Soldiers from Turkey remain in the north. The Turkish Cypriots have declared their part of the island an independent state, the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”, but it is only recognized by Turkey. Turkey, on the other hand, does not recognize – unlike the UN and the EU – the Greek Cypriot government in the south. Turkey fears that the Greek Cypriots could use Cyprus’ membership of the EU to prevent the Turks from entering the Union.
Historical background from 1960
As late as 1960, when Cyprus became independent from Britain, both Greek and Turkish Cypriots lived scattered throughout the island. Most towns and villages had a mixed population. Multilingualism was the rule rather than the exception, especially among the Turkish Cypriots.
The information on how peaceful and harmonious coexistence was before independence varies, depending on the period of time referred to and who is being asked. Ethnic violence in the 1960s, however, led to the two ethnic groups beginning to move apart and settle in separate enclaves . However, both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots still lived in the north and south.
The ethnic divisions exploded in a series of outbreaks of violence in 1963. In the same year, the Turkish Cypriot ministers left the joint government to no longer rule together with Greek Cypriot politicians. The UN sent peacekeepers to the island in 1964; they are still there today.
The smaller ethnic group, the Turkish Cypriots, were particularly hard hit by ethnic violence.
Ethnically based constitution
An explanation for why independent Cyprus got off to a bad start may be found in the country’s constitution. It was formed on ethnic grounds by Cyprus’ last colonial power, Britain. The constitution stipulates that posts in government, administration and army shall be distributed between the ethnic groups according to a quota system. Formally, the constitution still applies, but the seats of the Turkish Cypriots in the national (now Greek Cypriot) parliament have been empty since 1963.
The British believed that the ethnically based constitution would make it easier to deal with the problems between the two ethnic groups of Cyprus. The Turkish Cypriots had been on Britain’s side in the opposition to enosis – Cyprus’ union with Greece – and the British wanted to protect them from being totally dominated by the Greek Cypriots. The Turkish Cypriots therefore received a certain amount of over-representation in the island’s governing bodies, which the Greek Cypriots perceived as unfair.
The constitution also gave both the president (Greek Cypriot) and the vice president (Turkish Cypriot) the right to stop all decisions by veto. The right of veto was used so extensively that it was not possible to enforce any political decisions.
Cypriots were encouraged to identify themselves as members of an ethnic group rather than as citizens of a state. Among both ethnic groups, notions prevailed that the opposite side was favored at the expense of their own group. Still, Cyprus could have met a better future if a military junta had not seized power in Athens through a 1967 coup.
Athens junta coup in Cyprus
The junta in Athens wanted to incorporate Cyprus with Greece, despite the fact that the majority of Greek Cypriots abandoned the idea of enosis after Cyprus became independent. To carry out terror against Cypriot President Makarios and other Greek Cypriot politicians, who were believed to stand in the way of enosis, the Greek junta helped revive the old Eoka guerrillas in Cyprus. Eoka, who had previously terrorized the British to force enosis, called herself in her new form Eoka-B.
Relations between Greeks and Turks in the Mediterranean have long been tense. Cyprus is close to Turkey; the distance to the southern coast of Turkey is at its narrowest only 65 kilometers.
In Turkey, the Athens junta’s plans to incorporate Cyprus were perceived as a serious threat to its own country. Under an agreement reached ahead of Cyprus’ independence, Turkey, alongside Greece and the United Kingdom, would act as a guarantor of Cypriot independence.
On 15 July 1974, the Athens junta, in cooperation with Eoka-B, carried out a coup in Cyprus. President Makarios was forced to flee. Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit first wanted to intervene with Britain, but the British did not want to join. Turkey then considered that, as a guaranteeing power, it had both the right and the obligation to send troops to the island itself.
Turkey’s invasion divided Cyprus
When Turkish soldiers arrived in Cyprus in 1974, it initially aroused no major opposition in the outside world. Most accepted Turkey’s declaration that the Turkish Cypriot minority must be protected from abuse. Turkey’s occupation continued, however, even after the junta in Greece had fallen just days after Turkey’s intervention and withdrew its allies in Cyprus.
Instead of retreating, the Turkish army went on the offensive and occupied new, larger areas. Ethnic violence in Cyprus, which has been on the decline for several years, flared up in full force when the Turkish army carried out what we would today call an “ethnic cleansing” in northern Cyprus.