Despite the presence of the UN, both sides committed serious atrocities during the short war that led to the practical division of Cyprus in 1974. 180,000 Greek Cypriots fled from areas in the north occupied by Turkey, while 60,000 Turkish Cypriots from southern Cyprus took refuge in the Turkish-occupied areas in the north. One third of the inhabitants of Cyprus abandoned their homes so as not to see them again in the 20th century. More than a thousand Greek Cypriots disappeared without a trace during the war.
Mutual fear after the war
After the division, the two ethnic groups of Cyprus lived completely separate, in fear of each other. The Turkish Cypriots remembered the outbreak of violence in the 1960s, when they were at a disadvantage against their Greek-speaking compatriots. The Greek Cypriots remembered in particular the invasion of the Turkish army in 1974 and the mass expulsion of Greek Cypriots from northern Cyprus. But despite mutual suspicions, the situation remained largely calm in divided Cyprus.
The worst incident after the war occurred in the autumn of 1996, when several Greek Cypriots and a Turkish Cypriot soldier were shot dead after Greek Cypriots demonstrated near the buffer zone. The following year, tensions rose again when the Greek Cypriot government wanted to buy and deploy Russian anti-aircraft missiles that could reach Turkish airspace. The crisis was solved by Greece taking over the robots to place them in Crete, from where they could not reach Turkey.
The then President of Cyprus, Makarios, had begun formal negotiations with the Turkish Cypriots as early as 1968. After the partition in 1974, the parties met again and again and negotiated a reunification of the island. Several of the UN Secretaries – General, US Presidents and other foreign powers engaged personally, but to no avail. Negotiators referred to the difficult Cyprus deliberations as a “diplomatic elephant cemetery”.
In the negotiations, the leaders of the Greek Cypriots said yes to the model for a future Cyprus described in the early UN resolutions: a unified state with a unified government and one and the same citizenship for all, regardless of ethnicity. That model was in the interest of the Greek Cypriots, as they would constitute the majority in such a state.
The Greek Cypriots further claimed that Turkey must withdraw its troops before a political solution could be reached. Other Greek Cypriot demands were the right of all Cypriots to move freely across the island and the right of return for all those expelled from their homes in 1974.
In contrast to the southern side, the leaders of the Turkish Cypriots believed that the Turkish troops could leave the island only after a political solution had been reached. The Turkish Cypriots demanded that Cyprus become a federation between two “equal” peoples, with extensive autonomy for each ethnic group. The “equality” that the Turkish Cypriots demanded meant in practice that they wanted as much to say in a united Cyprus as the Greek Cypriots, despite their small number.
Discussions about a federation on Turkish Cypriots’ terms were not facilitated by the fact that at the same time, with the support of Turkey, the Turkish Cypriots wanted their part of the island recognized as an independent state. On top of this, Turkey sometimes threatened to incorporate the Turkish Cypriot state. In the negotiations, the Turkish side thus worked on three, mutually incompatible proposals: 1) northern Cyprus as part of a federation between two “equal” peoples; 2) Northern Cyprus as an independent state; 3) northern Cyprus as part of Turkey.
In its own constitution adopted by the Turkish Cypriots in 1985, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was described as “an integral part of the Turkish nation”. No reunification of the two parts of Cyprus was mentioned. The Turkish Cypriots’ self-proclaimed president, Rauf Denktaş (usually spelled Denktash internationally), had strong support from leading politicians in Turkey.
Relaxation between Greece and Turkey
The fact that the Cyprus conflict has been one of the most protracted and difficult-to-resolve conflicts of our time has largely been due to the underlying conflict between the “mother countries” Greece and Turkey. For a long time, the Cyprus conflict seemed to be completely locked. However, three factors contributed to creating an opening.
The first was that relations between Greece and Turkey improved. The tension began quite abruptly in 1999, in connection with a change of government in Greece. It got a new industry since Turkey also got a new government in the autumn of 2002.
The change of power in Turkey became the second factor that opened up new opportunities. The Islam-conservative government that took over in Ankara had no ties to Rauf Denktaş or to the Turkish nationalists in Turkey who supported him. However, the new Turkish government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was very keen that the Cyprus issue should not stand in the way of Turkish membership of the EU.