Talking Turkey on Cyprus

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

January 16, 2002

As President Bush sits down to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit in the White House today, another important meeting will be taking place some 7,000 miles to the east, on the island of Cyprus. There, Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides will begin a last-ditch process of talks designed to overcome the island’s division, the outcome of which will have implications that extend far beyond the island’s 800,000 inhabitants. At stake is the very relationship between Turkey—a key U.S. partner and Muslim ally in the war on terrorism—and the West.

Prior to Mr. Denktash’s unexpected decision last month to begin negotiations, a major crisis over Cyprus seemed almost certain. The scenario looked like this: The European Union, dismayed by Mr. Denktash’s refusal to talk, was planning to invite Cyprus to join the EU at the end of 2002, regardless of whether the island’s division was resolved or not. Since the recognized government of the island is in the hands of the Greek Cypriots, this would mean exclusion of the Turkish-held third of the island, which Turkey has threatened to annex if the EU accession goes ahead. Annexation would mean condemnation from the United Nations, tensions between Greece and Turkey, the effective end of Turkey’s own dream of joining the European Union, and the diplomatic isolation of one of the United States’ most important partners in the war on terrorism. All at a time of severe financial crisis and considerable domestic political uncertainty in Ankara.

The new Cyprus negotiations provide the best opportunity for years to avert such an outcome. Talks between Messrs. Denktash and Clerides, of course, hardly mean the end of the Cyprus problem. The two aging leaders, after all, have met countless times since Cyprus’s division 27 years ago, and they have never found a solution. The strong Greek Cypriot desire to keep the island at least nominally unified and to regain homes lost during the 1974 Turkish military intervention is met by an equally unwavering Turkish Cypriot desire for autonomy, recognition and the security that their minority community did not have when the island was unified and independent from 1960-74. But the new body language coming out of Nicosia, along with Mr. Denktash’s apparent withdrawal of his insistence that Turkish Cypriots could accept nothing short of recognition as a separate state, provide real hope.

The new promise on Cyprus is reinforced by yet another recent potential breakthrough, Turkey’s agreement last month to allow a defense relationship to develop between NATO and the EU. For more than two-and-a-half years, Turkey has been blocking an arrangement that would allow the EU to use NATO’s military planning assets for its own potential operations so that it would not have to develop such assets on its own. Turks felt excluded by the EU’s development of a defense policy separate from NATO’s and insisted that the Europeans could only have automatic access to NATO means if Turkey had the right to veto—or at least participate in—EU actions, which was more than the Europeans would give. At the last minute, in the face of growing European exasperation with Turkish stubbornness (and an American message that the deal on offer was the best that they would get), Ankara accepted European assurances that the defense force would not be used to harm Turkey’s interests, and signed off on the deal.

The progress on Cyprus and European defense could be the sign of a new Turkish flexibility that shows that Turkey wants to remain on the path toward Europe. In the past, Turkey has shown a strong tendency to dig in its heels not only up to the 11th hour but often beyond it. This is a tactic it has used with friends and foes alike, and as a critically important partner in the war on terrorism, it was all too likely that Turkey would take a hard line yet again and assume that the Americans would ride to its rescue, both on Cyprus and European defense. Instead, Ankara’s compromise on the defense issue and Mr. Denktash’s about-face on Cyprus suggest a new moderation. Ankara seems to understand that it cannot bully its way into the EU but must prove that it can accept the give-and-take that is inherent in the European process.

There is obviously still much work to be done. The NATO-EU defense deal—brokered by the United States and United Kingdom—still has to be ratified by both organizations, and EU member Greece is already complaining that the compromise with Turkey goes too far. Even more difficult will be coaxing a painful compromise out of Cypriots on both sides of the Green Line. This means insisting not only that the Turkish Cypriots cede some territory and accept the concept of a loose federation, but persuading the Greek Cypriots to concede maximum autonomy to the Turkish side and generally accepting compensation for—rather than return of—lost property. A way will also have to be found to prevent Cyprus from being able to block Turkey’s own accession to the EU if Turkey meets the membership criteria.

These compromises will be difficult, but the stakes are high. The failure to close these potential deals would isolate Turkey from the West at a time when our cooperation with the only Muslim democracy in the Middle East could not be more important. Completing those deals, on the other hand, would mean a new basis for transatlantic defense cooperation, security for all Cypriots, and a path for Turkey toward the EU and all the stability and prosperity that comes with it.