By DOMINIC GILONIS
The ‘Cyprus Question’ had seemingly slipped into the background of geopolitics, with the partitioned island's fate in limbo, at least on the surface. However, the problem has reared its ugly head once more.
Cyprus and its waters are set to become a conflict zone between Erdogan’s increasingly assertive Turkey and an EU that seems fed up with Ankara. The gas fields that lie beneath the seabed are of vital interest to the EU as a means to end dependence on Russian energy while shoring up the struggling Balkan economies of Greece and Bulgaria. With Germany also set on an assertive foreign policy based on affirming its NATO commitments, conflict is likely to re-emerge unless Ankara changes its policies.
The Republic of Cyprus gained independence from the UK in 1950. The population roughly consists of four-fifths of Greek Cypriot and one-fifth of Turkish Cypriot, the latter a result of Ottoman colonialism.
Inter-communal violence plagued the island through the 1960s and culminated in a coup in 1974, sponsored by the Greek government to ‘unite’ with Cyprus. This government, known as the ‘Regime of the Colonels’, was essentially a fascist junta and drew legitimacy from its self-proclaimed ability to defeat Turkey in a potential war.
Contemporary tensions between Turkey and Greece date back to the former’s founding in 1923 and a failed Greek invasion that resulted in a ‘population exchange’ of nearly three million Turks and Greeks. The two had a relation somewhat comparable to that of India and Pakistan, where the ‘Kashmir,’ in this case, was Cyprus.
When Turkey intervened and defeated the 1974 coup, it also established the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, an entity only recognised by Ankara to this day.
The island remains de facto partitioned and will likely remain so as reunification talks have repeatedly stalled, and neither faction trusts the other to hold their word.
Tensions in the eastern Mediterranean rose in 2011 when large gas fields were discovered in the ‘exclusive economic zone’ of Cyprus. Since then, operation licenses between Nicosia and western companies, the Italian ENI, and French Total, to name a few, have been agreed upon.
Western European governments have much at stake given their current energy dependence that hamstrings their ability to confront what the German Minister of Defence, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), refers to as the ‘Russian thirst for power.’ Russian gas made up 39% of European imports in 2017, which is likely to increase unless alternative sources can be found.
The agreements with Cyprus accompany a joint Cypriot, Greek & Israeli venture to build the ‘East Med’ pipeline from Cyprus to southern Italy, while the Greek and Bulgarian governments agreed to build the IGB (Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria).
While it seems that the opposition to Moscow and Turkey are increasingly overlapping, western countries have less to fear from Russia than they do from Turkey.
Indeed, the recent stopping of a Turkish vessel en route to Libya by German marines indicates the extent to which EU leaders have become concerned with Turkey’s assertive foreign policy.
The EU has suspended talks over Turkey’s accession to the EU in 2019, which indicates Ankara’s increasing divergence from the West. This dissociation has also been recently reinforced by Erdogan questioning the mental state of Emmanuel Macron as a criticism of his anti-Islamist stance.
Yet, this recent crisis is also evidence of Germany’s Westbindung, as laid out by AKK. In October, she invited Germany and Europe to bolster its position within NATO and strengthen transatlantic cooperation while also taking more responsibility for regional stability. If Germany hopes to become a more active participant within NATO and strengthen European unity and security, countering Turkish aggression is a fair start. This could firmly tie Greece back into Europe while demonstrating Europe’s defence capabilities. What will remain important is ensuring that such a policy has united support.
Macron has already expressed doubts over AKK’s vision, opting instead for a more independent foreign policy. COVID-19 austerity will also restrict countries' ability to operate globally while increasing Chinese investment will undermine the West in a post-COVID world.
More confident and assertive liberalism is, however, needed in the face of the illiberal aggression of Russia, Turkey, and China. Let us hope that the people of Cyprus are remembered in this game so that they do not have to suffer more than they already have.