Nicosia is the capital of an island that sits at the crossroads of three continents, close to North Africa (Egypt), the Middle East (Syria) and Europe (Greece). And likewise its history has been shaped by three great empires: the Byzantium, Ottoman and British empires all left lasting legacies on Cyprus, including religious and nationalist divisions that played out mainly between Cypriots of Greek and Turkish descent. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus on the pretext of protecting the Turkish Cypriots minority on the island, and as a response to a Greek-Cypriot proposal of unification with Greece (called enosis). Some 180,000 Greek-Cypriots were forcibly expelled or fled from their homes. In the non-Turkish controlled parts of the island, some 50,000 Turkish-Cypriots fled in the opposite direction. Fighting was widespread and eventually the island was divided into separate Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot sections. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – set up by unilateral declaration in 1983 – is recognised only by Turkey, and the territory is heavily financially dependent on Turkey. In contrast, the Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognised as encompassing all of the island, and was admitted to the European Union in 2004. Among the costs of the war and subsequent division of the island is the large number of Cypriots from both sides who fled the country after losing their homes and possessions. It is estimated that in the UK alone there are over 200,000 Greek-Cypriot immigrants and 100,000 Turkish-Cypriot immigrants. Numerous efforts to reunite Cyprus have failed, though in recent years both sides have pursued confidence-building measures. For example, in 2003 restrictions on the crossings between the two parts of the island were lifted, and in 2007 some barricades dividing the Greek and Turkish sides within the city of Nicosia were demolished.
Cyprus is an island in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean, at a distance of 300 km north of Egypt, 90 km west of Syria, 360 km from Greece, and 60 km south of Turkey; hence at the crossroads of three continents, geographically speaking. The population of Cyprus is estimated at 796,000 — approximately 77 percent Greek Cypriot, 18 percent Turkish Cypriot, and 5 percent “other.” Religious affiliation follows similar patterns between Greek Orthodox and Muslim.
Cypriot history revolves around three empires — the Byzantine Empire for almost nine centuries after the division of the Roman Empire in 285 AD that moulded Greek Cypriot culture and created the basis of a lasting Greek Orthodox Christian identity; the Ottoman Empire for three centuries, beginning in 1571 that brought Turkish migrants to the island who were governed with their Greek neighbours by the Ottomans; and the British Empire.
The Greek War of Liberation of 1821 also had its repercussions on the situation in Cyprus. Politically, the concept of enosis — unification with the Greek “motherland” —became important to literate Greek Cypriots after Greece gained its independence from the Ottomans in 1829. Many Greek Cypriots had supported the Greek independence effort that began in 1821, leading to severe reprisals by the Ottoman Empire.
In 1878, three centuries of Ottoman administration came to an end, when the British Empire took possession of the island and annexed it in 1914. Government was devolved along ethnic lines. The religious divide was reinforced by nationalist ideologies emanating from Europe, which created the basis for two distinct nationalities with different loyalties. In 1923, under the Treaty of Lausanne, the nascent Turkish republic relinquished any claim to Cyprus.
In 1955, Greek Cypriots began a guerrilla war against British rule and for unification with Greece. Turkish Cypriots opposed enosis and demanded either unification with Turkey or partition. In 1960, Cyprus gained independence after Greek and Turkish communities reached a compromise agreement on a constitution that required power sharing.
The Constitution of Cyprus originally provided for shared governmental powers between the island’s Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities. It divided the Nicosia Municipality into Greek and Turkish sectors with a mayor for each sector and two sets of city councillors. But deep divisions and mistrust between the two groups led to violent clashes in 1963-1964 and 1967. Tensions between the Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority came to a head in December 1963, when violence broke out in the capital of Nicosia. Turkish Cypriots stopped participating in the government. In 1964 when it appeared that Turkey might invade Cyprus on the pretext of its right to protect the minority Turkish Cypriot community, the government brought the matter before the UN. The UN established, with the consent of the government, the UN Peacekeeping Force on Cyprus (UNFICYP), whose original mandate was “to use its best efforts to prevent a recurrence of fighting and, as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions.”
On 20 July 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus. The pretext was a coup against President Makarios on July 15, instigated by the military junta of Greece, which was intent on establishing enosis. Turkey responded with an invasion, on the pretext of protecting Turkish Cypriots and occupied 36 percent of the sovereign territory of Cyprus. Some 180,000 Greek Cypriots were forcibly expelled from or fled their homes. In the non-Turkish controlled part of the island, some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots fled in the opposite direction. The UN and the all other institutions of the international community condemned Turkey’s actions. After widespread fighting, a cease-fire was declared in August, and the island became divided into separate Greek and Turkish Cypriot sections. But again, despite international pressure, Turkey refused to withdraw.
In 1983, Turkish Cypriots made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), in the face of international condemnation, and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in their area. The TRNC is recognized only by Turkey. The naming and recognition of the TRNC is a controversial issue among Greek Cypriots, and use the term “so-called TRNC”. Others will use the term “self-declared”. The EU uses the phrase “areas not under the effective control of the republic of Cyprus”. In 2008, approximately 40,000 Turkish army troops were stationed in the Turkish Cypriot part of Cyrus. The Turkish Cypriots are heavily dependent on transfers from the Turkish Government. Ankara directly finances around one-third of the TRNC’s budget.
The Republic of Cyprus, internationally recognised as encompassing all of Cyprus, is unable to exercise its mandate in the area of Cyprus under the control of Turkish Cypriots backed by Ankara. Only Turkey does not recognise the republic of Cyprus as the legal government of the entire island. And only Turkey recognises only the northern section as an independent country.
Divided Nicosia (called Lefkosia by the Greek Cypriots and called Lefkosha by Turkish Cypriots) is the capital in both sections. Today, in that part of Nicosia under effective control of the republic of Cyprus, the Greek Cypriot population is 280,000 while the area of Nicosia on the northern side of the UN buffer zone has a population of about 85,000 Turkish Cypriots.
Many Cypriots, who lost their homes and possessions during the decades of conflict, emigrated. In the UK alone, there are estimated today over 200,000 Greek Cypriot emigrants and 100,000 Turkish Cypriots. It is estimated that perhaps 100,000 Turkish settlers have settled in the self-declared TRNC. Of the 20,000 Greek Cypriots, who remained in the TRNC area, fewer than 500 remain.
Numerous efforts have been made to bring about the reunification of Cyprus; all have failed. The right of displaced owners to their properties has been confirmed by the European Commission on Human Rights (ECHR).
The Republic of Cyprus was admitted to the EU on 1 May 2004, officially representing the entire island. However, the acquis communautaire (the European body of law) does not apply in the northern part of the island. Turkish Cypriots have or can obtain citizenship of the Republic of Cyprus, which entitles them to travel and work in Europe. However, the northern part of the island cannot initiate direct trade and flights to third countries.
Turkey’s membership application to the European Union, somewhat in limbo at present, is also predicated on the island’s unification.
In recent years, both sides have pursued confidence-building measures toward that end. In 2003, restrictions on the crossings between the two parts of the island were lifted and in March 2007, the barricade structures on Ledra Street in Nicosia were demolished in an effort to facilitate the eight crossing points along the UN ceasefire line. More recently, Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders launched intensive negotiations aimed at ending the division of the island.