Cyprus has remained predominantly Greek in its makeup since being settled by Myceneans in around 2000 BC. Two-thirds of the island today remains under the control of Greek Cypriots, along with their internationally recognized government. However, with the Ottoman conquest of 1571, settled Turkish soldiers began what would be a centuries-long dispute over ownership of the island.
When control was turned over to Britain in 1878, a popular movement was sparked, known as “Enosis,” seeking to join Cyprus with Greece. While the movement fizzled out amid the distraction of two world wars, it was reignited in the 1950s, resulting in a bloody crackdown by British forces and, eventually, Cypriot independence in 1960.
Fearing for the protection of their rights in the newly independent state, the enclave of Turkish Cypriots in the north sought a permanent partition of the island. During the following years, animosity grew between the two peoples as the government became increasingly unable to produce consensus. If Turkey had been considering an invasion at that time, the decision was confirmed by a Greek coup which spread to Cyprus and resulted in the removal of the president. Supposedly acting to protect the Turkish Cypriots, the Turkish army took the opportunity and invaded in 1974.
The Turkish invasion was, if not explicitly, then implicitly supported by the United States. The army used U.S.-supplied weapons, while the Nixon and Ford administrations, with Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State, chose to look the other way. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Greek Cypriots were displaced from their homes in the north, and several thousand people simply disappeared as Turkey took control of around 40 percent of the island. Turkey, being a member of NATO and key U.S. ally in the Cold War, enjoyed the support of the U.S. despite heavy international condemnation.
Today, conflict is largely consigned to history in Cyprus, but the island remains very much divided. In 1983, Turkey solidified its claim to the northern third by creating the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, complete with its own administrative body (although not recognized internationally). The last 30 years have seen somewhat of a standoff between the two, both claiming to want a peaceful solution to the dispute, yet offering little substance. Peace talks have repeatedly broken down, including the failed referendum in 2002, driven by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Among the sadness in Cyprus’ recent history has been much good. It has thrived economically since achieving independence, with a booming tourism and banking industry (despite recently being hit hard by recession). It was also admitted to the European Union in 2004, giving it a much more credible voice in the ongoing debate, not to mention its ability to veto any attempt by Turkey to join the Union. Furthermore, many of those displaced from their homes during the Turkish invasion have won cases taken to the European Court of Human Rights, and subsequently awarded compensation.
However, there is no apparent sign of a solution to the dispute in the near future. Turkey continues to encourage the resettlement of its citizens to Cyprus, with the population of the northern region now standing at around 300,000. Only one-third of these are thought to be native Turkish Cypriots. Statements from the Turkish government have indicated a desire to completely annex the territory although such a move would be heavily opposed internationally, as well as by Turkish Cypriots who would prefer to form a new state independent from Turkey.
The two-state solution is feasible, as is complete reunification of the island, but much needs to be done to bring the two groups together before any kind of peaceful coexistence can be conceived. A recent dispute over natural gas exploration looks likely to further complicate the disagreement.
Talks between the two broke down last year and Turkey insists it will not re-enter negotiations until 2013, when Cyprus passes along the presidency of the European Union which it currently holds. Meanwhile, Cyprus is distracted not only by its EU involvement, but also its recent economic woes. The global financial crisis hit the island hard, while a massive explosion last year wiped out about half of the southern region’s electricity supply, further stagnating the economy.
Turkey’s largest incentive for a solution, membership in the EU, appears to be shrinking every day. Its refusal to deal with the Cyprus issue has remained a primary obstacle to membership in the Union, and as membership looks less and less likely, Turkey has even less reason to pursue a deal with Cyprus.
The division of this beautiful Mediterranean island has lasted too long and impacted far too many lives. While it should have been a priority of the international community, a resolution seems to have evaded this debate.
Whichever of the three solutions is eventually reached, the future of Cyprus is fraught with complications for both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots who simply want their children to grow up in a peaceful and stable society.