The Cyprus Problem: an Overview

A non-partisan overview of the history and current status of the division of the island...

The Cyprus problem is ubiquitous. Everywhere in Cyprus, you will be confronted with it - even if you stay within the borders of the government controlled areas. The aim here is to give a balanced view of the problem. However, you will soon notice that it is close to impossible to remain neutral towards this issue: the basic assumptions of both sides diverge so strongly as to seem almost irreconcilable. Many argue that the separation between the two communities stem from the British colonial strategy "divide and conquer". By keeping the communities separate and discouraging intermingling, the British hoped to strengthen its hold on this strategically important colony. Whether that is true or not, the independence struggle, which turned into a guerrilla war around 1955, was a predominantly Greek initiative. Interestingly and perhaps uniquely, the national struggle was one for enosis, or reunification, with the Greek motherland, rather than for independence. The Turkish Cypriots and Turkey, quite naturally, were against such a move. For that reason, the Cypriot independence, granted in 1960 as a result of the London-Zurich agreement, was seen as a compromise, stopping short of the eventual goal of enosis. Turkey and Greece were given roles as guarantor powers, with the right to intervene in the case of intercommunal conflict. The constitution, reflecting the mutual distrust between the communities, is one of the most complex in human history, replete with checks and balances between the different communities.

A political deadlock soon ensued, and in 1963 inter-communal violence plagued the island. The Greek independence fighters, EOKA, still celebrated on April 1 and led a number of raids against the Turkish Cypriot population - raids that have etched themselves into the memory of the Turkish community ever since. In 1963, inter-communal violence led to the de facto division of the island under UN supervision. The Greek Cypriot controlled government remained the official government of the island, while Turkish Cypriot communities gained substantial independence. In the following years, inter-communal violence and harassment followed. The island was now de facto divided, with the Turks living in ghettos spread around the island. In 1974, the Greek military junta led a coup against Archbishop Makarios, the president. They had lost patience with the archbishop's hesitant methods and wanted to enforce enosis. The coup prompted Turkey to react. In a few intense weeks, Turkish diplomats shuttled between Zurich, New York and London trying to get the other guarantor power, England, or the United Nations to intervene. The efforts failed, and in June 1974, Turkish troops landed in the northern part of the island. After a second invasion in August, Turkish troops controlled most of what is now referred to as "the occupied area". A ceasefire deal established the Green Line, and a UN peace- keeping force were entrusted the task to watch it.

In the ensuing months, both parts of the island were "ethnically cleansed": Turks had to go to the North, Greeks to the South. Considerable violence prevailed on both sides. Peace talks failed, and an administration started to form in the North, under the leadership of the charismatic Raif Denktash - perhaps the most popular Turkish politician of modern times. In 1976 he established a federal state, but the officially recognized Cypriot government rejected any other solution than that of a completely unified Cyprus. A bi-zonal federation was accepted as the basis for further peace talks a few years later. But talks still failed, and in 1983, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was created, with Denktash as president. Although there were a few peace initiatives after this point, little chance for reunification remained, and both parts of the island set out on their own path. The Southern part flourished in an economy driven by tourism and banking, whereas the Northern part, under international embargo and general international stigma, remained relatively poor and underdeveloped. In 2003, after massive protests, President Denktash surprisingly opened the Green Line checkpoints, which up until then had remained sealed for Cypriots and highly restricted for foreigners. Thousands of Turkish Cypriots flooded into the South, many seeing the other part of the island for the first time in their lives.

In time for the planned entry of Cyprus into the EU, UN general secretary Kofi Annan worked out a peace plan, the Annan Plan, which was accepted by the Turkish Cypriots but rejected by the Greek Cypriots, leaving the Greek Cypriot side to enter the EU on its own. The Cyprus problem still dominates Cypriot political life. The rhetoric is belligerent and ubiquitous, and foreigners are well advised to avoid discussions altogether. Both sides have very fixed views on the issue, and any attempt to question these will often be met with hostility. The main stumbling blocks for a solution are the following:

  • The property issue: Although there is no official information available, it appears that the administration in the North expropriated the properties of Greek Cypriot refugees, either giving them to refugees from the South or to settlers from Turkey. The Greek Cypriots still lay claim to their properties in the North, and in the landmark Loizides case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Turkey as the occupying power, demanding that the properties be returned. The Turkish Cypriots have taken few measures to recuperate property in the South.
  • Bizonality: After the inter-communal violence in the years leading up to the division of the island, Turkish Cypriots are wary of living as a minority in a Greek Cypriot dominated state. They want their own federal state on an equal footing with the Greek one. Greek Cypriots, however, see the island as one and the Turkish Cypriots as a minority, and they consider it unjust to accord a minority such generous rights.
  • Turkish mainland settlers: The poor Turkish Cypriot economy led many Turkish Cypriots to leave their country. They have been replaced by settlers from mainland Turkey in search of economic opportunities, the average living standard in the northern part of the island being considerably higher than that of rural Anatolia. Although official estimates are not available, and factors such as intermarriage obfuscate the picture, the number of residents from mainland Turkey may well match the number of Turkish Cypriots. Greek Cypriots demand that these settlers, or at least most of them, move back to Turkey; Turkish Cypriots are not willing to accept a wholesale deportation.
Despite reunification talks in Geneva in 2017, leaders have been unable to come up with a solution to the Cyprus Problem that is satisfactory to both sides. write here section about recent talks!

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