Tuesday, 6 April 2021

A review of Diana Markides’ The Cyprus Tribute and Geopolitics in the Levant 1875-1960

Diana Markides’ The Cyprus Tribute and Geopolitics in the Levant 1875-1960 is a remarkable account of the political economy of British imperial rule in Cyprus.
Acquired from Turkey by Disraeli at the Congress of Berlin (1878), which settled yet another Russo-Turkish war, the British prime minister boasted that Cyprus would become a crucial asset for the empire, a place of arms in the Eastern Mediterranean to serve Britain’s grandiose ambitions to extend its influence in Egypt, the Levant and Asia Minor, securing the land route to India and protect shipping and trade east of Suez.
Markides argues that Britain’s geopolitical and military justification for acquiring Cyprus was half-baked – for example, Cyprus had no natural deep water harbours and to develop them was uneconomical – and, indeed, a fabrication designed to conceal the real reason for taking over the running of Cyprus from the Ottoman empire, which was to secure money to service the loan British and French creditors had made the Ottoman empire that enabled it to fight the Crimean War (1855). 
In a convoluted scheme, any surplus (the excess revenue over expenditure) Cyprus generated would not be recycled into the local economy but sent to the Ottoman government in Constantinople – the Turkish sultan nominally held suzerainty over the island until 1914 – which would then divert the money to pay back British and French bankers and bondholders.

This ‘tribute’ would make up for the shortfall a similar Ottoman debt repayment scheme imposed on Egypt was encountering because of the weakness of that country’s finances and, at the same time, assuage any objections Paris had at Cyprus falling into British hands in a region where France, ensconced in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, felt was its sphere of influence.

With all surplus money raised on the island wending its way via Constantinople into British and French coffers and with no money forthcoming from London for any expenditure on infrastructure projects on the island, Cyprus was left to stagnate. Desperately needed improvements to hospitals, quays, customs houses, hotels, antiquities management, public utilities, prisons, roads could not be paid for, while, without a properly-capitalised agricultural bank, peasant-farmers couldn’t take out affordable loans and were left at the mercy of the bane of the peasant-farmers’ existence, the village money-lender.

Despite repeated appeals from colonial officials on Cyprus made to London – particularly the Treasury – to loosen the island’s financial burden or to find money to send directly from the metropolis to spend on the island’s development and gain the loyalty of a population smarting at being fleeced – the Whitehall mandarins, crass and short-sighted, wouldn’t budge.

However, as elsewhere, there was more to the British imperial project in Cyprus than financial exploitation. To hide the iniquitous side of empire, Britain cloaked its rule in a veneer of liberalism and modernity.

Thus, in Cyprus, as well as rescuing Cypriots from 300 years of arbitrary Ottoman depredation, Britain also allowed a free press, laid the foundations for a modern legal system, expanded educational opportunity and introduced a popularly elected system of local government and a national legislature.

But here we encounter the fatal flaw in the British imperial model that eventually would spell curtains for it: Britain couldn’t control what modernity unleashed while liberalism had its limits, i.e. it was permissible so long as it didn’t significantly challenge British rule.

In Cyprus’ case, what this meant was that while a legislative council was instituted in 1882, not only was it rigged so that the six British-appointed representatives plus the three Muslim legislators could always out-vote the nine Greek Cypriot officials – a tie gave the casting vote to the island’s high commissioner; but its powers were also severely circumscribed, bills involving finance and taxation could not be introduced while decisions taken by the legislature could ultimately be struck down by Orders in Council.

While the advantage of the legislative council to Greek Cypriots was that it allowed political expression and popular opposition to government policies – particularly the loathed tribute; its con was was that by binding the Muslim community to the British imperial authorities, the ethnic split on the island became entrenched and institutionalised.

Thus, even if the tribute was as crushing to the Muslim population as it was to the Greek Cypriot majority, the fact that the money was going to Constantinople and into the sultan’s purse reassured the Muslims that Cyprus was still in the Ottoman orbit. It wasn’t until the formalisation of the British occupation in 1914, the end of the Ottoman empire in 1923 and the penetration of Kemalist Turkish nationalism into the consciousness of the island’s Muslims that its political co-operation with the British colonial authorities deteriorated.

Still, the British never gave up trying to play off the Turks against the Greeks, regarding the latter as a far greater threat to its authority than the former, and when, as in 1931, politics on the island became too heated – economic malaise and government attempts to rein in expressions of Greek nationalism prompted popular protest that ended with the burning down of Government House – the government simply shut the legislature and resorted to political repression.

Only after the Second World War was the issue of the tribute finally laid to rest allowing Cyprus to embark on rapid economic growth. This coincided, however, with a shrinking British empire that increased the significance of Cyprus to Britain both from a strategic and ideological point of view. Military facilities imagined since 1878 finally began to be built – in 1954 Middle East Headquarters were moved from Egypt to Cyprus – and the government in London was declaring that some British colonies were too important to the economic well-being and security of the UK to be allowed independence. Cyprus had now become a symbol of British prestige and part of the delusion that Britain was still a superpower.

As for the Greek Cypriots, greater prosperity had not increased their loyalty to Britain or convinced them of the British argument that they were materially better off under the current regime than uniting with impoverished Greece. Rather, the Pandora’s box of liberalism and modernity – exacerbated by the social changes on the island and global political realignment brought about by the Second World War – made Britain’s presence in Cyprus unsustainable.

The scene was set for the denouement of British rule in Cyprus – EOKA’s guerrilla campaign to drive the British off the island and unite the island with Greece and the revenge Britain exacted on Greek Cypriots for their audacity, which entailed bringing Turkey into Cyprus politics and encouraging partition of the island, a goal Turkey fulfilled with its 1974 invasion.

Markides’ book digs deep into the peculiar nature of British rule in Cyprus, but it is much more than a case study. Its interest also lies in demonstrating the grubby economic motivations that sustained the British empire in its entirety and how, at its worst, the imperial project was an expression of avarice and misanthropy.

It also convincingly locates the island’s fate within the geopolitics of the day – the Eastern Question, the crumbling of the Ottoman empire and the anxiety of France and Britain to limit the advantages accruing to Russia from the fallout – and hints at how issues of debt and selfish financial interest continue to this day to prevail when it comes to the Eastern Mediterranean.

The EU’s squeezing of every last penny out of debtor nations such as Greece and Cyprus, regardless of economic sense and socio-political consequences, and the EU’s refusal to sanction Turkey for its threats and violations of Athens’ and Nicosia’s sovereignty for fear of disrupting the Turkish economy and putting at risk Turkey’s ability to pay debts to Spanish, French, Italian and German banks, is eerily reminiscent of European powers’ obtuse attitudes to the region 150 years ago.