Why 90 million euro 'reprimand' of Turkey could trip up peace in Cyprus

VP Joe Biden is making the highest level US visit to Cyprus in 50 years, after a European court last week ordered Turkey to pay Cyprus for its 1974 invasion of the island.

Petros Karadjias/AP
US Vice President Joe Biden (c.) meets religious leaders of Cyprus in Nicosia, the capital.The meetings are part of the US vice president’s contacts during his two-day trip to Cyprus which he hailed as Washington’s strategic partner and expressed strong support for talks to reunify the country.
Petros Karadjias/AP
A municipality worker places a US flag (l.) and Cypriot flag on a street post in divided capital Nicosia, Cyprus, yesterday. US Vice President Joe Biden arrives in Cyprus Wednesday for an official, three-day visit to the divided island.

For many in Cyprus, it was a moment of long-overdue justice after four decades of Turkish occupation – and the human rights violations that accompanied it.

But it may also have tripped up negotiations towards a comprehensive peace.

Now, after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Turkey to pay Cyprus 90 million euros ($120 million), the largest monetary award that it has ever handed down, US Vice President Joe Biden is visiting the tiny Mediterranean island to help keep peace talks moving. Despite deep animosities between Greek Cypriots and Turkey, which invaded the north of the country in 1974, there is hope that the negotiations, which restarted in February after a two-year hiatus, could eventually unite the divided country.

“This ruling is a long overdue reprimand" to Turkey says Hubert Faustmann, an associate professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia. “It is a clear victory to the Greek Cypriots, so will upset Turkey, who might be unwilling to pay the compensation.” But, he adds, "it comes at a bad time, as right now there has been a serious push to solve the lingering problems."

The Cyprus invasion

Cyprus brought its case to the ECHR back in 1994. It sought compensation for the families of Greek Cypriots who vanished at the time of the invasion, those who lost their properties, and for the violations of human rights by Turkish forces.

But the timing of the decision, coming amid a renewed peace process, was questionable, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said before it was announced. "Just when talks within the framework of comprehensive peace have gained serious momentum in Cyprus... such a decision is not right," he said. After the ruling, Mr. Davutoglu dismissed it as "non-binding," on the grounds that Turkey does not legally recognize Cyprus' government.

Meanwhile, Biden arrived in Cyprus yesterday to discuss developments in the peace talks, confidence-building measures and natural gas issues. He is the first US vice president to visit Cyprus since Lyndon Johnson in 1962.

Since 1974, the island nation of Cyprus, a former British colony, has been divided in a Turkish-speaking north and a Greek-populated south. The Turkish invasion followed a Greek-backed military coup. In the aftermath, an estimated 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled or were expelled from the north of the island; around 45,000 ethnic Turks went the other way. Thousands of Greek Cypriots simply vanished without a trace, amid alleged atrocities and massacres by both sides. 

A UN buffer zone, known as the Green Line, separates the two entities and threads the heart of the shared capital of Nicosia. Only Turkey recognizes the breakaway northern republic, while refusing to recognize the south. Its occupation costs some $600 million a year with around 30,000 troops on the island.

An island divided

In recent years, relations between the two halves of Cyprus have improved markedly. In 2003, Turkey lifted a ban on crossing the UN buffer zone. “This allowed Cypriots to see each other and their homes and villages for the first time in 29 years," says Stefanos Evripidou, a journalist at the Cyprus Mail.

"At the same time, the two opposing forces remain very sensitive to any change in the status quo. And from time to time the UN has to intervene in an effort to prevent encroachment of the buffer zone,” he adds. 

Nicosia's divided sections are a visible reminder of the animosity between the two sides, as is the once-popular tourist resort of Varosha, now an abandoned, Chernobyl-like ghost town, situated in the buffer zone on the southern coast.

In Nicosia, streets pass from one side of the Green Line to the other, changing from Western-style shopping areas, complete with Starbucks and McDonald's, to Turkish-influenced market stalls.

Many of the streets close to the divide are in a state of disrepair. The presence of barbed wire, piled oil drums, and military checkpoints detract from their desirability of the neighborhoods, although even this is slowly changing. A peace deal – and more international aid – could remake a unified city.

'Some sort of movement'

Since Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004, there has been added pressure placed on Turkey to find a solution to the standoff in Cyprus, which is seen as a major barrier to Turkish accession. 

“There will inevitably be a link between Turkey’s path to EU accession and this ECHR judgment,” says Achilleas Demetriades, a human rights lawyer in Cyprus who has worked on previous cases of Greek Cypriots forced from their land.

He applauds the court's decision. “You cannot have a war, take over someone’s property and then call it your own,” he says, adding that in just about every case in the past, admittedly involving smaller amounts, Turkey has paid the compensation. “It took some time, but they paid it.”

A new element to Cyprus's political standoff is the recent discovery of huge offshore gas reserves. A 2010 report by the US Geological Survey estimated that there could be 122 trillion cubic feet of gas in the area. “The only way Greek Cypriots can take advantage of this offshore gas, and potentially oil find, is through a pipeline to Turkey, which adds new impetus to the talks," says Mr. Faustmann. 

Faustmann says the basic elements of a Cyprus peace agreement have been circulating for years, with two federated states, one in the north and one in the south, and a central government. He adds, however, that Turkish politics are unpredictable. 

“I think, and hope, we can expect some sort of movement [regarding Cyprus] shortly, otherwise Biden wouldn’t be coming,” he says. 

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