The conflict in Cyprus

Michalis MichaelMichalis Michael


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I will be your host, Matt Smith and I’m here today with my guest, Dr. Michalis Michael from La Trobe University Centre of Dialogue and author of Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiation History. Available from Palgrave Macmillan. Thank you for joining me today Michael.

Michalis Michael:

My pleasure.

Matt Smith:

So, you’re here today to talk about the conflict in Cyprus, the long running conflict in Cyprus. Does it date back to before the Turkish invasion in 1974?

Michalis Michael:

Oh yes. The Cyprus conflict has a long history. And of course it depends on your historical vantage point when it started. There are several sort of dates that are heralded around that give the genesis to the Cyprus problem. Just give you a background, so Cyprus per say.

Cyprus is an island of course in the east Mediterranean. It’s been at the crossroads of all civilizations of that era, of that period and of that region. It’s modern incarnation finds it as an outpost of the Ottoman Empire which in 1878 was leased to the British Empire. In return, that Britain will be able to intervene in case Russia invaded Ottoman Turkey. OK, this is 1878. It languishes until the first world war of which of course Ottoman Turkey and the British Empire were on opposite sides. And then Britain annexes Cyprus as part of the empire and it becomes a crown colony.

We move on until 1950s. Mid 1955, Greek Cypriot nationalists launched a guerrilla warfare or insurgency. It’s a more popular term, against the British for union anarchist of Cyprus with Greece. Of course that didn’t happen and was given an independence in 1960.

Now, Cyprus have the Greek Cypriot majority community, but also a sizable Turkish Cypriot minority of around 18 to 20%. What was established in 1960 was a compromise solution of a state which was run with communal quarters and participation. This of course created some friction.

And we are led to 1963, 64, there is intercommunal violence and clashes as a result to Turkish Cypriots withdraw from the central government of the Republic of Cyprus. And by default, the Republic of Cyprus becomes a Greek Cypriot control.

And we come up to 1974, the year where things took a major shift in turn which resulted in the demographic and geographical partition or division of the island with Turkish troops being in northern Cyprus and of course Greeks Cypriots, custodians of the Republic of Cyprus being in the south.

Matt Smith:

We take the events of 1974 and really ongoing as being modern Cyprus. But that’s really just the most recent event that’s happened in this past. What’s the reality of it now? There’s a bit of division. Turkish Cyprus seems to be, is in the north and the rest is Greek owned. Is that right?

Michalis Michael:

Well, that’s correct more or less. Since 1974, there’s been a partition of the island. The Turkish Cypriots are all congregated, the great majority of them in northern Cyprus. Together with the Turkish military forces, but also settlers who have been brought in or immigrants, depending on your definition into northern Cyprus.

Since 1974 or 1975 there’ve been negotiations between the two communities to find a solution or a settlement to the problem. And these negotiations which are under the auspices of the United Nations and include also the former Foreign Minister of Australia Alexander Downer as one of the envoy of the UN Secretary General have been involved in trying to find a solution, acceptable to all sides because in addition to the two communities, there also, their mother countries, Turkey and Greece involved.

Matt Smith:

How are they going to go about resolving that? Is there too much history to resolve something like that?

Michalis Michael:

Well, yes. You put your finger right on it. I mean one, the hidden element is of course how do you negotiate decades if not centuries of history and conflicting history at that. Although the negotiations operate for a political settlement and that is to find a formula, to find a formula. A constitutional, legal formula of a state that will be acceptable to the two communities at first stage that they are able to live with.

And what’s been the basis for this political settlement is a federation. A federation of two states. More or less as they are now with some territorial adjustments that will allow for half or more than half Greek Cypriot refugees to return to their homelands as well as guarantee for both majority and minorities.

Security is a big issue in this conflict as you can understand. And for a mechanism of a central government that will of course govern. And this is really the bound of contention is how much power will the central federal government have.

The Greek Cypriot want a more centralized government with more powers where the Turkish Cypriots want a more loose federation with less powers. And of course more powers to the state. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Matt Smith:

This is what the diplomats are negotiating for or trying to get to. But is that sort of thing viable when it comes down to the people? Will the people accept something like this?

Michalis Michael:

Judging from various surveys and of course a referendum that took place in 2004, I would say that the great majority of Greeks Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots do accept. The devil is in the details, of course. What sort of federation are you talking about because clearly, people have different visions and understanding of federation.

And a federation of course as you correctly put it, which hasn’t been discussed as much, how would affect the day to day lives of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots and other Cypriots for that matter.

The biggest obstacle though that I see. This is where the phobia comes in and this is why both sides, on a people level are reluctant to embrace change is the fear of the unknown. For better or for worse, the security or the certainty of the status quo is much more appealing than the uncertainty of change. It’s the change that they fear.

The Greek Cypriots of course are majority on the island and therefore the minority, the Turkish Cypriots fear that they’ll be swamped culturally, economically, politically etc etc.

Matt Smith:

The fear of being swamped as you say, was that part of the motivation behind the original Turkish invasion?

Michalis Michael:

Yes. There was an element of that. Of course history played a crude trick on the Greek Cypriot. There was intra Greek dispute. Greece back then was ruled by a military junta and they staged a coup d' etat to overthrow the Greek Cypriot government. Then headed by Makarios, the archbishop, the Cyprus church. That triggered five days later, gave an opportunity to Turkey to invade Cyprus under the pretext that it was intervening to safeguard the Turkish Cypriot who they said were under threat.

Now, of course threats of invasion by Turkey occurred several times throughout the 60s, in 63, 64 and then 67. So, this is what transpired. And of course as a result, we have this mess.

I mean, the point that I’m trying to project in the book and as elsewhere, that yes there is a divide on ethnic line, Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot but in many ways that divide is both artificial and unproductive too.

There are also divisions and differences between these two communities and trying to find which groups within this communities are close to each other. Sometimes even closer in political terms than they are to their compatriots. And this diversity and plurality of difference is what provides us the optimism for solution.

Matt Smith:

How far reaching is the effects of this conflict? It’s clearly had an effect on your life.

Michalis Michael:

Oh yes, yes.

Matt Smith:

Being a Greek Cypriot?

Michalis Michael:

That’s correct. That’s correct.

Matt Smith:

But was it a product of conflict that you found yourself in Australia or? How far reaching is it?

Michalis Michael:

Yes. I also happen to be a victim of the 1974 event. I’m a refugee. I come from a place, a village which is close to main town called Gerenya on Turkish Gerna which is in north. My village so to speak is under occupation. So, I’m a refugee. But of course it has had far reaching effects.

Australia holds a large Cypriot diaspora, both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot. Australia itself has had an involvement with the Cyprus issue dating back March 1964. We contribute federal police to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Not a big contingent but still sizable and continuous.

Australian, Cyprus, members of the Commonwealth of Nations and they’ve had very fraternal relations. So, although it’s an issue that’s on the other side of the world, doesn’t even register on the radar of Australia’s foreign and economic and security interest.

Matt Smith:

And we also contributed Alexander Downer which I’m kind of, maybe sorry about.

Michalis Michael:

Well, that’s something for the Cypriots to judge.

Matt Smith:

Your book, Resolving the Cyprus Conflict: Negotiating History which is available now. And when people are listening to this from Palgrave Macmillan.

Michalis Michael:

That’s correct. It’s on the website or you can order it through Amazon.

Matt Smith:

I saw it on Amazon. It’s got a quote Butrus Butrus Gali.

Michalis Michael:

That’s correct. And that’s a story in itself. One of the tricks of the trade. Let’s say of promoting your book is to try and get some endorsements from prominent people. One of the people that’s been heavily involved in the Cyprus problem was former UN Secretary General, Dr. Butrus Butrus Gali.

We were in Cairo in April. And by we, I mean, the Centre for Dialogue as a delegation to in the Middle East. And we had a meeting with the newly formed Egyptian Council of Human Rights. The president or the chair is Butrus Butrus Gali. Now, he was not at the meeting. He was in Paris because apparently he shares his time between Paris and Cairo.

However, I saw this as an opportunity with ultimate view of securing of course an endorsement. So, I spoke to the people there, his colleagues including the vice president. Try to communicate with everyone practically that have had cards.

I was on the verge of giving up to be quite honest. I had a very poor response. When all of a sudden I received this email from his personal assistant, “Please send the book” etc etc. So, I send the book. Again, nothing was to be heard of them. Then I rang up to make sure they got it and she put me through to Butrus Butrus Gali himself.

And he’s a chatty old man by the way. And he chatted, going way, way back when he was Foreign Minister of Egypt and there was a little incident between Egypt and then Cyprus which require him to deal with the crisis.

So, I even invited him to come to Australia which at this point he said, “No. I’m too old to travel that far. Why don’t you people come to Cairo or Paris.” He says, "I will take you up on it."

So, that was the little story about it. It was very interesting. I got a cordless phone at home so I was roaming around between washing the dishes and speaking to the former UN Secretary General.

Matt Smith:

Dr. Michalis Michael, thank you for your time today.

Michalis Michael:

Thank you.

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