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  • Prabjot Kaur


The Cyprus problem is one of the longest-serving problems in the face of the postwar world. It is the daily reminder of the 48-year-old chronic wound that unfolded in the summer of 1974, the consequence of which, Nicosia remains the only divided capital in the world. The conflict has become an international concern owing to its length and the failure of the peacekeeping and peacemaking operations in the region to bring any consequential change in their situation. The dispute still scathes the state, and noncompliance between the two parties, who are so tied up in the politics of the past, strangles all peaceful prospects. The long-standing conflict also intensifies the claim that two ethnic communities cannot co-exist, which fits into the political agenda of the autocrats and populist leaders, bent on diluting the liberal order. Therefore, Cyprus becomes a laboratory for the international arena to understand the new global order. This article thus tries to outline the historical aspect of the conflict and later attempts to articulate the conceptual and theoretical framework explaining the causes beyond the realist discourse of “power politics” that are instrumental in increasing contention between the two sides.

Historical Background:

The strategic location of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea at the crossroads of the three continents: Europe, Africa,the and Asia, makes it a natural location of political conflict. For long, the island was inhabited by Greek population up until Ottoman Turks took over in 1571 which changed the demography of the island. Ottomans ruled the island until 1878 and the reign did not witness any overt conflict between the two communities inhabiting the island (Yilmaz, 2005). Later, as a quid pro quo, Ottomans leased Cyprus to the theBritish with a hope that theBritish would help stall Russia’s invasion. However, gaining victory in World War I, Britain unilaterally annexed Cyprus wholly in 1914, which marked the inflection point in the turbulent history of the island. Under British rule, particularly after 1931, the friction between the two communities increased and Greek Cypriots started fighting for ‘Enosis’ (political union with Greece) which was met with a strong opposition from Turkish Cypriots, who by the end of the 1950s, started demanding ‘Taksim’ (partition of the island between the two political groups). To fight for their respective aspirations, guerrilla groups were formed on both sides; EOKA (National Organization for Cypriot Combatants) for ‘enosis’ and Volkan which was later replaced by the TMT (Turkish Defense Organization) for ‘taksim’ (Yilmaz, 2005). Since the period also marks the peak of the Cold war between the two blocs; observing the spurring intercommunal violence, Britain, Greece, Turkey, and all the NATO members, in an immediate call, took a seat in Zurich to find a solution to the issue before a possible Soviet attack. The negotiating table rejected the proposal of both sides and landed on the conclusion to create an independent, free Cyprus.

Subsequently, the Republic of Cyprus came into existence in 1960 without the consent of the two communities. So, the foundation of the state itself was too weak to imagine a solid, durable Republic. As expected, shortly after the independence, insecurity brimmed up in the majority of who wanted to eliminate the extended rights of the Turkish Cypriot community. In 1963, President Makarios introduced constitutional amendments to eliminate the rights, the result of which communal infighting erupted, collapsing the state machinery followed by the establishment of the UN peacekeeping forces in 1964 (Asmussen, 2014). In 1974, the EOKA group in cahoots with the military regime governing Greece since 1967, staged a successful coup with the aim to enforce ‘enosis’ (Yilmaz, 2005). Turkey immediately retaliated and intervened militarily, justifying the action by the power vested in it as one of the three guarantor powers in the Zurich agreement. These forces seized about 38% of the island, dividing the island into two, facilitating a de facto partition, and forming a Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and Republic of Cyprus in the South governed by Greek Cypriots, which clearly went against the Zurich agreement. Since the division, efforts have been made to placate the situation. Some important ones were from former UN Secretary-General confidence-building Boutros Ghali’s “set of ideas” and “confidence-building measures” (Lindsay, 2005). As is known, the latest and the most potential efforts were made by former UN Secretary General, Kofi Secretary-General Annan with his “Annan Peace Plan” in 2004 which was hailed by both Greece and Turkey. It was due to this plan that the referendum took place in the state for the first time, which did not result well, because the majority of the Cypriots, particularly Greek Cypriots rejected the plan, bringing a halt to the peace the plan professed (Lindsay, 2005). Since then, the impasse continues, though the negotiation between the Cypriot leaders takes place intermittently.

The theoretical underpinning of the conflict is done mostly from the perspective of a single dominant cause which can overlook key issues dominating the conflict. The situation in Cyprus for now can be deemed as intractable which includes complex amalgamation of parties and causes, including the stubbornness of the leaders, loss of hope for effective resolution, outside interventions, ethnic differences, unaddressed historic grievances, wide economic gaps, inequality and failure to receive recognition. These issues might explain the conflict, but it requires a holistic approach, including both internal and external dimensions, to comprehensively understand the complexity of the conflict-ridden country. Intractable conflicts often arise in contexts of extreme power imbalance, social injustice, or structural violence, where people feel alienated and discriminated against (Coleman, 2000). Communication between the two parties became impaired and with time, non-existent. Coleman (2000) also emphasizes on the linearity of time to fathom the depth of the conflict which has an extensive past, a turbulent present, and a murky future. This becomes even more difficult to contain when the two parties had been engaged in overt conflict in the past, which lessens the prospect of befriending the former “enemy” in the future. The Principled Negotiation theory (Fischer & Ury, 1991 as cited in Lens, 2004) assumes that the negotiations, to placate a conflict, fail when the adversaries have incompatible positions and powers, and view conflict as a win-lose situation. Historically, one of the two parties (Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots) hashas been halting the negotiation process to not compromise with their dominant interests and have been demonizing the other party for the deadlock. Lastly, Realists usually consider “nation-states” and their institutions to analyze the international dynamics but fail to consider people and non-governmental organizations who play a major role in shaping the relations. The conceptual framework for the Cyprus conflict can be studied in the following ways:

Internal dimensions: The Republic of Cyprus, in 1960, was formed by outsiders without the consent of either of the groups, who had distinct identities. The ethnic conflict between the two groups was palpable enough even during the time of their independence. The lack of a common Cyprus identity between the groups laid a very weak foundation for the state which was bound to crumble and embroil within an in-group and out-group dynamic. Tajfel (1979 as cited in Pace, 2022) in “social identity” theory posits how the two groups inculcate in them the “us versus them” behavior, and if the out-group is a rival, maintaining self-esteem becomes a priority and due to the lack of trust between each other, the conflict is bound to rise. The Greek and Turkish Cypriots have long been disassociated from each other without a common Cyprus identity and forcing them to live together in one state aggravated the trust deficit prevalent between the groups. Soon after 1960, the Greek Cypriots started demanding constitutional amendments to reduce the special provisions given to the Turkish Cypriots. The identity thus turned into nationalism meant to uphold self-esteem. This nationalism led by both groups stirred and mobilized the civilians through their inflammatory speeches reinforcing mutual distrust. For instance, in 1962 President Makarios said “Enosis did not die. Unless this small Turkish community, forming a part of the Turkish race, which has been the terrible enemy of Hellenism, is expelled, the duty of the heroes of EOKA can never be considered as terminated” (Yilmaz, 2005). Then, in 1963, a popular Turkish Cypriot newspaper wrote “Whether the Greeks want or not, Cyprus will one day be partitioned and then they will realize who is really dreaming” (Yilmaz, 2005). Thus, the unwillingness and mistakes of the leaders and elites from both groups can also be one of the reasons for exacerbating the whole situation. Whenever the official talks under the UN auspices fail to reach a consensus, each party takes no time to blame the other for its “intransigence”. The proponents of essentialism critically analyze the “historic hatred” to explain the present conflicting situation claiming that the ‘enemy remains the same through ages.’ This can be well understood in the context of the long-held enmity and acrimony between the two groups since the 1821 Greek revolution against the Ottoman empire which has laid in the state, today.

External Dimensions: Cyprus has been ruled by many outsiders, but the roots of the conflict arise from the colonial period of the British who used the “divide and rule” policy to subside the infuriated EOKA group of Greek Cypriots (who were fighting against the colonialism), using Turkish Cypriots. The colonials acting as an external actor, sowed the seeds of contention, exacerbated the feeling of mistrust and fear between the groups for their convenience, which culminated into the partition of Cyprus just like India’s. Also, Cyprus is a state whose conflict isn’t limited to the nationalism of the two Cypriot groups but also extends to the nationalism operating in Greece and Turkey. The leaders of both the countries stoked the fire by adding their past grievances to the Cyprus problem. Brown (1996 as cited in Stedman, 1999, p.7) lumps large bundles of external contributions to the internal conflict under the rubric “bad neighbors” who continue to inflame the crisis to stay in the domestic dispute as long as it suits their “interests”.

Extended dimensions: Both the Greek and Turkish Cypriots hinge upon their respective ‘motherlands’ to define their identity, social structure, interests, etc. Even post-independence, both the groups were loyal more to their ‘motherlands’ than to Cyprus and its national flag or symbols. So, the primordial relationship that binds the ethnic groups with a sense of togetherness is prevalent in the two communities. So, the children born today in Southern Cyprus learn that Cyprus was always Greek, whereas children in Northern Cyprus grow up learning that the island was always Turkish. The expansionist and interventionist policies of both Turkey and Greece also largely contributed to the conflict. Greece’s support for EOKA which launched a coup in the island to oust Makarios and change the power seat; and Turkey’s retaliation to it with the island’s invasion to “restore the constitutional order” worsened the conflict.

Due to the dominance of realism which put greater emphasis on power-politics in understanding the global dynamic, the internal and contextual causes are largely downplayed in understanding the Cyprus problem. The causes that explain the context of the conflict are largely drawn from the ethnic differences, socio-economic disparity and lack of communication. The psychological aspects of the conflict, like misconception, prejudices, historic grievances and stereotypes also dominate the causal ladder of the conflict. The claim by the leaders and elites of both the Cypriot communities, that two groups which are ethnically different cannot live together, corroborate Huntington’s (1993) hypothesis in the “Clash of civilizations” that ethnic and religious differences are the root cause of the conflict. Another factor of socio-economic inequality also contributes to the conflict. The Turkish Cypriots largely bore the brunt of the conflicting phase of 1963-1974 and had to live in enclaves on their own. Later in 1983, after the declaration of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the international community isolated the state and initiated their engagement only with the recognized ‘Greece’ side of Cyprus, facilitating to the increase in GNP of its citizens which is three times higher than that of Turkish Cypriots. Thus, Greek Cypriots consider Turkish Cypriots to be poor, backward, under-developed, lazy and who cannot co-exist with Greek Cypriots. Thirdly, when the air of the conflicting region is filled with mistrust and fear, communication becomes the only way to condense it and to revive trust. One of the obvious reasons for the misconceptions and misperceptions to prevail across the borders within the two communities is because of the lack of communication and contact. Recently, Turkish Cypriots condemned international institutions like the UNSC who did not communicate with Turkish Cypriots and who failed to obtain their consent for extending the peacekeeping forces till January 2023 (TRT World, 2022). Increasing engagement within the communities under the auspices of international institutions might facilitate in tailing off the mistrust and fear for each other.

Other social causes include the education system prevalent within both the communities which promote nationalist narratives, which are reproduced to indoctrinate generations into believing their respective ideas and objectives. Foucault (1980, as cited in Hewett, 2004) reveals how fields of power and corpuses of knowledge are inseparable and how meticulously woven epistemology by the elites who wield power can control “truth”; Greek and Turkish Cypriots are generating truth through knowledge formations for their population. Till date, both the communities celebrate their own “days” and events in schools and have never witnessed any joint celebrations since the Zurich agreement mandated different schools for both the communities (“Cyprus 1960”). The schools even use the symbols and flags of their respective “motherlands” inculcating in children from the beginning, the loyalty towards those “motherlands”, while discounting the Cyprus identity. Hence, the narrative of the selective past and antagonistic feelings emerging out of it towards the other community is the driving force behind the continued belief of terming the “other/them” as the “enemy” which is now largely the part of their socialization. The learning objective of history formed by the states is to generate and instill national spirit and sensitize students on national ideals, to develop in them a sense of patriotism and to strengthen national identity and integration as the people at the helm of the power want (Ali, 1963; Hill 1956; Suparno, 1995 as cited in Subaryana 2012, p. 50). Thus, there is a significant impact of formal and informal education in compounding the crisis. In addition to the education system, ethnic differences and citizenship based on ethnicity were institutionalized in the 1960 Constitution which formed the basis for the inherent structure of mistrust between both the communities.

Though, the Conflict problem is intractable and has been protracted till the date, there is still room for the external actors to play their role in mitigating the tensions. No third party involved in the conflict simply means that finding the solution is difficult or nearly impossible. This is usually because there are no neutral mediators who have vested interests in putting a halt to the conflict (Mack & Snyder, 1957). External actors are usually required to make both the parties realize and perceive the cost of engaging in conflict. In the case of Cyprus, the European Union can become one such actor who might be instrumental in simmering down the crisis. Solving the Cyprus problem would revive the body’s legitimacy in the region after a series of challenges like the Brexit, the Ukraine war, refugee crisis, etc. Secondly, reunification of the island would improve the EU-Turkey relations and would aid the EU in solving the refugee crisis with Turkey, stemming their flow in exchange of financial aid. Cyprus is the only EU member state who is not a member of NATO. It would also benefit from the reunification of the island due to its strategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Peace in Cyprus would stall the Turkish-Greece rivalry, reduce unpredictability and volatility in the region which has been affecting its southern flank since the cold war. Finally, and most importantly, the abundant energy resources in the island might incentivize the two communities to consider placating the situation. In the Aphrodite gas fields, Cyprus has large gas reserves, which can reduce the region’s dependence on Russia’s oil and gas and would also increase the economy of the island. The deep tensions between Cyprus, Greek and Turkey are impediments against constructing a pipeline and tapping the full benefits of the treasure the island holds.

It's still to see if the external actors can help both the communities reconcile and provide them a ground where they can think of co-existing. But a peaceful reunification of the island is possible, and it would be beneficial not only for the island, but for the entire region as well. However, the pace with which the actors are maneuvering to pacify the situation might lose the chance to reunify the two communities who have come the closest to negotiating in this decade. The actors need to remain active and neutral in the negotiation process and make certain that both the communities compromise on the contentious issues. The EU can use its financial power as a soft power to lure both the parties, particularly the impoverished Northern Cyprus to cut through the stalemate. Thus, this is a ripe moment for the EU and other international institutions to play a major role in reunifying the island and ending one of the longest conflicts when both the communities are relatively detached from their “motherlands”.


1. Asmussen, J. (2014). United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Oxford Academic.

2. Cyprus 1960 (Rev 2013). (n.d.). Constitute.

3. Hewett, M. A. (2004). Michel Foucault : power/knowledge and epistemological prescriptions. CORE.

4. Huntington, S. P. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 72(3), 22–49.

5. Lindsay, J. K. (2005). From U Thant to Kofi Annan: UN Peacemaking in Cyprus, 1964-2004. Academia.

6. Mack, R., & Snyder, R. (1957). The analysis of social conflict—toward an overview and synthesis. Sage Journals.

7. Pace, T. (2022). Us vs. Them: Social Identity Theory . Arcadia.

8. Stedman, S. (1999). International Actors and Internal Conflicts . Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

9. Subaryana. (2012). The impact of history learning to nationalism and patriotism attitudes in the globalization era. International Journal of History Education.

10. The UN ‘is the problem’ when it comes to resolving Cyprus conflict. (2022). TRT World.


Cover Image Credits: Birol Bebek

About the author: Prabjot is pursuing MA DLB and her area of interest lies in “Migration Studies” and “Peace Resolution and Conflict Management” particularly in Middle East and South Asia. Her dissertation is focused on the nexus between migration culture and education mobility in the Punjab. She has previously worked in think tanks based in Nepal and Chennai.

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