Friday, March 1, 2013

What’s the Matter with Cyprus?

If you were to describe a Mediterranean country that is split in two, with one half that is more developed and tied closely to the West, the other half much poorer and largely Muslim, and both sides separated by barbed wire, the average American would likely think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, this situation also describes another equally intractable, but less known conflict that is occurring on the island of Cyprus.

Cyprus has been contested for millennia for its strategic value in the Mediterranean, having been controlled by a series of empires including the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, and the British.  The island gained independence from the last of these rulers, the British, in 1960.  The joy of independence was short-lived, however, as sectarian violence between ethnic Greeks and Turks soon rocked the island.  As with other recent sectarian conflicts around the world, this violence quickly escalated, forcing residents of both sides out of their homes, and began re-shuffling the once integrated island into a northern Turkish region and a southern Greek region.

The conflict took on a new dimension in 1974, when an attempted coup by Greek Cypriot nationalists, who were intent on unifying the island with Greece, prompted an invasion by the Turkish military.  Although the fighting was brief, this conflict further divided the island, with tens of thousands of Greek Cypriots fleeing south and tens of thousands of Turks fleeing north.  After failed negotiations, a second Turkish offensive in 1974 resulted in a ceasefire that left 59% of the country controlled by Greek Cypriots, 36% by Turkish Cypriots, and the rest by a United Nations buffer zone and British Sovereign Base Areas, a legacy of British rule. 

These geographic divisions still exist today.  The country is divided into the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north (which is not officially recognized by any country other than Turkey, including the United States).  Given this complicated and tragic history, what is the likelihood that Cyprus’s future will include a peaceful, diplomatic solution, and the end to the barbed-wire separation of the island’s population?

Several factors in recent years have complicated the negotiations process.  The first was the entry of the southern Republic of Cyprus into the European Union in 2004.  Many observers had hoped that the prospect of EU membership could be one tool to prompt Greek (and to a lesser extent Turkish) Cypriots to the negotiating table.  By gaining EU membership before a territorial settlement had been reached, this prospect was eliminated. (As a side note: Cyprus’s position as an EU member state is a major impediment to Turkish accession in the future.  See for instance:

The second, more recent complication has been the worldwide financial crisis, which has been particularly harsh to the Republic of Cyprus.  Given the country’s close ties to Greece, Cypriot banks were heavily invested in Greek sovereign bonds, and are now in need of an EU bailout.  Consequently, economics has taken the forefront in recent political discourse, with the geo-political “Cyprus problem” taking a back seat.

Nevertheless, just this week there were some hopeful signs.  On Sunday, February 24, Cyprus elected a new Presidential candidate, Nicos Anastasiades (for more information, see The New York Times article on his election:  Although banks and bailouts will certainly be Mr. Anastasiades’s first priority, he has long been in favor of a loose federal solution to the standoff known as the Annan Plan (the plan is named after former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; a full version of the plan can be found at: 

The new President will have an uphill battle in implementing this plan.  A March 2004 referendum on the Annan plan saw Greek Cypriots reject it by a 3:1 margin (76% to 24%; a similar referendum among Turkish Cypriots was approved 65% to 35%).  However, a successful resolution to the country’s financial woes and economic troubles would present Mr. Anastasiades with a great deal of political capital, which could then be spent working toward a solution for a conflict that has persiste

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