The Story of Cyprus

Here is the story of Cyprus, as told by two men: Turgay, our Turkish Cypriot tour guide, and Erol, a half Brit-half Cypriot representative from the EU.


For one hundred years, Cyprus was under Great Britain’s supervision. From 1878 to 1960, the British were running the show. This is why we have roads like this (cars drive on the left).

Everyone lived together, Greeks and Turks and Brits. When Cyprus gained independence, it was like a marriage between the Greek part and the Turkish part. But, the marriage only lasted three years – and like all marriages, whenever there is a fight between husband and wife (Editor’s note, I’m not sure who is the husband and who is the wife in this metaphor), everyone runs crying to their mother.

And so the Greeks ran to Athens and the Turks to Ankara, and these mothers told their children, “I will find you a nice new boy.” (Editor’s note: Does this make both parties women? Does this mean the husband is exploring his sexuality and looking for a nice new boy? Either way, I appreciate the progressive nature of the metaphor)

No one could even agree about what type of coffee they were drinking. Was it Turkish coffee, or Greek coffee? Who knows! The two leaders were trying to figure it out (Editor’s note: “it” being both the coffee conundrum and political situation), but each side had different expectations. There was a referendum, but only one side said yes to rejoining the country, so the two halves did not join again.


Cyprus is a country that was occupied for a thousand years: four hundred by the French; one hundred by the Venetians; four hundred by the Ottomans; and one hundred by the British. In 1960, Great Britain left the island to govern itself, and a system of shared power between the Greek-speaking and Turkish-speaking communities was established. This broke down in 1963 when the Greek Cypriot president passed thirteen amendments to the constitution that threatened the integrity of the Turkish Cypriot minority. Years of violence followed, and communities that had once lived together peacefully were slowly broken down – Turkish Cypriots left their homes to form enclaves in the north.

In 1974, the Turkish military….did something. The verbiage here is tricky:

Turks say they “liberated” Northern Cyprus. Greeks say the Turks “invaded.” A more neutral word choice: the Turkish government “intervened.”

Anyway, the Turkish government intervened and gained control of the northern part of the island, up to the “Green Line,” the ceasefire line from 1974 (it’s thought to have been drawn by the British, implying they intended for the island to be divided the whole time).

The UN challenged the legality of Turkey’s interference, but in the end, Turkey’s actions created a de facto partition of Cyprus. Despite everyone’s accepting this de facto separate political entity, the UN only recognizes the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.

The need to come up with a “solution” has defined relations between Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, and the EU since the 1970s. The European Union originally called for a solution as a pre-requisite for the Greek and Cypriot accession process, but in 2000 it changed its position and promised membership to Cyprus regardless of a solution. (A solution doesn’t just mean reunification under Greek Cypriot control, though. It could mean unification under Turkish Cypriot control; official recognition of the TRNC; or even Greek or Turkish annexation of the island entirely.) In 2004, both sides voted on a two-part referendum to rejoin the island under one government and to join the European Union. Turkish Cypriots accepted the referendum, while Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly voted against it. In spite of the vote, Cyprus became an EU member – the Greek Cypriots who voted against the solution gained all the benefits of EU membership, while the Turkish Cypriots who agreed to a solution were left in limbo.

Spain and Portugal were welcomed into the EU at the same time for a reason – because if one gained membership before the other, it would have used veto power to permanently block the other’s membership. It was foolish of the EU to bring Greece and then Cyprus into the EU before Turkey, because essentially Greece and Cyprus will now be able to block Turkish membership indefinitely.

As a Brit, it’s hard to look at this situation and understand why it is impossible for those involved to address the problem with impartiality. In the UK, a legal case between a Scot and a Brit would never be so politicized. Here, though, it seems impossible for courts and decision-makers to approach a solution without ethnic bias.

Claims that hatred between ethnic groups is deep-seated and has always defined relations between Greeks and Turks fall short when you look at how older people in Cyprus speak three languages fluently: English, Greek, and Turkish. Everyone lived together, with no care one way or the other about religion or mother tongue. Young people of today generally speak poor English and only know the language of their half of the island.

The ethnic bias seems even more absurd, though, when you consider that DNA tests show Cypriots to be genetically closer to Italians than to Turks or Greeks, at least according to Erol.


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