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Cyprus: Greece-Türkiye Relations and Reunification

Lachlan Forster | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

"The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus flag on the hillside above Taskent, North Cyprus." Image credit A. Savin via Wikimedia Commons.


Ethnic divisions within a country’s population hold the potential to permanently divide states, and have manifested in eruptions of violence, civil war, secession and, in extreme cases, genocide. Cyprus continues to be a victim of a polarised society separated along ethnic lines. It has been divided between two political entities since 1974: the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus and the disputed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

 

Behind the nearly fifty-year Cyprus divide are turbulent bilateral relations between Greece and Türkiye. Both countries stand as the primary supporters of the two states operating on the island, and the most likely to sponsor any agreement that could bring about a reunification process, respectively. Yet although Cyprus is an independent nation, the cultural and political ties that Greek and Turkish Cypriots assert play a major role in keeping the population divided and preventing an effective reunification process.

 

The Divide

 

Following Cyprus’ independence from the British Empire in 1960, the nation experienced continuous outbreaks of inter-communal violence. The country’s new constitution upheld a delicate balancing act of protecting the minority rights of Turkish Cypriots whilst still retaining ‘one-person, one-vote’ democratic principles, which benefited the island’s 81 per cent Greek Cypriot population.

 

Although action was taken to ensure Turkish Cypriots had prominent voices representing their cause, many of the Turkish minority were threatened by the prospect of Enosis, a popular political position advocating for Cyprus’ unification with Greece. This tension created a backlash in the form of Taksim, the advocacy for a seperate Turkish Cypriot state in the island’s north, which gained traction amongst Turkish nationalists.

 

This unrest came to a head in 1974 when Greek Cypriot military personnel, with the backing of Greece’s government, undertook a coup d’état on July 15. Turkey’s military responded by invading on July 20, occupying 36 per cent of Northern Cyprus before a ceasefire agreement was reached in August. A stalemate stewed for a decade as negotiations for a peaceful settlement were held. However, the Turkish occupied North would eventually declare independence in 1983 as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with only Türkiye recognising the state to date.

 

Reunification efforts

 

Since 1983, negotiations for reunification have taken place to varying degrees of effectiveness, but no single deal has satisfied all parties. A relatively strong movement in the Turkish Cypriot population has called for a ‘two state solution’, which would recognise the North as an independent country. However, the conditions of the Turkish Republic’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence have made recognition a near impossible feat to achieve. Not only was the declaration illegal under international law due to the involvement of the Turkish military, but other international actors which have struggled against internal secessionist movements are not interested in legitimising a nation which split from its original state in such a controversial manner.

 

Cyprus’ ascension to European Union membership in 1997 gave the internationally recognised Republic access to economic and development programs, whilst also reasserting Europe’s position that it recognised Cyprus as one singular state. However, the perks of EU membership have not applied to the North. The Turkish Republic’s economy has stagnated due to a lack of international engagement, aside from Türkiye. Many Turkish Cypriots cross the UN monitored buffer zone between the two states each day for work, and after decades of financial isolation and no guarantee of EU membership, the prospect of a hypothetical two-state solution would be economically detrimental for citizens of the North.

 

The turbulent bilateral relations between Greece and Türkiye have further fuelled the stagnation in reunification efforts. As the only country in the world who recognises the Turkish Republic, Türkiye holds the power to encourage the North to hold talks and come to an agreement with the South. However, Turkish politicians see stoking ethnic skepticism as a way to undermine Greece’s soft power in the Mediterranean.

 

Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetoric on the Cyprus question has altered in line with rise and fall of Greek-Turkish ties. In response to a build-up of Greece’s navy in the Aegean Sea in late 2022, Erdogan warned the neighbouring state that Turkish missiles had the capacity to “reach Athens” and followed with a policy shift regarding Cyprus by asserting that “a federal solution is not possible”. However, as ties with Greece have slowly improved in late 2023, Erdogan has signalled that negotiations are still on the table, demonstrating the capricious nature of Türkiye’s stance.

 

The Path Forward

 

Positive ties between Greece and Türkiye are crucial for a successful reunification effort on Cyprus. The heightened ethnic divide across the islands’ population stems from a belief that Greeks and Turks need to be sceptical of each other, as their two nations are destined to be diametrically opposed. Nationalist politicians in both countries have drawn upon this belief for political gain, weaponising cultural differences and historical injustices to halt strengthening ties between the two states.

 

Cyprus is a cultural melting pot in a historically rich region, but its geographical closeness to Türkiye has historically threatened Greek Cypriots. Fearing isolation from their ancestral homeland, Greek nationalism has been weaponised by the Southern Republic in order to retain the island’s ‘Greek ties’, to the detriment of Turkish Cypriots. A steady and consistent relationship of collaboration between Greece and Türkiye would help undermine these fears and demonstrate to Cypriot citizens that a harmonious, diverse and united society is possible to build.

 

A united Cyprus is the only viable solution to secure a steady economic and social future for the Turkish Cypriot population. For this outcome to be possible it is necessary for Greece and Türkiye to engage with authorities on the island to find a settlement that all parties can agree to. It is difficult to say whether this scenario will materialise in the near future, as Greece-Türkiye relations are subject to reactionary changes in circumstances. But the building of trust between Cyprus’ ethnic populations is crucial to creating stable conditions for reunification, and this task lies in the hands of the two neighbouring nations.



Lachlan Forster is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


A student of international Relations and History at the University of Melbourne, Lachlan is currently in Malaysia on a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholarship. He is a contributing writer with the Young Diplomats Society and Asia in Review, and has also been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Undergraduate Journal of History, and Farrago.

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