What if I told you that there was a part of the European Union that is, according to international law, illegally occupied by an outside country and has been for close to half a century? Well, there is, and that territory is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, officially recognized as a state by only one country, Turkey, and by everyone else as a legal part of the Republic of Cyprus, a member of the EU. Today, the two Cypruses live apart from each other – one side Greek, the other side Turkish, with a United Nations buffer zone between them to prevent any conflicts.
But why is Cyprus split in two parts? What led to this division, and more importantly, what could fix it? This is the story of Cyprus, an island divided by an age-old rivalry.
A Long History
The story of Cyprus is really a story about its larger neighbors, Greece and Turkey. Now, these two countries have a long history between each other, most of it being antagonistic and, in some cases, horrific. We’re going to give you an overview of most of it, but we’re probably going to gloss over a few details. Just be aware that while this is a summary, it’s by no means an exhaustive one. And also, it’s gonna be a long video. So – history time.
In the Middle Ages, the island of Cyprus was largely controlled by the Greek (or Roman, depending on who you ask) Byzantine Empire. But it was around the 11th Century that a new force began to establish itself in the Eastern Mediterranean – the Turks. The Turkish people of today originate from central Asia, in the territories that today make up Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, all the ‘stans, basically. But this land was nomad land, and nomads don’t tend to stay in one place. They’re also, as it turns out, good at winning wars. One group of Turks who were very good at winning wars were the Seljuks, that is to say, the Seljuk Empire. Named after a dynasty founded by, guess who, a guy named Seljuk, this group conquered Persia from the Ghaznavid Empire in 1040 and established themselves as a powerful force in the region. The Ghaznavids, by the way, were also Turks; it’s just Turks all the way down.
Anyway, the Seljuks started budging up against the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire, in a region known as Anatolia. This budding rivalry culminated in the Seljuks invading the Byzantine Empire in 1068, followed by the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. This battle was a decisive victory for the Seljuks, who were led by a serious badass named Alp Arslan. The Byzantine emperor at the time, Romanos IV, was captured and humiliated by Arslan, and the Seljuks proceeded to annex almost all of what is today Turkey.
To add insult to injury, the new state that was carved out of the Byzantine territory was officially named the “Sultanate of Rum”, or “Rome”, just to flex on the Byzantine emperors for calling themselves Romans. It’s the kind of petty needling paired with bloody, violent conflict that would come to typify relations between the Greeks and the Turks until… now, basically.
After the Seljuk invasion, hundreds of thousands of Turks migrated from central Asia into the former eastern territories of the Byzantine empire, building up settlements and creating communities. This was the start of the Turkification of Anatolia, where the demographics of the region gradually changed from a hodge-podge of Greek, Armenian, and many smaller ethnic communities, to predominantly Turkish. But the Seljuk Empire then entered into a period of instability, instigated by the death of Alp Arslan. His death, by the way, was one for the history books – a prisoner rushed him with a knife, but he told his guards to stand down and whipped out his bow to bring down the assailant himself. He then proceeded to pull the old Ramsay Bolton and missed every shot, and the prisoner proceeded to stab him in the chest, a wound which would kill him four days later.
Arslan’s death basically doomed his empire to power struggles between warlords, and eventually the Seljuk empire collapsed. The Sultanate of Rum lasted slightly longer, but it too would collapse sometime in the 1300s. This created a collection of local Turkish warlord states in the region, one of which was ruled by a family called the House of Osman. If that doesn’t sound familiar, the name is often anglicized to Ottoman. Ominous music, shocked faces.
Istanbul, Not Constantinople
The Ottomans proceeded to conquer their way to one of the largest empires in the world, holding territory from Eastern Europe (including Greece) to the Arabian Peninsula. One of those territories was the island of Cyprus, conquered in 1570 after a war with its previous controller, Venice. The same Turkification process that had taken place in Anatolia now started in Cyprus, albeit on a much smaller scale. Nevertheless, by the time the island was leased to the British Empire in 1878, Cyprus possessed a large Turkish minority.
Then, of course, there is World War I. This was another pivotal moment, with massive developments taking place in the span of just a few years. To start with, the Ottomans undertook the Armenian Genocide, of which there were a great deal of Greek victims included. Then, following the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, with the new state of Turkey taking its place.
If you look at the borders of Turkey today, they were never actually intended by the Allies to look like that. France and Britain had carved up the former Ottoman territories between them, and Anatolia was going to be divided in much the same way, with Greece in particular gaining a large amount of land. But Turkey didn’t like the sound of that, and there was a war with Turkey on one side and France, Britain, Italy, and Greece on the other. The majority of the fighting was between Greece and Turkey, since WWI had just ended and the other countries were sick of all the war.
Long story short, Turkey won, and the fervent nationalist Mustafa Kemal Pasha, later called Atatürk for “Father of the Turks”, decided that the large Greek minority in Turkey would only ever serve as a pretext for Greece to claim Turkish lands, and so, he decided he was going to remove that pretext. In 1923, Turkey pressed Greece to sign an agreement to exchange their respective Greek and Turkish minorities between each other. More than 1.5 million people, often against their will, were forcibly deported from one country to the other. This would be the last major event between Greece and Turkey until the Cyprus affair, decades later.
So, to recap – the Greeks and the Turks have often fought with each other throughout their history, the land that they both occupy has variously belonged to communities of either ethnicity, and there have often been atrocities committed by both against populations of the other. So, yes, a very complicated relationship if ever there was one. But don’t get too comfortable, because it’s about to get even more complicated, if you can believe that.
In 1960, the island of Cyprus was granted formal independence, with full sovereign control over its territory. You know, except for the two British naval bases that they decided to just keep. Oh well, good enough for now.
But when it became independent, the government of Cyprus had a problem. Ethnically, it was primarily Greek, but as mentioned before, it still had a sizeable Turkish minority: just under one-fifth of the total population. Given all the history between Greeks and Turks that we just explained, it shouldn’t be hard to understand why this made everyone a bit nervous.
To try and solve this problem before it began, agreements were drawn up in London and Zürich, which were imaginatively named the London and Zürich Agreements. Britain, Turkey, Greece, and both communities of Cyprus were all consulted, and their solution was a government explicitly based on ethnicity: rather than try to paper over the divisions, they instead leaned into them in the hopes of finding a compromise that would work. So, here’s what they came up with.
The President was to be a Greek Cypriot, elected by Greek Cypriots, and the Vice President was to be a Turkish Cypriot, elected by Turkish Cypriots. In the elected legislature, both communities would elect their own representatives, and the legislature had no power to modify the so-called “basic articles” of the constitution; modifying non-basic articles required a two-thirds majority from both the Greek and Turkish representatives. Furthermore, modifying electoral or fiscal laws required majorities from representatives of both communities, and government posts and public offices were allocated by ethnic quotas for the Turkish Cypriot minority. Lastly, a clause was inserted in Cyprus’ constitution that gave Britain, Greece, and Turkey the right to intervene militarily in Cyprus if this arrangement was ever under threat for any reason. Remember that one, because it becomes important later.
Now, if you’re thinking, “Simon, this is the worst idea for a government I’ve ever heard and it will never work,” you’re absolutely right, viewer – it didn’t work. To cut a long story short, this compromise failed, and the two communities found themselves at an impasse. The Greek Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III, proposed some revisions to the constitution that, had they gone through, would have been favorable to the Greek Cypriot majority. These changes were roundly rejected by Turkish Cypriots and, of course, Turkey.
That’s another problem that we haven’t talked about yet. Despite both of them agreeing to the earlier London and Zürich Agreements, Greece and Turkey almost immediately started playing a chess game with each other in Cyprus, influencing their respective factions on the island. Greece’s ultimate aim, as well as that of many Greek Cypriots, was to achieve Enosis, or the union of majority-Greek Cyprus with Greece. Turkey, as well as the Turkish Cypriots, didn’t want that, favoring either the status quo or what was called Taksim, the partition of the island between Greeks and Turks, because they didn’t trust either the Greek or Cypriot government to respect the rights of the Turkish minority.
The bottom line is that Cyprus was in an impossible situation. Favoring one side would anger the other, and trying to stay neutral would anger everyone. In addition, Cyprus wasn’t really in control of its own policies – anything it did basically had to be run by Greece and Turkey first, and since those countries weren’t going to agree on anything, all of this together basically killed any chance of a moderate leadership amicably sorting things out.
All of this came to a head when violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots broke out in 1963, sparked primarily by the political deadlock. Paramilitary organizations formed on both sides, which is never a good sign. The Turkish minority withdrew from public life and started living in enclaves, with the Turkish Cypriot VP declaring that the Republic of Cyprus was “dead”. The trend was now clear – the island was on a collision course, and it was going to go one way, or the other.
My Way or the Highway
The next chapter in this story begins in 1967, when a group of right-wing army officers in Greece led a coup against the Greek government, just weeks before elections that were expected to return a wide victory for a left-wing political party named the Centrists. Because the biggest lie political parties tell is almost always their names.
This coup was supported by the United States (of course) and the Greek king, Constantine II. Greece at this time was still a monarchy; don’t worry, that changes very soon. Constantine basically opened the door to the palace and invited the army in, swearing them in as the legitimate government. But the junta proceeded to sideline him, which he got a little cranky over, and he launched a countercoup later that year – which failed spectacularly, forcing him to flee the country and live in exile.
This left Greece in the rather awkward position of having no legal government or head of state, but that didn’t seem to worry the military too much. The generals proceeded to begin implementing their very conservative vision for the country, and part of that vision, crucially, was the union of Cyprus with Greece.
The Greek junta began openly attempting to destabilize the Cypriot government, and secretly made plans to overthrow Archbishop Makarios. On July 15, 1974, they did just that. Officers of the Greek army led the coup, directing the Cypriot forces and burning down the presidential palace. What followed was some chaotic, comical back and forth as the coup leaders declared that Makarios was dead, whereupon Makarios made a broadcast saying “no I’m not, you’re stupid and also in violation of international law”, that kind of thing.
Nevertheless, Makarios was out, and the coup, in effect, created a puppet government in Cyprus under the junta in Greece. But Turkey, which was actually more democratic than Greece at this time (isn’t history fun?), decided it had had just about enough of this. Five days after the coup in Cyprus, Turkey invaded the island.
Turkey justified their invasion using that earlier clause in Cyprus’ constitution, giving them the right to intervene if the status quo was threatened. The Greek military was not at all prepared for the attack, and a ceasefire was called almost immediately. As the gravity of the situation sank in, the leaders of the junta were suddenly quite unpopular, and they were turfed out in favor of restoring democracy. Greece also chose to abolish its monarchy because A) Greek kings wouldn’t stop meddling in politics, and B) the last king had outed himself as an idiot.
Peace talks began, but broke down. Turkey accused Greece of playing for time to get international opinion on their side, and decided, again, that it was just about done with this and invaded the island a second time. Britain suggested to America that they should stop them, but America flatly refused; they couldn’t have NATO members openly fighting each other with the Soviet Union watching. And so, the Turkish invasion commenced unopposed, capturing around a third of the island before another ceasefire was called.
The first invasion was relatively unimpactful on public life in Cyprus; that wasn’t the case this time. Immediately, many Greek Cypriots became refugees, forced from their homes in the wake of the advancing Turkish army. On the other side, the Greek Cypriot paramilitary EOKA-B committed massacres against Turkish Cypriots. No one on either side was spared – children, the elderly, women, everyone was targeted.
Following the second ceasefire, the island proceeded to segregate itself – many Turkish Cypriots went to the Turkish-occupied north, and Greek Cypriots south. And as it would turn out, Turkey’s occupation simply never ended; the UN noted that Turkey wasn’t so much restoring the status quo as de facto partitioning the island. Nine years later, Turkish Cypriot politicians declared the independent Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which the UN flatly refused to recognize. But with Turkey’s continuing presence of anywhere between 30 and 40 thousand soldiers, and without a pressing need to resolve the issue, relatively little attention has been paid to the dispute. And so, since an invasion in 1974, Cyprus has remained divided ever since.
The Green Line
Nominally, everyone involved has committed themselves to finding a peaceful resolution to the dispute. To that end, the UN established a buffer zone between the two halves of the island, which physically separates the two communities from each other and is visible on most maps of the island as a no man’s land running between them. Since then, various plans have been put forward to reunify the island, such as the Annan Plan in 2004 and talks in Geneva in 2017. But mistrust between the communities runs deep. The Annan Plan was rejected by the Turkish Cypriots, and the hopes that the Geneva talks would result in referendums were dashed.
Ironically, it’s the oldest Cypriots, those with memories of the violence of the 60s and 70s, that most want a deal to reunify the island. But those people are old, and getting older. With that in mind, it’s not hyperbole to say that there’s a chance that Cyprus will never be reunified. That’s not to say there aren’t reasons to be optimistic, but we’ll leave you now with a rather thought-provoking observation: after World War II, Germany was divided between east and west for 45 years. As of 2021, Cyprus has been divided for 47.