NICOSIA - Turkish violations of Greek sovereign air space and waters are driving a wedge between them as guarantors of security on Cyprus as the island’s leaders try to reach a unity deal.
Furious that Greece’s highest court rejected extradition of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after a failed coup against him – they said they took no part in it – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up his rhetoric and is testing Greece militarily as well, sending F-16 fighter jets to fly over Aegean islands, and sending warships past them.
Apart from combative Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the pro-austerity, far-right, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) who are the junior partners in a coalition led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Radical Left SYRIZA, the Greek government has taken a reasoned approach to quell the fears of an accidental clash.
But tension flared again after the Greek-controlled Cypriot Parliament passed a law the island's Turks deemed offensive, mandating schoolchildren commemorate the 1950 enosis referendum, where the Cypriot population voted overwhelmingly to become part of Greece. The twin military and political clashes come a month after United Nations-backed reunification negotiations failed to resolve the decades-long conflict, UPI noted in a report on the growing anxiety.
Cyprus has been split since an unlawful 1974 Turkish invasion and Turkey keeps a 30,000-strong army on the occupied northern third. As Cypriot President Nicos Amastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci try to reach a deal, Erdogan said the army is there “forever,” and Akinci has agreed, causing a further political divide.
There are an estimated 1.1 million Greek Cypriots and about 200,000 Turkish Cypriots located in the north. The Turkish minority declared its independence in 1983, though the international community only recognizes the Greek-controlled national government which is a member of the European Union which Turkey wants to join.
Turkey and Greece both keep troops on the island and the United Kingdom, which has a military base there, is the other guarantor. After Anastasiades and Akinci met in Geneva to try to reach a deal – they couldn’t agree on how much property and territory stolen by Turks during the invasion should be returned – the guarantors also couldn’t come to terms on how the island’s security could be maintained if there is a unity agreement.
On successive days this month, tensions flared when a Turkish naval vessel carrying Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar entered the Aegean Sea, with Turkish F-16’s flying overhead of the disputed islets of Imia near Turkey, which both countries claim.
Athens accused Turkey of violating its air space 138 times in one day alone, forcing the cash-strapped Greek government during a lingering economic crisis to respond with its own Air Force to shadow them and engage in mock dogfights.
Turkish-Cypriot leaders were upset too when the Enosis law was passed behind pressure from nationalist Cypriot groups. The Turkish-Cypriots said the mandated celebration is offensive to the Turkish minority and fostered feelings of inferiority among Turkish-Cypriot children and undercut the unity talks.
The U.N.-backed peace talks failed to produce a lasting agreement for a "bi-zonal" Cyprus that includes both Greek- and Turkish-controlled areas.
After former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried, and failed, for his 10 years in office to bring a solution, his successor, Portugal’s Antonio Guterres has taken a cautious line in a dispute that’s been a diplomatic graveyard for more than two dozen diplomats over the decades, including a line of US Secretaries of State.
Guterres met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Istanbul for talks. The UN leader, asked about hopes for a resolution, said: “I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. I am just determined,” referring to a popular quote attributed to French economist Jean Monnet, a pioneer of the European Union.
He added that the United Nations is not playing a leading role. “We are in a supporting role that I am determined to do my best to help facilitate the conditions for a success,” Guterres told a joint news conference with Yildirim.