By Michael Goodyear Contributing Writer 6 January 2018

It has been over forty years since the island of Cyprus was one country and reunification talks stalled once again this summer. The island serves as a microcosm of Greek-Turkish ethnic tensions. To effectively and conclusively reunify the island, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Greece, and Turkey must accept Cyprus’ absolute independence and not let the shadows of the past continue to play out in proxy form on the island.

Greek and Turkish ethnic enmity has existed for centuries, since Byzantine times and the start of the Ottoman occupation of Greece. After Greece achieved its independence in 1830, it fought several wars to recover other Greek-inhabited regions from the Ottoman Empire. The last of these wars occurred in the wake of World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The Greek army fell to the rising power of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), and thousands of Greeks living in Turkey were massacred in the aftermath. The resulting Treaty of Lausanne dictated a population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Over a million Greeks were uprooted from Turkey and moved to Greece while nearly 500,000 Turks were moved from Greece to Turkey. Now, with very few exceptions, Greece was Greek and Turkey was Turkish.

The greatest exception to this was Cyprus. While Greece and Turkey were fighting on the mainland after World War I, Cyprus was still under British control. Therefore, the population exchange did not affect the Mediterranean’s third largest island. While Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots had lived next to each other for centuries, mostly amicably, tensions began to simmer under British rule, especially as Greek-Turkish enmities raged on the mainland.

Cyprus became independent in 1960 through the Treaty of Guarantee. This treaty, assured by Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, prevented Cyprus from unifying with another state and required the guarantor powers to respect Cyprus’ territorial integrity. Article IV also allowed the guarantor powers to invade to restore the status quo if Cyprus’ independence was threatened. These terms were influenced by the fear of Cypriot Turks and some Cypriot Greeks that independent Cyprus would go through enosis, unification with Greece.


Cypriots demonstrate in favor of enosis in 1930.

Cyprus’ first president, Archbishop Makarios, staunchly maintained Cyprus’ independence. But he resisted the British-drafted constitution, which provided safeguards to protect the Turkish minority. Makarios’ attempts to change the constitution further inflamed tensions between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. His clear support of Greek Cypriots over Turkish Cypriots did little to help unify the island.

When a pro-enosis coup took place in 1974 under Nikos Sampson, Cyprus became a proxy war for Greece and Turkey. The ruling military junta in Athens backed Sampson. In response, 40,000 Turkish troops invaded the island, nominally in compliance with Article IV of the Treaty of Guarantee, occupying the northern forty percent of Cyprus. In the aftermath of the invasion, peace talks failed and the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus became reality. The Turkish occupation led to a de facto population exchange between the northern and southern parts of the island, with Greek and Turkish Cypriots fleeing to their respective sides. Much like the mainland population exchange of 1923, this uprooted families from their homes and shattered the multi-ethnic nature of Cyprus.

Forty years later, Cyprus remains the last internally divided country in the world. The Green Line marks the borders between the independent Republic of Cyprus and the de facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, running through the island’s capital of Nicosia. Turkish troops continue to occupy the northern half of the island, which has been under an international embargo since 1983 and whose Turkish Cypriot government is only recognized by Turkey. Cut off from the rest of the world, the economic survival of northern Cyprus is tied to Turkish state aid and tourists from mainland Turkey.


The island of Cyprus, shown with the UN-enforced buffer zone

Recent reunification talks seemed to be heading in a productive direction. The presidents of both halves of Cyprus, Nicos Anastsiades and Mustafa Akıncı, are both staunch advocates of reunification and were indeed elected on this basis, signaling general support for reunification on both sides of the island. But in the aftermath of the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last July, it was unlikely that Erdoğan would make any moves that would weaken Turkey’s international position, including removing troops from Cyprus. Despite lingering hope, talks in Switzerland this summer descended into chaos over Turkey’s insistence that it maintain its right to military intervention on the island.

Although Cyprus’ reunification is unlikely under Erdoğan’s government, these talks are at a critical juncture. If a reunification deal is not reached soon, the United Nations has threatened to remove its troops. In addition, northern Cyprus’ economic stability is precarious at best and could be greatly aided by reopening trade with the rest of Cyprus and the world. Perhaps most importantly, it is critical that reunification takes place while the generation that remembers unified Cyprus is still alive. Otherwise Cyprus is in danger of succumbing to ethnic hatred between Greeks and Turks and developing a lack of desire to live with the other people on their island at all.


A United Nations sign at the Green Line

In establishing peaceful reunification, it is essential to look back to the Treaty of Guarantee and the British-written constitution. Like the Treaty of Guarantee, any reunification agreement must first and foremost secure Cyprus’ independence and require Greece and Turkey to respect that independence. Unlike the Treaty of Guarantee, however, the guarantors of the treaty should not be Greece and Turkey, but instead a neutral third party such as the United Nations, which already has peacekeeping troops on the island, or perhaps the European Union, although that would be thornier given Greece’s membership in the European Union unless Turkey ends up being granting membership as well. Enosis is no longer a remotely probable outcome, so the fears that guided Turkish interference in Cyprus are no longer applicable. Despite the UN’s imperfect track record in maintaining peace in some regions, Cyprus is not a volcano on the brink of erupting like Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Furthermore, international peacekeeping troops remove the danger of having heavily interested and historically complicated powers such as Greece and Turkey maintain the peace, lowering the risk of ethnic conflict flaring up or reactionary action being taken by a greater power.

In domestic politics, the Cypriot constitution must guarantee the rights and liberties of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The high-handedness of the British-written constitution upset the Greek majority and did not solve the ethnic divide; therefore, it is critical that Cypriots write the constitution, perhaps with the mediation and advice of leading international and constitutional law experts as knowledgeable but neutral third parties. The safety of both ethnicities must be safeguarded by the constitution, as the resumption of ethnic hostilities is the greatest potential challenge to a new unified Cyprus. The lack of constitutional protections has been a root of ethnic conflicts in other neighboring regions, such as with the Kurdish peoples living in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. Establishing ethnically neutral or ethnically diverse judiciaries and legislatures would also go a long way in showing the Turkish Cypriots that their liberties and interests will be respected by unified Cyprus.

Action must be taken soon to succeed. The issue of Cyprus has been a major point of foreign policy for Greece and Turkey over the past century, but Cyprus needs to be an independent nation free of undue Greek and Turkish national influence. Greek and Turkish ethnic ties will still bind Cyprus to the two countries, but Cyprus can only establish a peaceful new existence without interference from Greece and Turkey. Reunification is the path to putting aside ethnic differences and strengthening the island’s economy. Greece and Turkey must come to terms with those conditions; the greater good of Cyprus’ future rests in the balance.

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Michael Goodyear is a first-year law student at the University of Michigan Law School. He holds an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history.

Photo licensed under CC-BY-2.5.