How Can We Reunite the Last Divided Capital City in Europe and End the Cyprus Conflict?

Panny Antoniou reflects on the history of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus, and the implications for human rights.

Since 1974, the island of Cyprus has been divided between a Turkish Cypriot North, unrecognised by all states other than Turkey, and a predominately Greek Cypriot South, which is recognised as the legitimate government of the whole island. Since 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nicosia has been the only divided capital city in Europe. How did we get here and how can we reunite the island once again?

When Cyprus became independent from the United Kingdom in 1960, with a constitution which guaranteed representation for Cyprus’ two largest communities, the Greek Cypriot community formed approximately 80% of the population and the Turkish Cypriot community formed approximately 18% of the population. This constitution ensured that the Cypriot President would always be a Greek and the Cypriot Vice President would always be Turkish. In addition, Britain continued to maintain military bases at Akrotiri and Dhekelia which they hold to this day and the island was subject to the Treaty of Guarantee which allowed Greece, Turkey, and the UK to intervene in times of crisis in order to maintain the status quo.

The island also became independent amidst the backdrop of a number of paramilitary groups, each fighting for their own very different aims. With Greek Nationalist paramilitaries fighting for Enosis (or the union of Cyprus with Greece) and Turkish Nationalist paramilitaries fighting for Taksim (or the division of the island between separate Greek and Turkish state). Both of these options would lead to a large amount of refugees. In 1974, the government of Greece – which at the time was under a military junta – sponsored a coup on the island and declared the Hellenic Republic of Cyprus and announced their intentions to annex the island to Greece. In response, arguing that Greece’s coup broke the Treaty of Guarantee, Turkey invaded the island, taking the northern third up to what is now the UN Green Line. This divided the island in two with around 196,000 Greek Cypriots fleeing south and approximately 42,000 Turkish Cypriots fleeing north.

That status quo is where we find ourselves today: two communities living separately with their own issues and concerns, one internationally unrecognised Turkish state, illegally occupied by the Turkish Army and the other the internationally recognised government of the whole island. From the Turkish Cypriot perspective, they remember the intercommunal violence which threatened their minority communities between 1960 and 1974 and fear a return to intercommunal violence and pogroms should the Turkish Army leave the island. For the Greek Cypriots’ part, they want all Turkish troops gone from the island due to the threat which they pose to the Greek Cypriot community as well as the scars and trauma still felt from the previous invasion. So how to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable positions?

The first thing that is needed is something which has previously been lacking in Cypriot peace negotiations – political imagination. From the Turkish Cypriot perspective, it is the lack of protection they fear, from the Greek Cypriot perspective, the threat of another Turkish invasion. A possible solution would Cypriot accession to NATO under similar terms to Iceland – another demilitarised but strategically important NATO member state. Deploying a NATO force to keep the peace and replacing the Greek and Turkish military presence which is still on the island would provide both communities with peace of mind. Turkish Cypriots would know that as an EU and NATO member state, intercommunal violence would be prevented by the NATO garrison on the island, and Greek Cypriots would know that they have protection from a possible Turkish invasion.

Another sticking point has been Turkey’s importing of settlers from mainland Turkey which have radically changed the demographics of Cyprus – a war crime in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is an altogether thornier issue, as it was the primary reason that Greek Cypriots rejected the Annan Plan designed to reunify the island by referendum in 2004. In this situation, the solution must look at the realities on the ground and balance the human rights of the settlers together with the human rights of those who want to return to their homes.

This requires a pragmatic approach, recognising the political realities and allowing some settlers arriving before 15th November 1983 (the date that the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence) to remain on the island with reparations paid by Turkey to those Greek Cypriots unable to return to their homes as a result of this. There is precedent for these reparations to be found in the ECHR case Loizidou vs. Turkey which found that the plaintiff’s rights were violated by Turkish occupation and that Turkey were required to pay for preventing her use of her property since 1974. Crucially, however the ruling said that Loizidou continued to be the legal owner of the home. These reparations for households unable to return together with a fair price for the property itself would go a long way to bridging the gap between the two communities and ensuring that settlers who arrived before 1983 are able to remain on the island.

For settlers that arrived after 1983, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Any descendants who were born on the island are of course Cypriot, and should be allowed to remain, as should any who have arrived since 1983 but have either married a pre-1983 Turkish Settler or a Turkish Cypriot, or indeed those with dependant children. This is the fairest and most humane way to deal with the Greek Cypriot concerns, while also ensuring that illegal Turkish settlers arriving since 1983 with no dependants are not allowed to remain on the island. Their repatriation back to Turkey should be funded through the EU’s budget and should provide enough money to buy a home and build a new life in their former country. This should be enough of a compromise solution to both sides to allow some agreement to be found in the name of peace.

The final sticking points around land are also incredibly complicated given the recent Turkish Cypriot presidential elections where the Erdogan-backed winner Ersin Tatar has reopened the previously fenced off Varosha District in Famagusta which was regarded as key to any future exchanges of territory between the two entities which attempting to form a bizonal federation. This will require give and take from both sides, with mostly uninhabited villages in the buffer zone being returned and those Greek and Turkish Cypriots with homes on the opposite side of the Green Line being allowed to return to them safely and peacefully, with Varosha remaining closed until its Greek Cypriot residents are allowed to return.

So, despite all these issues, with a little political imagination, and the kind of compromise and willingness for dialogue which Tatar’s predecessor Mustafa Akıncı showed during his presidency, a solution is possible. From the Greek Cypriots’ part, there must be an understanding that there will be no return to the pre-war status quo and that a bizonal federation is the only solution which is currently viable. As fewer and fewer Cypriots grow up remembering a united Cyprus, the prospects for unity grow smaller by the day. One thing which both communities should do is look at the example of Pyla, a small village straddling the UN Buffer Zone which is the last place in Cyprus where Turks and Greeks live in peace to this day – positive proof that peace and unity is possible.


Panny Antoniou is the Co-chair of Open Labour’s Climate Change Working Group and Co-founder of grassroots activist organisation Labour Doorstep. He tweets at @panny_antoniou

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