder why they have been forgotten, the memories of colonial use and abuse afresh in their minds. To juxtapose the sights and sounds and tastes of Cyprus with the humiliation and defilement it has suffered at the hands of larger forces since its ‘independence’ is not only to stain the pleasures of the island but also to abrogate any hint of romanticism one may hold of this troubled country.

Thirty-nine years after it was partitioned, nine years after it joined the European Union, and barely three months after its near-collapse, Cyprus still tragically remains hostage to history.