On 21 April 1967, a cabal of officers from the Greek military, military police and intelligence services deposed the caretaker government of Ioannis Paraskevopoulos – which had been charged with guiding Greece to elections on 28 May – and seized power for itself.
The consensus is that what prompted ‘the colonels’, as the Athens junta in its first iteration (1967-73) became known, to overthrow the constitution was the fear of leftist advances in the forthcoming poll and the possibility that Andreas Papandreou – who espoused an anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-royalist credo that allowed him to be labelled a communist – would be the power behind the throne of his ageing and ailing father, Giorgios Papandreou, leader of the Centre Union party, the likely winner of the elections.
It’s become a cliché that it was the CIA that engineered the coup and that the Americans are to blame for all the depredations Greece and Cyprus endured as a result of this imperialist interference. However, even if the leaders of the coup were CIA assets and Washington subsequently helped sustain the junta politically, morally and financially, the coup and the politics that prompted it were deeply rooted in Greek society and politics, particularly the Greek civil war (1946-49).
For Cyprus, the junta in Athens represented another hostile centre of power. Since 1964, President Makarios had been battling the US, the UK, Turkey and its Turkish Cypriot proxies on Cyprus to prevent the island from being partitioned in line with the various Acheson plans.
These cursory plans, presented by Dean Acheson, secretary of state under President Truman and diplomatic troubleshooter under President Johnson, aimed to divide Cyprus and hand over one part to Greece and another to Turkey. The first Acheson plan found adherents in both Athens and Ankara but was rejected by Nicosia. The second Acheson plan was seen as more favourable to Greece, was repudiated by Turkey outright, while the Cyprus government also spurned it – partitioning the island remained unconscionable to Makarios – and it was the Cypriot view that prevailed over the instincts of the Greek government to engage with the American proposals. The plans for partition were shelved.
With the arrival of the junta, Acheson’s idea of carving up Cyprus between Greece and Turkey was revived.
Thus, with their feet barely under the table, the junta in Athens, in July 1967, were ready to carry out a coup in Cyprus to oust Makarios – who they regarded as the main impediment to partitioning the island.
According to Brendan O’ Malley and Ian Craig, writing in The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish invasion:
‘The coup did not happen, and the junta tried instead to forge a deal above the Cypriots’ heads. After re-opening private contacts with the Turks on the Cyprus question at a NATO meeting in June, they held talks with the Turkish Government at the Evros frontier in September. The Turks thought the military-minded colonels would recognise the need to divide Cyprus to keep the communists at bay and prevent the island being turned into a Soviet satellite. The Greeks offered the Turks a military base if they accepted enosis for the rest of the island. But Turkish premier Demirel demanded two bases and 10 percent of the island’s territory. The Americans would have settled for this, but not the Greeks. All that could be agreed at Evros was a face-saving statement calling for greater co- operation and more effort to find a solution.’
But what the colonels balked at in 1967, the second, more depraved version of the junta – which came to power after the Athens Polytechnic events in November 1973 – was less squeamish about.
Thus, on 15 July 1974, an Athens-engineered coup was carried out in Nicosia with the explicit intention of killing President Makarios – who had come to represent not only an obstruction to Athens’ Cyprus policy but also a symbol of democratic resistance to the junta itself – and establishing a Cypriot government that would collaborate in partitioning the island between Greece and Turkey.
The junta’s expectation was that Turkey would understand – and they hoped the Americans would make this clear to the Turks – that their aim in getting rid of Makarios was not to facilitate enosis but to divide up the Cypriot spoils with Turkey as envisaged by Acheson.
However, the chaotic nature of the coup, its failure to achieve its primary aim – the assassination of Makarios and the installation of a credible but compliant Cypriot leadership – meant the junta had no alternative but to instal as puppet president in Nicosia Nikos Sampson, a gangster masquerading as a nationalist patriot – or as Christopher Hitchens puts it. a man ‘strongly marked by mythic ideas of violence and gunplay’. The coup’s descent into disarray gave Turkey the opportunity to partition the island on its terms rather than on the Acheson-like terms favoured by the junta, an objective Turkey, through invasion and ethnic cleansing, managed to achieve.