Reuniting Cyprus?

The Left in Cyprus can only reemerge if it steps out of the confines of the "national question."

Tanks mobilized during the July 15, 1974 coup d'état against Archbishop Makarios.

The media is once again focused on the prolonged dispute in Cyprus, as the leaders of the island’s Greek and Turkish communities attempt to arrive at a political settlement that would reunite the island.

Cyprus has been partitioned since 1974, when a Greek-sponsored coup against President Makarios provoked Turkey into intervening, ostensibly to protect the island’s Turkish community. Turkey expelled 180,000 Greeks from the northern part of the island, leading to a population exchange in which 60,000 Turks relocated from the south. Ever since, its troops have remained, enforcing the island’s division into the southern, Greek-dominated and internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus (RoC) and the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s allowed the RoC to join the European Union and its Economic and Monetary Union. This had dramatic consequences, as the country’s bloated banking sector succumbed to the eurozone crisis and collapsed. This put Cyprus in the same camp as the other austerity-ravaged countries in the European south.

Meanwhile, the Turkish Cypriots found themselves hostage to their mainland saviors. Trapped between a Greek Cypriot economic embargo on the one hand and Ankara’s diktats on the other, the north remained underdeveloped. Its demographic makeup steadily altered thanks to Turkish Cypriot emigration and the arrival of settlers from mainland Turkey.

In recent years, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neoliberal authoritarianism has spilled over into northern Cyprus. Public-sector privatizations and encroachments in the cultural sphere have caused a surge in social mobilizations.

In both halves of the country, the settlement’s official narrative is framed around the mantra of reuniting the country and its people. There can be little doubt, however, that the global economic crisis and its manifestations — both on the domestic and the geopolitical fronts — underpins the current diplomatic efforts.

For most Turkish Cypriots, the drive for a solution stems from their need to break free from economic and political isolation, become part of the European Union, and emancipate themselves from Turkish control. In 2004, 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the Annan reunification plan.

The south, on the other hand, voted down that plan, in part because of provisions that would grant Turkey, as well as Greece, a decisive say over matters of security. A series of adjustments agreed to during low-level bilateral negotiations in the last decade, the eurozone crisis, and the recent discovery of large natural gas reserves off the island’s coast have made the case for reunification more appealing to the Greek Cypriot community.

The Roots of Cypriot Partition

The ethnic dispute that led to the Cypriot partition essentially revolves around the clash between two rival nationalisms that established themselves during the twentieth century. Like Palestine, the Balkans, and Kurdistan, Cyprus inherited its conflict from the collapse of the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, as well as from the penetration of the Levant by European colonialism and imperialism. This regional and historical framework is key to understanding the nature of the conflict, more than any judgement on the legality of this or that action.

The bourgeois nationalism of the Greek Cypriot majority strived for union, or enosis, with Greece. This goal even brought it into armed conflict with the British colonial power in the 1950s. In an era when the formation of the nation state went hand in hand with ethnic cleansing, Turkish Cypriot nationalism developed in reaction to its Greek counterpart and advanced the slogan of partition, or taksim.

This turn was inevitable. Crete once had a larger share of Turkish inhabitants than Cyprus, but after it united with the Greek state, all were expelled. If Cyprus officially joined Greece, the best the Turkish community — around 18 percent of the population — could hope for was status as second-class citizens, like what Greece’s Muslim (that is, its Turkish) minority already endured.

In the end, three NATO allies — Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom — decided Cyprus’s fate. In 1960, they agreed on a nominally independent Republic of Cyprus. Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom would guarantee the island’s security, and the British would retain vital military bases on the island. The constitutional arrangement shared power between Greek and Turkish nationalists.

Given the actual political environment, however, the arrangement was bound to collapse. Greek nationalism never recognized their Turkish counterparts’ collective rights and viewed independence as a step toward union with Greece. The Greek Cypriot nationalist elite, which effectively drove the Turkish representatives out of government, monopolized the bicommunal state from 1963 to 1974.

Greek domination and rising affluence characterized this period. Meanwhile, following a series of violent clashes, the Turks were pushed into small and economically unproductive enclaves throughout the island. These were administered by Turkish nationalists, whereas a UN peacekeeping force was put in place, which oversaw the development of two separate polities.

Bicommunal talks to resolve the dispute were initiated in the late 1960s, however, a second conflict with wider geopolitical ramifications began to emerge during this period. Spurred by unprecedented economic growth and its near absolute domination of the island, the Greek Cypriot leadership under President Makarios began to consider independence seriously for the first time, developing its own project in opposition to attempts by Greece and Turkey to resolve the issue amongst themselves.

Against Western initiatives to divide the island between both NATO members, Cyprus joined the Non-Aligned Movement and made overtures to the Soviet Union to maintain its independence. This immediately brought Cyprus under threat from Turkey and Greece. While Turkey periodically threatened to invade to protect the Turkish enclaves from Greek attacks, Greece landed 15,000 troops on the island by the mid-1960s. Soon, mainland Greeks dominated the local National Guard and encouraged the establishment of far-right paramilitary organizations, which in turn began assassinating government supporters in the late 1960s.

During this buildup, Makarios had the support of the Progressive Party of the Working People (AKEL), his former foe and the island’s powerful communist party. Prior the Greek Cypriot right’s “anticolonial mutation” in the 1950s, the party was the island’s hegemonic political force. However, its stance on the national dispute proved to be its Achilles’ heel.

Cyprus’s early communists in the 1920s and 1930s were true radicals with a real grasp of the complexities of the national question. They focused on building trade unions and fighting British colonialism. They did not aim to join Greece necessarily, but rather to unite Cyprus “with the nearest Soviet republic.” The advent of Stalinist popular front politics, however, saw the mainly Greek-speaking communists turn toward enosis in the 1940s. From then on, AKEL viewed Cypriot self-determination as synonymous with union with Greece, alongside rights for the Turkish minority. This line was followed even after 1949, when the US-backed monarchist right defeated the Left in Greece’s civil war.

Neither the Greek Cypriot right, nor the bulk of the Turkish community really cared for AKEL’s stance. While it failed to appease the Right, which conducted a violent campaign against the Left, parallel to its struggle against the British in the 1950s, it failed to properly address the Turkish Cypriots’ legitimate concerns. This in turn enabled the hegemony of right-wing nationalist forces within their community, which promoted ethnic separation and conducted their own witch hunt against the Turkish Cypriot left. Careful not to step out of the mainstream after independence, AKEL abandoned its position in favor of enosis, only after the bulk of the Greek Cypriot ruling class had done so already.

In 1974, the simmering conflict between Cyprus and Greece culminated in a Greek-backed military coup against Makarios, ostensibly aimed at achieving union with Greece and tacitly supported by the United States. Makarios escaped and accused the Greek regime of invasion. Within five days, Turkey invoked the intervention rights enshrined in Cyprus’s constitution and invaded with the professed aim of protecting Turkish Cypriots whom the short-lived Nicos Sampson regime had already started to round up and murder.

Turkish troops went beyond their stated aim and forcibly expelled tens of thousands of Greeks from the North. The United States gave Turkey the green light, hoping to ensure that Cyprus remained within the NATO orbit.

Both national narratives about what took place in 1974 contain elements of truth. Turkey’s invasion did involve massacres and large-scale ethnic cleansing. While effectively rescuing Turkish Cypriots from Greek right-wing nationalists, it aimed at implementing its longstanding objectives on the island. Its entire legitimacy rested on an ambiguous postcolonial arrangement open to numerous interpretations. That said, Turkish Cypriots were indeed facing an uncertain fate, and Greek-Turkish coexistence on the island before 1974 was not primarily threatened by “Turkish expansionism,” but rather by Greek attempts to monopolize the state.

After 1974: War by Other Means

The Turkish invasion set back Greek Cypriot nationalism as a whole. Talk of union with Greece was relegated to the right-wing extremist fringe. Under an unfavorable balance of forces, the Greek Cypriot leadership grudgingly accepted that the unitary state was dead and that any settlement would be based on a bicommunal federation. This compromise implicitly recognized equal political status for Turkish Cypriots, even though almost all Greek administrations failed to communicate this to their constituents.

The federal framework was settled with the Turkish Cypriot leadership as early as 1977, but sticking points remained: the amount of land and property to be returned to Greek Cypriot refugees; the two prospective constituent states’ autonomy, with Greeks favoring more and Turks less centralization; and the future state’s security status, with Turks preferring a continuation of the guarantor system and Greeks, together with the European Union, calling for its abolition. Today’s negotiations will largely depend on settling this last aspect — arguably the most difficult to resolve — as Turks fear a repetition of 1963–64 and Greeks fear another 1974.

Accepting the federal framework was one part of the Greek Cypriot long-term strategy. At the same time, the Greek-dominated RoC made sure to balance its military disadvantage vis-à-vis Turkey with its booming economy, as well as with legal warfare in international bodies. The RoC improved its position on the imperialist chessboard by reinventing itself as an offshore hub for financial services, gradually phasing out the previous Third Worldist experiments.

In the 1990s, when international law and the support of non-aligned countries became less significant, Cyprus’s Greek leadership officially turned to EU membership to pressure Turkey. While conscious of Turkey’s geopolitical significance for the West, the Greek Cypriot ruling class nevertheless strengthened its position by emphasizing its state’s importance as a financial asset and by presenting its case in the language of “European norms and values,” which Turkey would have to conform to if it wanted to join the European Union. Indeed, this strategy proved very successful. Framing the entire conflict exclusively as one resulting from invasion and occupation, the RoC used its international recognition to prevent the Turkish-supported status quo from becoming formalized and joined the European Union in 2004.

In the late 1990s, the Greek Cypriot government showed how far it would go in this game of arm-twisting. Forces now being hailed as liberal moderates pursued an aggressive arms buildup, nearly bringing Greece and Turkey into full-scale war. They hoped to convince Western powers that the status quo was not only unacceptable but potentially hazardous for their interests.

Today, Cyprus’s status as an EU member, its location in one of the world’s most volatile regions, and the prospect of a natural gas bonanza all underline Europe’s and the United States’s interest in reaching a final settlement. For an increasingly unpredictable Turkey, on the other hand, Cyprus plays a role in its grand bargain with the European Union, which includes its membership bid, the Syrian crisis, its relations with Russia, and more recently, its role as enforcer of the EU’s restrictive migration policy.

The Greek Cypriot ruling class is divided concerning the negotiations. One faction, headed by the current president Nicos Anastasiades and his conservative Democratic Rally (DISY) party, favors making concessions to achieve a federal solution. The other, more insecure sectors of that class — including the powerful Greek Orthodox Church and an assortment of nationalist parties ranging all the way down to Golden Dawn’s Cypriot branch — have a stake in preserving the status quo.

Both factions represent different sections of capital, yet both are thoroughly neoliberal and aspire to use imperialism for their own aims. Anastasiades hopes to achieve a win-win outcome that will see Greek and Turkish Cypriot capitalists sharing the profits of natural gas extraction with multinational firms under the umbrella of Western and Israeli military “protection.” His opponents adhere to a nationalist and confrontational policy that seeks to exploit rivalries between Turkey and any other force perceived as against Turkey — be it the European Union, Russia, or Israel. This section has recently dropped any pretense of supporting a federal settlement, putting its chauvinist character on full display.

Trapped by Geography

The Left’s attitude toward the current negotiation process cannot be viewed in isolation from its general position within Cypriot society. Northern and southern Cyprus have radically different levels of social mobilization. In recent years, the Left and trade unions in the north have led protests against Turkish-inspired neoliberal measures, such as privatization in the public sector.

The picture in the south is much bleaker. When it comes to anti-austerity protests, Cyprus has remained a conspicuous exception in the European south. The Anastasiades government has been able to implement a Thatcherite project of neoliberal social engineering almost without resistance. Up to now, this has included slashing wages, liberalizing the job market, and cutting benefits for vulnerable groups like senior citizens and disabled individuals.

AKEL has been in perpetual crisis since it was voted out of office in 2013, being strategically unable to articulate any coherent challenge to neoliberalism. Last May’s parliamentary elections produced dismal results, owing largely to voter apathy and disillusion among AKEL’s core electorate.

The party’s decline has an objective and historical explanation. Adhering to a German-style social-democratic policy of class cooperation for half a century left its mark, as trade unions continue to cultivate a climate of good faith toward a government bent on crushing them once and for all. Meanwhile the political spectrum’s restructuring after the arrival of austerity has benefited right-wing populist forces that combine hollow, anti-establishment rhetoric with hatred toward Turkish Cypriots and migrants.

But there are also political reasons for the Greek Cypriot left’s decline. Conventional left-wing wisdom holds that nothing can happen before a solution to the Cyprus problem. As such, among large sections of the Left, both within AKEL as well as the radical left, the “national question” enjoys unchallenged primacy. This phenomenon is not unique to the Cypriot left, but rather common among orthodox Communist parties, which often called for “bourgeois democratic” advances to be made and national struggles resolved as a precondition for socialist demands.

In Cyprus, this approach borders on the absurd, since it fundamentally misreads the country’s ethnic dispute. In the classical Marxist sense of the term, there is no national question in Cyprus, for no community is currently oppressing or discriminating against the other. Nor are imperial forces oppressing Cyprus. On the contrary, the interests of both the island’s ruling classes are directly linked to those of the European Union and the Turkish state respectively. Furthermore, both ruling classes have no qualms about the island’s use as a listening post and forward base for wars in the Middle East. What exists are numerous pending issues of restitution for the injustices suffered by both communities in 1963–64 and 1974, as well as the evident need for reconciliation and the mutual recognition of past suffering. But there is no national question in the sense of national oppression.

The Left’s attitude toward the current negotiations clearly demonstrates its stagist approach. AKEL, together with its allies in the north, has put on large gatherings and concerts imploring both communities’ leaders to reach a solution.

That working people are coming together across the ethnic divide under slogans of peace and reconciliation, defying their respective nationalisms’ warmongering, is of course encouraging and commendable. Nevertheless, it offers a poor substitute for political strategy.

Indeed, the Left hasn’t put forward any alternative social or economic demands. Instead, it is asking a “moderate” — in the case of the Greek Cypriots — bourgeois nationalist party to deliver a solution. Considering the current momentum, AKEL has effectively given a carte blanche to the government’s social policies, never failing to reiterate that it “supports the government in its efforts” out of a feeling of “patriotic responsibility,” the same government whose policies are widening the gap between rich and poor.

This evident under-theorization has opened the door for other, ostensibly radical, readings of the Cyprus problem to appear. The Greek Communist Party, KKE, in its never-ending downward spiral of sectarianism, has turned its back on its “fraternal” party AKEL, abandoning the call for a federal Cyprus in favor of a unitary state and castigating current efforts to resolve the conflict as imperialist. Even though this change of stance is purportedly justified on “internationalist” grounds, the only thing it achieves is to provide a left-wing alibi to the most reactionary Greek Cypriot forces. The stance also reflects an understandable — considering the Greek state’s responsibility for exacerbating the conflict in the past — yet problematic tendency among sections of the Greek radical left to view Cyprus exclusively through the prism of foreign intervention.

However, the internationalism of any Greek left-wing position on Cyprus must primarily be judged by its acceptance or not of the principal of political equality for Turkish Cypriots (as opposed to mere cultural or individual rights) — not some abstract rejection of “imperialism.” This is because the denial of this equality constitutes a major component of the ideological reproduction of the Greek Cypriot state, whereas its political acceptance is viewed, at best, as a “painful compromise.”

Unfortunately, the KKE’s leftist critics in Cyprus do not put forward any convincing arguments of their own. Left-wing supporters of reunification-come-what-may contend that a unified Cyprus will witness “common struggles” between Greek and Turkish workers, claiming — with a conviction that borders on the metaphysical — that any permanent partition will have “disastrous consequences.” The obvious paradox of siding with big capital, the European Union, and the United States is circumvented by focusing on unification’s opponents in the Church and other segments of capital mobilizing against a settlement, as well as by abstractly recalling a common “Cypriot identity” that unites Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Of course, a unique Cypriot identity clearly distinct from both Greek and Turkish national identities in the strict cultural sense does exist. However, this Cypriot-ness’s political articulation has completely different historical meanings for both communities. For the Greeks, it emerged from the twin experience of formal independence and resistance to the Greek military regime; the Cypriot-ness of the Turks, on the other hand, developed against Ankara’s tight grip on their community. In any case, it is an empty signifier with little or no use for advancing the common material interests of working people on both sides.

It is easy to point to the utterly reactionary character of the settlement’s opponents to bolster the “reunification or bust” argument. But we should view this uncritical support for the negotiations skeptically. Not only does it dramatically overestimate the Left’s current capacity to dictate the turn of events, but it is also premised on unadulterated wishful thinking.

The current RoC government has made it clear that it intends to enshrine “fiscal responsibility” in the country’s future constitution. The Left could not resist the neoliberal onslaught in one part of the country; why it should be in a better position to do so in both stands as a more than valid question. Given the precedents of so-called conflict resolution in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, a quite plausible outcome would be a situation in which capitalists and the cosmopolitan elite from both sides reap the benefits of reconciliation while ordinary working people, confined in their separate constituent states, pay the bill and become even more susceptible to ethno-populist politics.

This is a potentially dangerous outcome, made even more toxic by the fact that the settlement currently under discussion fails to address the privileges of the main institutions of nationalism and their influence over educational matters, like the Orthodox Church in the south. This is no accident; Anastasiades and his DISY party take a diehard, albeit pragmatic, nationalist position. They are deeply hostile to workers’ rights and ready to transform from warmongers to “peacemakers” and vice versa. They had previously ganged up with the current opponents of a settlement to drive the moderately left-wing Christofias government out of office. The disagreements between both are in turn a squabble between “a band of warring brothers,” purely centered on the question of how to better advance capital’s interests.

Even the less ideological argument that a solution will lead to an economic boom with positive redistributive side effects leaves much to be desired. Reunification as such is estimated to cost as much as €25 billion. More fundamentally, the idea that economic advance could spring out of capitalism’s worst crisis since the 1930s cannot be taken seriously, especially at a time when even Turkey’s economy — previously hailed as an example of growth in a world of stagnation — is experiencing serious problems.

Finally, while the KKE’s critics correctly state that perpetuating the status quo will not challenge imperialism, they fail to show how a settlement under the current balance of forces has any anti-imperialist content. They gloss over the fact that current efforts are directly linked to the prospect of exploiting natural gas and constructing pipelines to transport Israeli — and potentially Cypriot — natural gas to Europe via Cyprus and Turkey.

The quest for fossil-fuel reserves in the eastern Mediterranean is a particularly dirty affair, played out at the expense of Palestinians. A settlement of the Cyprus question will most likely result also in rendering untouchable the status of British military bases on the island, which have been used in every single Western military intervention in the Middle East since the Suez Crisis in 1956.

Real Unification

Whether reunification will take place or not, the situation in the coming period does not bode well for working people on either side of the Cyprus divide. While a climate in favor of reconciliation and peace is certainly welcome, it is worth remembering that the Left is not calling the shots. In fact, the once powerful left in the south has never been weaker, its base either completely disoriented, or torn apart between ineffectual ultra-leftist sectarianism on the one hand, and hollow social liberalism on the other.

The Republic of Cyprus needs a left-wing approach that moves beyond the seemingly eternal Cyprus problem now more than ever. By constantly prioritizing the “national question” over class politics, the current left does not challenge the ruling nationalist ideology that obscures the mechanisms of exploitation. Instead, it merely reproduces it by substituting regressive ethnic nationalism with a seemingly inclusive, yet equally classless, Cypriot identity.

This might have been a useful slogan during the period of prosperity-driven rivalry between the Greek and Turkish ruling classes. In times of stagnation and uncertainty, however, when the region’s capitalist elites are closing ranks to better conduct class warfare, any liberal identity discourse is bound to fail, even on its own, seemingly anti-nationalist, terms. The current dilemma between solution and non-solution to the Cyprus dispute is the local articulation of the false dichotomy that marks the Trump/Brexit era: fiscally responsible social liberalism or an equally neoliberal but regressive ethno-populism. The Left is bound to fail if it doesn’t develop its own clearly delineated class-based project to oppose both sides.

Peace, reconciliation, and mutual recognition cannot be preconditioned on deals aimed at harmonizing the region’s capitalist class interests, with faint hopes that the working class will benefit from a peace dividend. Further, the fight against national chauvinism can neither be regarded as isolated from day-to-day struggles nor as a liberal endeavor against silly pathological prejudices; it must be viewed as instrumental in defending workers’ rights against attempts to weaken them through division along ethnic lines. This does not only apply to Cypriot reconciliation, but also to the struggle to defend the rights of migrants and refugees currently living in dismal circumstances on the island.

What already unites the workers of Cyprus is not their identity or geography, but their respective struggles against the constant deterioration of their living standards and their opposition to the island’s use as a launching pad for imperialist war. Socialists who wish to challenge the status quo in Cyprus and contribute to a viable, long-lasting peace must start from this premise. They must address the issues emanating from the class nature of the conflict head on.

However “abstract” or “impractical” this may seem while high-level bartering is taking place, the Left’s position will only worsen unless it exhibits major pedagogical ambitions. This necessarily entails overcoming a certain insular parochialism that stems from the chronic fixation with the “national question,” as well as linking up with social struggles in the wider region.