What Cyprus tells us about Turkey

Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias gave Foreign Policy an interview earlier this week, where he offered an eloquent explanation of the factors that have conspired to leave his country his country divided, even after 36 years of diplomacy. But his answer to why the average U.S. citizen — or even the average diplomat in Foggy Bottom ...

Birol Bebek/AFP/Getty Images
Birol Bebek/AFP/Getty Images
Birol Bebek/AFP/Getty Images

Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias gave Foreign Policy an interview earlier this week, where he offered an eloquent explanation of the factors that have conspired to leave his country his country divided, even after 36 years of diplomacy. But his answer to why the average U.S. citizen -- or even the average diplomat in Foggy Bottom -- should care about Cyprus's plight was rather unsatisfying. "The United States of America is a bastion of freedom and human rights, isn't it?" he said. "I call upon the Americans to respect the Cypriots as they respect themselves."

That's true, of course. Human rights are inalienable and universal, and if the approximately 1 million Cypriots are forced to live in a bifurcated nation, and the quarter million citizens of northern Cyprus exist in a state of international isolation, that's an issue that deserves our concern. We should also be concerned with the treatment of the Uighur population in China, the work of Cambodia's international tribunal, and the ongoing chaos in the Congo. In a world of finite resources, however, concern doesn't necessarily translate into the United States spending time and money to resolve a problem.

However, there is a good reason that the United States should be paying active attention to the progress, or lack thereof, in resolving the Cyprus dispute. It just has less to do with the plight of Cypriots themselves, and more to do with the fate of Christofias's primary rival: Turkey. The Turkish government, which is increasingly throwing its weight around in the Middle East, still refuses to recognize the Republic of Cyprus or let its vessels dock in Turkish ports. Cyprus, as a full member of the European Union, can be expected to continue to block Turkey's EU accession bid until a resolution is reached. The fear is that, if Prime Minister Erdogan's government finds its path blocked to the West, it will increasingly drift into the orbit of Iran and Syria.

Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias gave Foreign Policy an interview earlier this week, where he offered an eloquent explanation of the factors that have conspired to leave his country his country divided, even after 36 years of diplomacy. But his answer to why the average U.S. citizen — or even the average diplomat in Foggy Bottom — should care about Cyprus’s plight was rather unsatisfying. "The United States of America is a bastion of freedom and human rights, isn’t it?" he said. "I call upon the Americans to respect the Cypriots as they respect themselves."

That’s true, of course. Human rights are inalienable and universal, and if the approximately 1 million Cypriots are forced to live in a bifurcated nation, and the quarter million citizens of northern Cyprus exist in a state of international isolation, that’s an issue that deserves our concern. We should also be concerned with the treatment of the Uighur population in China, the work of Cambodia’s international tribunal, and the ongoing chaos in the Congo. In a world of finite resources, however, concern doesn’t necessarily translate into the United States spending time and money to resolve a problem.

However, there is a good reason that the United States should be paying active attention to the progress, or lack thereof, in resolving the Cyprus dispute. It just has less to do with the plight of Cypriots themselves, and more to do with the fate of Christofias’s primary rival: Turkey. The Turkish government, which is increasingly throwing its weight around in the Middle East, still refuses to recognize the Republic of Cyprus or let its vessels dock in Turkish ports. Cyprus, as a full member of the European Union, can be expected to continue to block Turkey’s EU accession bid until a resolution is reached. The fear is that, if Prime Minister Erdogan’s government finds its path blocked to the West, it will increasingly drift into the orbit of Iran and Syria.

Indeed, the lack of progress on the Cyprus issue is just one instance of how Erdogan’s ambitious foreign policy has been unable to resolve issues closer to its borders. While Erdogan travels the globe blasting Israel for its policy toward Gaza or mediating the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, his diplomats have also made little progress in normalizing relations with Armenia; efforts to resolve the increasingly violent conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish population have also stalled. Issues like Cyprus, Armenia, and Kurdish integration might not command the international spotlight in the same way as Iran and Israel can, but they are arguably more important for Turkey’s long-term well being.

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