May 31st, 2008


May Books 38) Cyprus, 39) A Functional Cyprus Settlement

38) Cyprus, by Christopher Hitchens
39) A Functional Cyprus Settlement: the Constitutional Dimension, by Tim Potier

Two very different books on the same country, Hitchens writing in 1984 about the events leading to the conflict of ten years previously and its consequences, and Potier reviewing the events of 2004 and after and proposing detailed remedies; one book looking backward, and one forward.

Hitchens is of course a provocative and controversial writer. His main line of argument, once you cut through the rhetoric, is that uncritical American support for the Greek military junta - going right to the top, particularly Kissinger but also Nixon - emboldened the colonels to move against Makarios, and while Washington at best ignored the warning signs and at worst encouraged them. And when the colonels' rule collapsed along with their Cyprus adventure, US policy switched to a similarly uncritical endorsement of Turkey.

That much is clear. But I think Hitchens makes the classic mistake of enthusiasts for a particular country in assuming that there really was a US strategy. He says several times that partition had been the US policy on Cyprus since the Acheson plan of 1963. But the evidence he presents, particularly from the Johnson administration, makes it appear more likely that once it had become clear that the Acheson plan wasn't going anywhere, it was dropped as a policy objective; I don't believe that Kissinger especially cared whether Cyprus was partitioned or not.

While some of his details are questionable, Hitchens is right to castigate external actors for looking at Cyprus solely through their own selfish strategic lenses. But he doesn't spare the Cypriot leaders from criticism either. It seems to me that all actors are culpable for failing to put intercommunal relations on the island at the top of the agenda. If the international community as a whole had put a tenth of the effort into preserving the 1960 Cyprus constitution as it has put into preserving the 1995 Dayton Agreement in Bosnia, we would be looking at a very different story.

Things have moved on quite a lot since 1984 when Hitchens wrote, and a plan for reunifying the island four years ago was accepted by two thirds of Turkish Cypriot voters, but rejected by three quarters of Greek Cypriot voters. One of the objections to the Annan Plan at the time (though not the most frequently heard one) was that the mechanisms for power-sharing between the two communities were unworkable - not "functional". In 760 pages, Tim Potier has gone through the constitutional proposals of 2004 with a fine tooth comb, pointing out the less workable bits and proposing improvements. Amazingly, he still appears to be fairly sane after this experience. His book will certainly be an important vade mecum on the subject for the new negotiations which should begin this summer; I cannot imagine that any international official will want to repeat this work.

I have to admit that I did not read every word; I am not totally convinced by Potier's most drastic proposal, to make the collective executive (the "Presidential Council") a forced coalition generated by the popular vote, rather than (as in the Annan Plan, and indeed the Good Friday Agreement back home) a slate of candidates endorsed by the legislature. But I have an open mind.