The Cyprus Problem: A Way Forward

In a panoptic view of the world’s current conflicts, Cyprus certainly sticks out. The small Mediterranean island, which has been host to the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) since 1964, lacks many of the features we generally associate with nations afflicted by intractable ethnic conflict. The European Union member state isn’t plagued by endemic poverty or extreme under-development, and there hasn’t been an incident of inter-communal violence in decades. With the sixth round of bilateral talks between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey currently underway, the case offers interesting insights on the potential for peacebuilding in the context of political intractability.


At the heart of the Cypriot conflict is identity. The country has had a very long and complex history of occupation, which has constructed a multi-layered Cypriot identity—resisting, yet seeking, its place along the East-West divide. For now, this manifests most obviously in the ‘green line,’ a physical partition of the island that was established when Turkish invading forces seized the northern third of the island in 1974, following an attempted coup by a Greek-Cypriot extremist group. Greek and Turkish Cypriots have lived separately under these conditions for over forty years, while the UN moderates a buffer zone for at the low, low cost of $54 million annually.

While the conflict has not been ‘hot’ for decades, competing national allegiances to Turkey and Greece are still highly visible in contemporary Cyprus. Most apparent is the enormous (and illuminated) Turkish-Cypriot flag, a derivative of the Turkish flag, which is emblazoned on the side of the Kyrenia mountain range, which can be seen from the divided city of Nicosia. Less prominent, but equally indicative of division, is the large number of Greek flags seen throughout the Republic, often displayed beside the Cypriot national flag and European Union flag. With ethnic division clearly alive on the island, one is compelled to ask whether Cypriots are totally committed to a solution, and, if so, if one is even possible?

turkish flag

To provide full disclosure, my grandfather is Greek-Cypriot and his family, along with 150,000 other Greeks, was displaced by the Turkish invasion. Undoubtedly this colours my perspective on the conflict. That being said, in a recent visit to the country I was surprised by just how stagnant the conflict really is.

Negotiations continue to be held up by a small number of key issues, including reparations; the return of property to Greek-Cypriots displaced in 1974; and the citizenship status of Turkish nationals who have recently immigrated to the island. In comparison to some of today’s other conflicts in South Sudan, Central Africa Republic, Syria, or Iraq, where the scope of problems appears impossibly larger, in Cyprus it seems as though a compromise should be possible. The closest peace talks have come to successfully brokering a deal was the Annan Plan, which led to a countrywide referendum on unification in 2004. Unfortunately, the conditions of the plan were perceived as biased in favour of Turkish-Cypriots, losing the Greek vote by 1:3.


Ultimately, no one is benefitting from the current state of affairs. Major development disparities exist between the South and the North, given the long-term economic isolation of the Turkish territory, and their exclusion from EU benefits. The North instead relies upon Turkey for aid money and exports, processing all transactions in the deflating Turkish lira. While the border has slowly been liberalised over the last decade, crossing into Turkish occupied Cyprus still feels like one is entering another world, with stark differences in levels of infrastructure and other development indicators.

The Republic did not escape the Euro-crisis, evidenced by the country’s economic bailout in 2013. It is estimated that a unification settlement would generate a 2.8 per cent increase in annual economic growth over twenty years, which would no doubt do much to soothe these economic woes.[1]


While I cannot speak for the North, there is still a great deal of animosity that continues to frame the conflict in the South—evidenced by common offhand remarks that the other side is ‘dangerous’, ‘filthy’, or ‘full of criminals’. However, for as many Greek-Cypriots who hold on to the injustices of the 1974 invasion, this sentiment is often paired with a competing desire for unity. I spoke with a local business owner in Nicosia who claimed he had never stepped foot on the Turkish side. While the line is barely a ten-minute walk from his home, he explained, ‘I’m not going to show my passport to go to my own country’. This moment created an interesting snapshot of the multiple dynamics at play within the Greek-Cypriot narrative of the conflict. This reaction focuses on the ‘wrongness’ of the situation, ‘of the original crime’, but it also embraces the North as a missing part of the rest of the country. Decades have past and, yet, a solution seems as complicated as ever. Bridging this gap between past wrongs and a united future will be a difficult, but necessary step if Cyprus has any hope for reconciliation.

The UN does not have a long list of peacekeeping missions that can be deemed ‘successes’, but UNFICYP has been effective in its mandate to deter inter-communal violence and provide support to minority populations on both sides of the partition. However, this is in stark contrast with the mission’s apparent inability to influence consensus and build a self-sustaining peace, freezing the conflict indefinitely. On 29 January, the UN Security Council approved another six-month extension of the mission, though the 2015 bilateral talks have already been delayed by Turkey’s continued offshore gas exploration missions in disputed Cypriot waters.

Ultimately, the UN will have to leave—hopefully in the context of a unification settlement. One thing is clear, the UN must stop bankrolling UNFICYP if the parties involved are not genuinely committed to building peace; there are far too many other places more in need of UN funding. Constructing an inclusive Cypriot national identity will not be easy, but it will be impossible while divided.


All photos courtesy of the author.