Resolving the Puzzle of Greek-Turkish Conflict over Cyprus

Article published on Feb. 16, 2011
community published
Article published on Feb. 16, 2011
by Vassilios Damiras To address and explain the complex evolution of Greek foreign policy behavior during the Turkish invasion under the code name Attila operation in Cyprus in 1974 this research draws upon three bodio address and explain the complex evolution of Greek foreign policy behavior during the Turkish invasion under the code name Attila operation in Cyprus in 1974 this research draws
upon three bodies of theoretical literature. First and foremost is the “transitions” literature that focuses on the significance of domestic actors in establishing democratic political structures during transitions to democracy. es of theoretical literature. First and foremost is the “transitions” literature that focuses on the significance of domestic actors in establishing democratic political structures during transitions to democracy. 

           This literature is very informative, because it focuses on how transitions from authoritarian regimes can lead to a wide array of political outcomes, including the emergence of weak democratic polities that are unable to establish effective control and political order. While these new regimes may be less repressive and permit greater political freedom than their predecessors, they are also more prone to political instability and attacks by opposition groups intent on seizing power. Armenia fits this profile. The Armenian post-communist regime has been weak due to its inability to institute an effective political system. In addition it has been challenged by opposition political groups with the intentions of seizing power. One can apply this theoretical view to the Cyprus crisis of 1974. During this period of political transition to democracy, a weak Greek regime was prone to political instability because of strong opposing political groups, most notable the extreme right-wing faction and the socialist and communist political parties.

            Second, the theoretical literature of institutions (weak vs. strong) provides further understanding of Greece’s reaction to the Cyprus crisis. The importance of establishing effective institutions in a regime change (e.g., from an authoritarian regime to a democratic political system) has always been recognized as a vital element. Decisions related especially to the creation of executive institutions are significant in democracy building for a number of reasons. They are an obvious focal point of constitutional concern following authoritarian rule, stressing the need for control and accountability. At the same time, there is a link between the role of the executive, government performance, and ultimately the stability of the new regime (which obviously includes other institutional actors, such as the legislative). A transition process which might sustain weak institutions is often considered problematic because a weak executive is less likely to maintain effective control over domestic and foreign policies. Once more, Armenia in the post-cold war era is a vivid example. The Armenian executive is weak and therefore unable to cope with the massive sociopolitical problems in the internal and external political arenas.

            Applying this second theoretical literature to the Greek case study clearly show that its democratically elected government had a weak executive prone to populist policies. This weakness appeared for two reasons. First, the Constantine Karamanlis administration faced political infighting among the conservative members of the cabinet regarding the democratization process and the Cyprus crisis. Second, the constitution of 1975 gave more powers to the parliament in relation to the executive. The constitution was designed to serious reduced or eliminate the possibility of another military coup d’état. Thus, the document had a series of complex provisions specifically designed to prevent the arbitrary and illegal use of executive authority. In directing the transition to democracy, Karamanlis and his conservative political party Nea Dimokratia/New Democracy tried to adopt some populist policies concerning the Cyprus situation in order to pacify and placate opponents, mainly Andreas Papandreou, the leader of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). The adoption of this approach indicated the weakness of the Karamanlis administration. Within a few months of becoming prime minister, Karamanlis adopted a strong stance regarding the Cyprus crisis. He openly declared, contrary to his earlier beliefs, that his government would defend the Greek national interest in the region. Also, the removal of Greece of the NATO’s military branch was part of these populist policies. Eventually, NATO and the American government step in to avert a war between Greece and Turkey.

            Finally, the theoretical literature devoted to domestic politics (emergence of new domestic actors) completes the picture of Greece’s behavior during the Cyprus crisis. During a process of democratization, new domestic sociopolitical actors, such as political parties, the media, and various interest groups, emerge on the political scene and participate in the new political process, oftentimes promoting new ideologies approaches and contributing to severe political polarization. Extreme ideological polarization may be a doubled-edged sword with respect to consolidation. On one hand it may promote individual sociopolitical organizational development and identification and hence stabilization through feelings of solidarity. On the other, sociopolitical polarization can intensify and even radicalize within new democracies, and possibly cause systemic tension.

            Historical evidence vividly indicates that, instead of pushing governments to act in democratic manner, these new actors typically pressure the executive to adopt populist policies. This kind of behavior can lead to the adoption of aggressive policies in time of crisis. The politico-historical example of Romania and Hungary clearly illustrates this specific historical phenomenon. In both countries the new era of sociopolitical freedom allowed the media and various interest groups to press their respective governments to adopt more aggressive foreign policy to “resolve” the Hungarian minority issue. As a result, the democratization process in Hungary and Romania led the countries to engage in a conflictual relationship--the exact opposite of what one would assume from the democratic peace hypothesis. When one applies this theoretical literature to the Greek case study, it becomes clear that newly emergent domestic actors, such as the Church, the socialist and communist parties, the media, and interest groups, pressed the government to adopt a conflictual policy towards Turkey.

            In sum, the collapse of authoritarianism in Greece did not immediately establish a strong executive capable of defending democratic values and beliefs during times of crisis. The 1974 crisis over the island of Cyprus pressed the newly established democratic government of Karamanlis its political allies and opponents to take a stronger action against Turkey. Certain portions of the Greek sociopolitical elite believed that a military victory over the Turkish military could prove that Greece does not surrender her national interests. The Greek sociopolitical system perceived the resurgence of Turkish aggression as a serious menace for the survival of the Greek nation-state. Greece wanted to establish a Pax Hellenica in the Aegean sea and Cyprus and the Turkish government wanted to safeguard a Pax Turcana. Both policies were mutual exclusive.

In Greece, Prime Minister Karamanlis perceived by the Greek people as a national hero due to the restoration of democracy and his tough stand and approach regarding Cyprus. He removed Greece from the military part of NATO and also start spending money for a new Greek defense policy. The focus was to establish coherent and strong Greek defense deterrence towards the Turkish military menace. Greece perceived that the main security threat for her survival was the Turkish armed forces. The Karamanlis administration reorganized the whole Hellenic military structure and bought new weapons for the Hellenic Army, Navy, and Air Force.

On the other side of the Aegean, in Turkey Prime Minister Bulet Ecevit became a national hero immediately, and was compared with Kemal Attaturk, the creator of the modern Turkish Republic. In the Turkish Parliament he received standing ovations. To the ordinary Turkish citizen he had become an idolized leader. Moreover, the Turkish people expressed their gratitude to the Turkish armed forces. With the success of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus, the Turkish military had restored its prestige.

It is evident that the democratization process in Greece failed to promote a peaceful posture. Rather, it prompted Greece to execute an aggressive foreign policy and brought the Greek government to the brink of war over the island of Cyprus against Turkey, a NATO ally and a fellow democratic country. 

Vassilios Damiras is a Defense Consultant in the United States of America