Future of Europe

Prospects for Cypriot Unity

30 October 2019

This short article focuses on some of the recent history, milestones, and key players in the Cypriot conflict, and will shine a light on the Union of Cypriots (Ένωσις Κυπρίων/ Kıbrıslılar Birliği) organisation and its influence on progressive thought on the island.

Klaudia Kerekes

The world’s attention rarely turns towards what is happening in Cyprus – the small divided Mediterranean island that marks the eastern point of the West and the western point of the East, and the only European Union member state which is not strictly even in Europe geographically. Cyprus is a country with three foreign armies, one peacekeeping force and two unconstitutional local militias – one each for its Greek- and Turkish-speaking communities. A land with occupied territories, sovereign areas controlled by former colonisers, several enclaves, demilitarised zones, and the last capital city in the world to be physically divided by a United Nations (UN) buffer zone, that separates the predominately Greek and Turkish Cypriot areas.

This short article focuses on some of the recent history, milestones, and key players in the Cypriot conflict, and will shine a light on the Union of Cypriots (Ένωσις Κυπρίων/ Kıbrıslılar Birliği) organisation and its influence on progressive thought on the island. The Union of Cypriots analyses and campaigns against the political status quo in Cyprus from the perspective of all Cypriots, both Greek and Turkish speaking, and seeks to represent the interests of both communities in the seemingly interminable UN-backed federation talks.

A divided island

Cyprus has endured a history of imperialism, with  the Ottomans and then the British laying claim to the island. This has left a lasting legacy , with the northern third of the island still controlled by Turkey following a failed coup d’état in 1974, and the military bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia still under British sovereignty.

The Progressive Party of Working People (Ανορθωτικό Κόμμα Εργαζόμενου Λαού/Emekçi Halkın İlerici Partisi , ΑΚΕΛ/(AKEL) in Cyprus is the only extant Marxist-Leninist party in the Western World that has managed to elect a head of state in the 21st century. Demetris Christofias (1946-2019) was the General Secretary of AKEL, and served as the sixth President of Cyprus from 2008-2013.  AKEL has fought for Enosis – the idea of Cyprus becoming part of Greece – and was instrumental during the 1963 -64 constitutional crisis. This crisis resulted from the Greek Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios wanting to change thirteen points in the national constitution, which would effectively remove some constituonal rights of Turkish Cypriots. These changes were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court of Cyprus (SCCC) following a case taken by the Turkish Cypriot Vice President Dr. Fazıl Küçük. President Makarios ignored the SCCC decision which resulted in Turkish Cypriot representatives, including the Vice President Dr. Kucuk, leaving the government.

This episode also triggered the ‘Bloody Christmas’ events which nominally began on 21 December 1963, when the harrasment of a Turkish Cypriot by a Greek Cypriot police officer in Nicosia City Centre led to an outbreak of intercommunal violence, but which was clearly the result of the tension created by Makarios’s constitutional changes. This episode ultimately resulted in the death of 364 Turkish Cypriots and 174 Greek Cypriots, as well as the displacement of 25.000 Turkish Cypriots, 1.200 Armenians and 500 Greek Cypriots.

Nowadays, like so many others, AKEL calls for a “federal” Cyprus, that would result in the maintenance of the division of the island in its two-parts. However, the “unitary” Cyprus message that the Union of Cypriots advocates is growing in popularity throughout Cypriot society – within both the Greek- and Turkish speaking communities. The organisation is one of the most prominent political actors in Cyprus that vocally opposes any kind of presence of Turkey, Greece or the United Kingdom on the island, with their motto “Cyprus for Cypriots”. The group supports progressive civic nationalism which they dub “Cypriotism”, and believes that any kind of separation or segregation in a tiny community, such as among the  fewer than 1.5 million Cypriots, will only be to the advantage of the foreign powers. The organisation’s founder and leader, Oz Karahan, is a prominent figure in Cypriot society and recently stood  unsuccessfully as a candidate for the “Jasmine Movement” coalition for the 2019 European Parliament elections, alongside Şener Levent, owner of the “Afrika” newspaper .

Karahan writes a regular column for Afrika, which has ongoing links with the Union of Cypriots. Afrika recently caught the world’s attention when earlier this year it condemned the Turkish operation in Afrin, Syria in 2018 under the headline: “one more occupation from Turkey”, referring back to the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. On the same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the illegal Turkish settlers from Turkey who living in the occupied areas of the island to “repond” to Afrika . As a result, the following day on 22 Januay 2018, around 500 people attacked the headquarters of the newspaper holding Turkish flags and posters of President Erdogan. In the days following the attacks, it was the turn of Turkish Cypriots to organise a historic demostration opposing Ankara’s actions in a showed of support of Afrika . Following this, President Erdogan attempted to sue the newspaper but without success. Now, more than 18 months on, Afrika’s reporting of the ‘Turkish occupation of Syria’ can be seen in its own context, following the US withdrawal from the north of the country in October 2019.

The Union of Cypriots first entered the field of active politics in  2011, during further Turkish Cypriot protests which were dubbed “Communal Survival Rallies”. These represented the biggest anti-Turkey demonstrations yet in Cypriot history. In its early years, the Union of Cypriots was primarily a youth organisation operating under the name LINOBAMBAKI which was subsequently changed to the World Union of Turkish-speaking Cypriots (Παγκόσμια Ένωση Τουρκόφωνων Κυπρίων/Dünya Türkçe Konuşan Kıbrıslılar Birliği). Following these protests, the organisation became active in the international political scene, becoming part of various international alliances, by sending speakers to conferences and events, and by generally spreading the word about Cyprus and the ongoing conflict there. It is fair to say that the organisation is one of the loudest voices against the Turkish occupation among the Turkish-speaking Cypriot community today. This explains in part how it went on to garner support and popularity among progressive Greek-speaking Cypriots in turn, which ultimatley led to its new, more inclusive, name – the “Union of Cypriots – in a bid to to be more representative of all Cypriots who oppose imperialism. In keeping with this mission, and its ethos of international solidarity, the Union of Cypriots became a member of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle (ILPS), one of the largest global alliance of anti-imperialist organisations in the world.

‘One homeland, one nation, one Cyprus’

Notably, contrary to the seemingly never-ending “bi-zonal and bi-communal” federation talks under UN auspices, the Union of Cypriots promotes the idea of returning to the 1960 constitution. The 1960 constitution is a bi-communal constitution but a “unitary” one. This constitution affords Turkish Cypriots, as a minimum, the position of vice-president in the national government, 30 percent of the seats in parliament and cabinet, reserved places in the civil service  and police force, 40 percent of places in the armed forces and a valuable  “veto power” on important legislation and policy which can effect both communities.

This is an example of a system that can work when there is goodwill. There are similar systems in place elsewhere in the world, with the closest equivalent being only a few miles away from Cyprus in Lebanon, and even in the devolved assembly in Northern Ireland. However, perhaps surprisingly, especially from the perspective of outsiders looking at the country, since the aforementioned 1963-64 constitutional crises, the 1960 constitution has not been applied despite being the legal constitution in force in the areas under the control of the Republic of Cyprus.

The future of the status-quo

The Union of Cypriots argues that the ongoing UN talks are only serving the status-quo and the foreign powers rather than the interests of Cypriots. For them, as Turkey has controlled the northern part of the island since 1974, this makes the possibility for any kind of permanent solution difficult to envisage.

The author had a short conversation with Oz Karahan, the founder and leader of the Union of Cypriots, during a bi-communal political event close to the buffer zone in Nicosia. When asked about what he believes will come from the recent   reunification talks under UN auspices. Karahan’s answer was clear: “Of course nothing will come out in favour of Cypriots”. When asked about his views for the future of the island, Karahan replied “This island is never going to be a Greek island and it is not going to stay divided forever. It will be a Cypriot island, if Cypriots are smart and fight for the principles of one nation, one flag, one homeland and one state… If Cypriots allow the current status-quo to continue for their comfort or political ego for a little bit more, this island will be a Turkish island in the near history, forever’.

Karahan’s view may seem pessimistic, but it represents a widely-held belief among the people who live on the island, especially in the Turkish-speaking community, that the West has turned a blind eye to the Turkish occupation. Notably, the ongoing Turkish occupation of Northern Syria has been characterised by President Erdogan as equally  “as vital as their 1974 Cyprus operation” for Turkey’s security, which only adds to this sentiment.

The posters for the Union of Cypriots on the streets of Cyprus display their  radical messaging, with slogans such as “Cyprus for Cypriots” and “One homeland, one nation, one Cyprus”, which may sound unusual for a progressive, inclusive political movement. But the Union of Cypriots first and foremost is anti-imperialist in outlook, and wants to end what they see as the colonisation of the island that has been to the detriment of all of its peoples and that has lasted for centuries. The organisation’s nationalistic positioning is grounded in their rejection of imperialism, and promotes a progressive, inclusive future for the island.

Progressive futures

What is happening in Cyprus should be important to all progressives and anti-imperialists. As above, Cyprus is the point where East and West meet, and is one of the last places in the region that plays host to foreign powers and interests, even providing a launchpad for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and interventions in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. Since the occupation, negotiations under UN auspices continue despite Turkish-backed settlers continuing to arrive on the island in defiance of recurrent UN resolutions that seek to resist actions designed to change the demographic structure of the country.

This deadlock shares similarities with the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict, and every day the possibility of solving the equation seems to get harder. Progressives argue that Cypriots are too few in number to be divided, and to improve things for people, one must look beyond the “bi-zonal, bi-communal” federal formulas that have been proposed by the UN and others to find ways of unifying the peoples of Cyprus.

Progressive forces like the Union of Cypriots show that there are alternatives. Instead of separation and segregation of the island, they believe in unity. They also believe that instead of trying to find something new, it is easier to turn back to what they already have, in the form of the 1960 construction. The Union of Cypriots sees this as the only way to solve the Cyprus puzzle. Their ultimate goal, as a progressive organisation, is to replace Greek and Turkish nationalism with solidarity, unity and hope, by uniting the people around the idea of being Cypriots in the interest of finding a lasting peace.