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The Cyprus Conflict: A Country Split in Half

The small island nation of Cyprus sits in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Though once known for its beautiful beachside resorts, today, the island’s defining feature is a political one. Running 180 kilometers across the island is a United Nations buffer zone, which divides the country in half. To the south and west of the line, the land is ruled by the Republic of Cyprus, a predominantly Greek community with close ties to their ancestral homeland. Across the border is the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, a country that has only the Turkish government has deemed legitimate. Protected by a large Turkish military presence, most outside observers claim that Cyprus is a single country, the Republic of Cyprus. The official stance of most nations is that the Turkish military is illegally occupying Cypriot territory. 

However, the island isn’t just inhabited by Greeks and Turks. It’s also home to four British exclaves. One city, the island’s former tourist hub, has been abandoned for almost 50 years. Today, it’s an overgrown ghost town. Altogether, Cyprus is an island full of stories and political oddities, yet they are all inextricably linked.

Let’s explore

Cyprus has a long history of occupation by foreign rulers, all of whom wanted the island for its strategic location in the Mediterranean. The first settlers were likely the Mycenaean Greeks, who arrived there in the second millennium BC. The Assyrian, Egyptian, and Persian empires took turns conquering before Alexander the Great returned Cyprus to Greece in 333 BC. The island continued to change hands over the next several centuries, between the Romans, Ptolemic Egyptians, and Byzantines. Still, it was around this period that the population became Hellenized, adopting Greek culture, religion, and, to a lesser extent, language. Under Byzantine rule, the people adopted the Orthodox Christian tradition that continues to this day. 

War of Cyprus
War of Cyprus

In the 12th century AD, King Richard the First of England conquered Cyprus, marking the beginning of an ongoing relationship with the British empire. Following a relatively brief stint under the Venetians, the Ottomans invaded in 1570, leading to an influx of settlers from Anatolia, forever tying Cyprus between Greece and Turkey. 

The Ottomans held control for over 300 years, then leased the island, along with Egypt and Sudan, to the British Empire. It served a crucial position in overseeing the Suez Canal’s operation. During this time under British rule, the idea of Enosis reached the mainstream of Cypriot politics. Enosis is the longstanding idea that Ancient Greece’s territories, those with Hellenistic characteristics, should unite with their mother country. 

Mosque constructed by the Ottoman turks in cyprus
Mosque constructed by the Ottoman turks in cyprus

At first, this looked like little more than grand rhetoric to Cyprus’s Turkish population, who approved of British rule. In 1913, the island-nation Crete unified with Greece, and much of Crete’s Muslim-Turkish minority fled for the Turkish mainland. Seeing their potential future unfold in front of them, Turkish Cypriots began to take the threat of Enosis much more seriously. Tensions between the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus were on the rise. Politicians from both nations spoke of annexing the island and bringing their people home. 

The conversation changed, though, following a national census in the mid-20th century, which revealed that just 17 percent of the island’s population was Turkish, while Greeks held an 80 percent majority. Turkey changed its policy from annexation to division, arguing for creating a Turkish state in the north and a separate one in the south. 

In 1960, after millennia under outside rule, an uprising of nationalist demonstrations led the British to grant Cyprus its independence. This agreement’s primary condition was that the British would keep four naval exclaves on the island, allowing them to maintain their influence in the eastern Mediterranean. The new Republic of Cyprus drew up its constitution along ethnic lines, requiring that the country’s president always be Greek, while the Vice President would represent the country’s Turkish minority. Turkish Cypriots were guaranteed control of 30 percent of the nation’s parliamentary seats and held a powerful veto. The first elected president was a pro-enosis archbishop from the Greek Orthodox church named Makarios the Third. However, it quickly became apparent to Makarios’s government that the system they built would not work. 

Cyprus conference between greece and turkey in Zurich

Following a few years of political deadlock, Greek Cypriots proposed restructuring the constitution to decrease the Turkish minority’s administrative power. Tensions rose throughout the country as this threat loomed until, on December 23rd, 1963, Greek Cypriot police killed two Turkish men. Violence erupted between the two communities, with more than 500 people dying in the conflict. 

The United Nations stepped in during 1964, working with representatives from the UK, Turkey, and Greece to arrange a ceasefire. The most famous legacy of the agreement was the establishment of a UN-controlled buffer zone. The British Secretary of State for Overseas Territories drew a line across Cyprus’s map with green pencil, giving the border its unofficial name today, the Green Line.

Running from the island’s northwest shore to a UK-controlled naval base in the south, the UN buffer-zone cut right through Cyprus’s capital city Nicosia. North of the line was dominated by the island’s Turkish population, while the Greeks controlled the south. However, people from both communities lived in small enclaves in the other’s territory. Without the protection of their military or police forces, intercommunal violence continued for the next decade. Politicians from Greece and Turkey stayed involved in the situation, sometimes threatening invasions, and generally warned by US President Lyndon Johnson to avoid conflict.

This balancing act became more difficult following a coup in Greece, which led to a short-lived military junta from 1967-74. Ten years after establishing the Green Line, in ’74, Greek forces under the direction of junta leader Dimitrios Ioannides landed in Cyprus. They carried out a coup to depose President Makarios, installing a more blatantly pro-Greek president named Nikos Sampson. Five days later, Turkish forces invaded the island under the pretext of restoring constitutional legitimacy, a justification that the global legal community has rejected. They landed in the north and pressed to the Green Line, reaching the coastal city Famagusta, which Greek Cypriots previously held. Fighting continued for three days, ending with the Turks controlling about 36 percent of the island’s territory. Citizens from both ethnic communities crossed the border to join their side.

Sampson was removed from power after just a week at the country’s helm, with Makarios assuming the presidency once again. The UN extended the buffer-zone for the entire length of the country, running 180 kilometers from the northwest to the southeast. The Green Line varies in width from as little as 20 meters to 6 or 7 kilometers in parts of the country. While Makarios’s government in the south claims jurisdiction over the entire island, the Turkish leadership declared the foundation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. Only Turkey has recognized the TRNC.

Since the pivotal actions of 1974, questions over how to settle the dispute have dominated politics. One other contentious question, though, is the seaside city of Famagusta. Before the division, Famagusta was the most popular tourist destination in the country. The resort district Varosha was known for its magnificent hotels, broad avenues, and luxury car dealerships. It contributed an outsized portion of the nation’s economy and was the favorite holiday spot for stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Brigitte Bardot. Greek Cypriots mostly inhabited the area following the establishment of the Green Line in ’64. However, following the Turkish invasion of 74, the site was abandoned— Turkish forces killed many local citizens as they fled to a nearby British naval base.

The Turkish army fenced off Varosha, refusing entry to anyone, Greek or Turkish. As the location of some of the most vicious violence of the conflict, Varosha has become a symbol of the tensions between the two territories. The neighborhood has remained uninhabited since 1974 and is now one of the most famous ghost-towns in the world. Luxury cars sit in the windows of dealerships. Cafe tables have full place settings. But, the area is beginning to fall apart, succumbing to the overgrowth. Cracked streets and crumbling buildings, long exposed to the elements, stand throughout the site. It’s become a popular destination for scientists looking to study what happens when a community is abandoned to nature.

In recent years, the North Cyprus government has spoken of reopening Varosha. But the UN is firmly against it. While Varosha sits on the northern border of the UN buffer-zone, most parties request that the beachside town be turned over to the UN and treated as an extension of the Green Line. However, this seems unlikely. The beach there has been opened for visitors on rare occasions within the last few months. The situation in Varosha is ever-changing, as throughout the rest of the country.

Still, some of those changes have been for the better. Border crossings were practically unheard of until 2004 when both sides agreed to ease restrictions on who could cross. The increased movement has reunited families with friends and relatives across the buffer-zone for the first time in decades. It’s now relatively easy for workers to cross the border, especially in Nicosia, which contains most of the boundary’s eight crossing stations. Many of the capital’s citizens pass over the wall daily to reach their offices and socialize with friends and family. Still, as a member of the European Union since 2004, Cyprus is the only country, and the first since Berlin, to have its capital split by a wall.

As time passes, it remains unclear just how to settle the situation in Cyprus. Around the same time that Cyprus joined the European Union, the United Nations General Secretary, Kofi Annan, presented a reunification plan. Appropriately titled the “Annan Plan,” it set up a framework for reunification that returned Turkish Cypriots’ rights and created a government with representation from both parties. The UN crafted this plan without any input from Cyprus’s citizens, who rejected it for its concessions to the Turks. For example, while the Cyprus National Guard was to be dissolved, the plan allowed for Turkey to keep a large military presence on the island. Turkish Cypriots voted in favor of the idea, but their numbers weren’t large enough to make much difference.

It seems that, with the recent history and tensions between the people, a one-state solution is looking increasingly unlikely. Still, options have been presented to remove the buffer zone and unite the country while giving each ethnic group a semi-autonomous region. Opponents of this plan point out the simple fact that a two-state solution may be much more likely to succeed. This would establish the government’s legitimacy in the north and perhaps ease tensions, giving each community self-determination to rule themselves.

Besides the nations of Greece and Turkey, the party most interested in the proceedings is the United Kingdom. As Cyprus’s last imperial power, the British received territory to establish several naval bases along the island’s coast. There are four British exclaves on the island, which include several small towns along the shore. While two stations near Famagusta and Varosha lie along the buffer zone, the British don’t hold any territory in the North Cyprus region. Though it seems unlikely, in the event of a Turkish takeover of the island, many British diplomats fear that it could be the end of their time there. In the case of a two-state solution, or a unification with Greece, the British would be much more likely to hold their position.

Despite the decades of tension and violence, the situation in Cyprus is relatively calm. Instead of outright military clashes, the battling has mainly proceeded between governments or in the courtrooms. With Turkish and North Cypriot leaders afraid of unification with Greece, it seems unlikely to progress much further than perhaps the reopening of Varosha. At this point, don’t be surprised by anything that happens next.

So, what do you think? Which solution seems most fair at this time? Do Greek Cypriots have a point that the country should reunite with Greece? Is there a case that the best thing for Cyprus would be to unify and remain independent? Zooming out, what does this situation tell us about similar conflicts around the world? Does the global community have the right to say to a group of people that they can’t be a part of the country they most identify with? Or is it important to maintain a political status quo?

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