The Conflict in Cyprus Part I

After centuries of conflict, Greece and Turkey have begun to reconcile. This also reduces tensions in Cyprus. But the island’s two ethnic groups still live separated from each other.

Cyprus is still divided between the Greek Cypriots in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north, and the border between them is monitored by the UN. The two ethnic groups each have their own president and their own government. However, only the Greek Cypriot government is internationally recognized – though not by Turkey. The status of northern Cyprus is unclear, and in the north the Turkish invasion army remains from the 1974 war.

For most Cypriots, it was a relief when border crossings were opened between the two parts of the island in 2003, after being closed for almost thirty years. In 2004, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots were allowed to vote yes or no to a UN plan for the reunification of the two parts of Cyprus. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, the Turkish Cypriots voted yes but the Greek Cypriots voted no. Thus, the plan fell. EU leaders had been so confident that the plan would be adopted that they had already promised Cyprus membership; in reality, the EU now only let in the Greek Cypriot government.

In 2008, hope was raised again for an opening in the Cyprus issue, at least in the long term. That year, the Greek Cypriots got a new president who seemed more prepared than his predecessor to negotiate with the Turkish Cypriots. Those hopes were dashed, however, but after the change of president on both sides of the island, peace talks gained momentum in 2015 and the prospects for reunification looked better than in over 40 years. Nevertheless, negotiations broke down in July 2017.

The island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean is slightly smaller than Östergötland. The whole island has about 1.1 million inhabitants. Four-fifths are Greek Cypriots, while one-fifth are Turkish Cypriots and immigrants from Turkey. Greek Cypriots speak Greek and are Greek Orthodox Christians, while Turkish Cypriots speak Turkish and are Sunni Muslims. However, both ethnic groups are quite secularized.

Northerners who holiday in Cyprus usually think that they have come to a peaceful, prosperous country. As a rule, they travel to the southern part of the island, which today is inhabited by Greek-speaking Cypriots. But also on the Turkish-speaking north side, tourists tend to feel safe, even if the standard of living there is lower than in the south and the military presence more pronounced

However, conditions in Cyprus are far from normal. Both parts of the island are separated by a buffer zone, which varies in width between seven kilometers and a couple of meters. Greek Cypriots in the south control two thirds of Cyprus’ territory and Turkish Cypriots in the north one third. The buffer zone that separates them was added in 1974, after Turkey invaded northern Cyprus. The zone is monitored by UN soldiers. The capital Nicosia is also divided into a Greek and a Turkish Cypriot part.

Relief that the border has been opened…

Until 2003, almost no Cypriots were allowed to cross the buffer zone to visit the opposite side of the island. In April of that year, however, the Turkish Cypriots opened some border crossings. Today, most people living in Cyprus have visited places on the other side of the buffer zone. It is believed that it was the new government in Turkey, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that persuaded the Turkish Cypriots to open the border. In 2004, when Cyprus became a member of the EU, all EU citizens were free to travel between southern and northern Cyprus.

The opening of the border between southern and northern Cyprus was in itself an extremely positive event. The outbreaks of violence that many have warned about never occurred. Greek Cypriots who lived in the north before 1974 had the chance to see their childhood homes again. For the Turkish Cypriots in the north, the influx of visitors led to an economic upswing, which more than offset the fact that the Greek side slowed down the subsidies that the EU had wanted to give the Turkish Cypriots. Some Turkish Cypriots also took the opportunity to obtain Greek Cypriot passports (EU passports) or start commuting across the border to workplaces in southern Cyprus.

A measure of the relaxation was that the UN, after Cyprus’ entry into the EU, sharply reduced the number of soldiers guarding the buffer zone.

… But the division remains

However, neither the thaw (1999) between Greece and Turkey nor the opening of the border between southern and northern Cyprus seem to have brought the Cyprus issue closer to a real solution. The island remains divided, while the position of northern Cyprus remains unclear.

The Conflict in Cyprus Part I