Varosha is an abandoned neighbourhood of the city of Famagusta on the island-nation of Cyprus which the Turkish Cypriot government plans to partially repopulate. While on the surface it would seem like a relatively uncontroversial decision, the plan was condemned by the UN Security Council with a unanimous vote. The problem is that Varosha is on the border between the Greek and Turkish halves of the island, and an influx of Turks into the historically Greek neighbourhood could inflame ethnic tensions.
The situation in Varosha is representative of the greater issues with the territorial separation that has been in place across the island of Cyprus for fifty years, and continued Turkish-Greek tensions in the eastern Mediterranean. After years of tension, violence broke out in 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus to stop the island from uniting with Greece after a military coup in Greece ushered in new leaders who wished to do so. After a ceasefire was reached, a UN buffer zone was set up to separate Cyprus into north and south. In doing so, a new unrecognised state was formed in the northern part of Cyprus occupied by Turkish forces – the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
This separation has been maintained for 50 years with seemingly no end in sight. Previous reunification (between the two Cypriot halves) attempts have all failed, despite some support from the governments and residents of both sides. What are some of the barriers to reaching a solution?
Conflicting Interests: Why Reunification Talks Have Failed
In 2014, a poll found that Turkish Cypriots largely favoured a federal Cyprus composed of individual governments for the Turkish and Greek Cypriots. On the other hand, the Greek Cypriots favoured a full unitary state. This highlights the conflicting interests between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Northern Cyprus’ economy is suffering due to its lack of international recognition, while Greek Cypriots enjoy the economic benefits of being in the EU and face no significant international backlash from the Cypriot split.
Thus, for the Greek Cypriot government, reunification brings no benefits other than having a bigger nation. If a reunification plan comes with certain conditions, such as creating a federal state, the Greek Cypriot people may feel that the harms of reunification outweigh the benefits. To create a plan that truly works for every Cypriot, the needs and concerns of everyone need to be addressed.
Proxy for Greece-Turkey Tensions
Cyprus has long been a sore spot in EU-Turkey relations and is a roadblock for Turkey’s accession to the EU. The division between north and south is also not economically beneficial to the Cypriot people, and the residents of Northern Cyprus have experienced difficulties due to the lack of recognition their government has. Thus, there is support from both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots for reunification. However, recently, Turkish and Turkish Cypriot leaders have taken a stronger stance against Cypriot reunification, largely due to increasing Greece-Turkey tensions.
Fundamentally, Cyprus’ split is based on ethnic divisions between Greece and Turkey, which means that the two nations have historically been, and are still involved in Cypriot affairs. Unfortunately, Greece-Turkey relations have historically been rough, which hinders any progress on reunification.
In contrast, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have historically coexisted peacefully, showing that a peaceful solution to the Cypriot dispute is possible. Many of the differences between the two ethnic groups were exacerbated and used as a political tool by Cyprus’ historical Ottoman and British overlords. The Turkish Cypriot identity, in particular, grew more separate from the overall Cypriot identity due to increased migration from Turkey, especially after an increase in Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, and the threat of Cypriot enosis (unification) with Greece.
Satisfying Both Sides
Another reason why reunification talks have failed is that a unified Cyprus must meet the demands of both sides, which can sometimes be conflicting. The Northern Cypriots have demanded that they be treated and recognised equally as their Greek Cypriot counterparts before continuing negotiations. Meanwhile, the Greek Cypriots have also listed a reduction of Turkey’s presence in Northern Cyprus as a prerequisite to reunification talks.
To satisfy everyone in this regard, there will need to be concessions made from both sides. However, the Turkish Cypriots have been hesitant to compromise, and as of now, a stalemate has been reached between the Cypriots. The UN, which has been moderating the reunification talks, may be the key to breaking this stalemate. Aside from mediating these talks, the UN has had a history of peacekeeping in Cyprus, adding to the credibility of the UN for the Cypriot people. Thus, if both sides can agree to a compromise that is enforced by the UN, there may be hope for real, tangible change to be implemented.
The demographics of Cyprus are changing, especially in Northern Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots are leaving to find better work in other nations and being replaced with mainland Turks who are encouraged to settle on Cyprus by the Turkish government in Ankara. In addition, Cypriots of both Greek and Turkish descent were relocated to their respective halves of the island in the wake of the 1974 Turkish invasion, which makes each half of Cyprus much more ethnically homogenous (as proof of this, the internationally recognised government’s territory is 98.8% Greek-speaking). This relocation came with the seizure of Greek Cypriot-owned property in the North, which continues to be a point of tension between the Cypriot governments to this day.
Two major policies can help remedy this ethnic divide in Cyprus: first, the return of Greek Cypriot properties in Northern Cyprus to their original owners or their descendants where possible, and second, the complete abolition of border checkpoints between the two Cypriot areas, allowing for free passage throughout Cyprus.
Reaching a Compromise
Cyprus has been split into two halves for 50 years, with Greek Cypriots on one side and Turkish Cypriots on the other. Despite efforts from the UN, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriots, reunification talks have failed repeatedly. Public opinion is turning against reunification in favour of a two-state solution. More worryingly, Greece-Turkey relations are strongly tied to Cypriot tensions, which complicates the situation and holds back any potential progress on reunification. To find a solution that works for both sides, the needs and will of the people of Cyprus need to be prioritised, as well as the potential geopolitical consequences of said solution. The current situation on the island, which was intended as a compromise, is not ideal and benefits nobody.