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Cyprus: dangerous row over gas exploration dates back to British colonial meddling

Turkey on manoeuvres. EPA

French president Emmanuel Macron recently spoke out against Turkey exploring for natural gas in waters claimed by Cyprus, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish leader, was quick to rebuke him: “We are one of the guarantor countries in Cyprus. Greece and the United Kingdom are also the guarantor countries. What is France doing there?”

The spat is the latest sign of rising tensions in the eastern Mediterranean over the huge reserves of natural gas discovered in recent years. Turkey’s exploration off the coast of north Cyprus has fanned the flames of the long-running row over the status of the Turkish-Cypriot region.

North Cyprus declared its independence from the rest of the island in 1974 after Turkey invaded to prevent it from being forced to become part of Greece. Turkey argues that it is helping this neighbour to exploit its new energy wealth, yet no other country has ever recognised North Cyprus as an independent state. To Macron and his counterparts in the EU, of which the rest of Cyprus is of course a member, the exploration is an illegal incursion into an area that can only be exploited by the legitimate government in Nicosia.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visiting his counterpart Mustafa Akinci in North Cyprus. EPA

In all this, there is a colonial aspect that tends to be overlooked. Erdoğan’s reference to guarantor states harks back to the Treaty of Guarantee of 1960, which granted Cyprus “independence” from the UK and has set the tone for relations on the island ever since. It is a reminder of the damage that British imperial interference continues to inflict on Cyprus, creating a dangerous flashpoint in a world in which there are more than enough already.

Paper independence

Cyprus had become a British protectorate as far back as 1878 in a handover deal to protect the ailing Ottoman Empire from the Russians. It formally joined the British Empire in 1914 after the Ottomans became an enemy with the outbreak of war, and was formally signed over to Britain by the newly founded Turkish republic through the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. It remained a colony until the end of the 1950s.

By that time, the island had become a high priority for the British. Early in the decade, it had lost its strategic military bases in Egypt with the advent of the nationalist government of Gamel Abdel Nasser. It now viewed Cyprus as an alternative beachhead from which to maintain influence in that part of the world.

In July 1954 Henry Hopkinson, the UK’s colonial affairs minister, gave the game away when he responded to a question in the House of Commons on whether Cyprus would follow the path of other British colonies in being gradually assisted towards self-government within the Commonwealth. “There are certain territories in the Commonwealth which, owing to their particular circumstances, can never expect to be fully independent”, he replied.

Around this time, the Greek-Cypriot guerrilla movement EOKA began an insurgency aimed at winning self-determination for the island. The EOKA’s ultimate goal for Cyprus was to become part of Greece, which disturbed the island’s substantial minority Turkish population, and prompted Turkey to push for a partition.

Britain played Turkish and Greek interests off against one another to achieve its aim of keeping Cyprus under supervision and maintaining military bases. The notion of the three countries becoming guarantor powers emerged in the Zurich-London agreements of 1958-1960, granting Cyprus only a paper independence – against the wishes of the population.

In his 1965 report on the island, the UN mediator Galo Plaza described the 1960 arrangements as a “constitutional oddity”, and found several provisions to be against the principles of the UN Charter. By that time, relations between the Turkish and Greek communities on the island had become hostile. Matters came to a head in 1974 when the military dictatorship in Greece sponsored an EOKA-led coup on the island, which gave the Turks the pretext for their invasion.

Dividing Cypriots

The seeds of this conflict between the two Cypriot communities were planted by British imperialist policies of divide and rule during the interwar years, similar to what happened in many other parts of the empire. Britain created two local councils on Cyprus respectively for Turkish and Greek Cypriots, which meant they were separately represented at the various colonial institutions. This divided the population along religious lines and nurtured distinct socio-political systems.

One threat to this strategy was a provision in the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which had provided for Muslim Cypriots to emigrate to Anatolia, since fewer Turkish Cypriots potentially meant less conflict with the Greek community. When many of these Turkish people subsequently wanted to come back to the island, the British government bent the rules in the treaty to let them return.

The whole policy allowed the British to justify their rule as a benevolent and pacifying force against potentially violent inter-communal strife. There are racist references in British documents at the time to the Cypriots as “natives” that needed supervision. And when all else had failed in the 1950s and the Greek Cypriot insurgency was calling for the end of colonial rule, the British then used the oldest trick in the book: they employed members of the Turkish minority in the police force, knowing that these people would more willingly crush the nationalist movement advocated by the Greek majority.

The antipathy that this all helped to engender is at the heart of the drilling row today. When people wonder whether imperial history is still relevant in the 21st century, Cyprus might be the perfect example. The only guarantee that the Treaty of Guarantee of 1960 provided was the permanent division of the island.

When Erdogan invokes this treaty against the EU, he’s relying on an anachronistic imperial arrangement – with the potential for untold trouble down the line. States can only become truly independent and sovereign once all the fetters of imperialism are broken. If Cyprus is to avoid conflict in future, it must be first become completely free.

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