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Rear Vision -

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Keri Phillips: Hello, this is Rear Vision with Keri Phillips. Will the Mediterranean Island of Cyprus finally be reunited?

Journalist [archival]: Well, it's been described as the moment of truth for one of the world's most intractable territorial disputes. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders are meeting in Switzerland for last-chance talks to reunify Cyprus, more than 40 years after it was split into two. They are now in the midst of three days of discussions to try to agree on a map for a bi-zonal and bi-communal federation.

Keri Phillips: In 1974, Greece, then ruled by a military junta, overthrew the Cypriot government, and Turkish troops invaded the island. By the time a ceasefire was called, thousands of Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been killed or wounded, 200,000 people had been displaced, and the island had been petitioned. On Rear Vision we'll look at the background to these events and why, over 40 years later, Cyprus remains divided.

There are many players involved in what's known as the Cyprus problem; the Cypriots themselves of course, as well as Greece and Turkey. And then there's the British, who still maintain two military bases on what is sovereign British soil on Cyprus.

Hubert Faustmann is professor of history and political science at the University of Nicosia and director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Cyprus.

Hubert Faustmann: Well, Britain took over the administration of the island in 1878 from the Ottoman Empire. The context was a complex one because there was a global rivalry called the Great Game in which Russia was a rival of Great Britain over world influence, and they attempted to get into the Mediterranean and Britain tried to prevent this. So they actually rented or leased the territory from the Ottoman Empire in 1878 to aid them in case of another Russian attack because there had just be a Russian Ottoman war. This is how Cyprus came under British administration, and then it annexed it in 1914 in the context of the First World War, and it then became in 1925 a fully fledged British crown colony.

When they took over the island, the Greek-speaking Orthodox majority of the island started to demand the union of the island with Greece should British colonial rule ever come to an end, something the Muslim and Turkish speaking minority that would adopt the Turkish identity in the course of the 20th century was opposed to from the beginning.

Keri Phillips: Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Greek Cypriot activists pressed for enosis, the union of the island with Greece. During riots in Nicosia in 1931, Government House was burnt down. But despite the nationalist desires of the Greek Cypriots and the fears of the Turkish Cypriot minority, there was little intercommunal violence before World War II. Andrekos Varnava is associate professor in history at Flinders University.

Andrekos Varnava: Yes, pretty much the Greek and Turkish Cypriots and other minorities lived harmoniously up until the Second World War. There were some isolated incidents. Up until World War II they lived pretty harmoniously in mixed villages as well as in neighbouring villages, and there were many, many mixed villages. They lived in separate quarters in most of these places, but they shared in common culture insofar as religion allowed. And there were even some mixed marriages as well. And yes, it's hard to do business if you're not going to communicate with somebody. So most Turkish Cypriots, especially males, knew how to speak Cypriot Greek. So up until 1955 when the violence started, things were pretty harmonious.

Keri Phillips: In the decade following the end of World War II, decolonisation and the Cold War reconfiguration of alliances fuelled nationalist aspirations on Cyprus.

Dr Neophytos Loizides is a professor in international conflict analysis at the University of Kent.

Neophytos Loizides: Cyprus after World War II was a British colony. The Greek Cypriots were the majority in the island, about 80% of the population, the Turkish Cypriots were a minority, about 18%. On the Greek Cypriot side, the narrative of the time is that the Greek Cypriots in Greece in particular pay a very heavy price during World War II, therefore the Greek Cypriots who fought with the British, they volunteered to fight with the British during World War II, deserve to have the right to join Greece if they wish so as a majority of the population. That was a time that countries gained their independence from the British colonial rule. So the Greek Cypriots thought that they were eligible for this right as well.

On the Turkish Cypriot side there was also the rise of the Turkish Cypriot nationalists, and according to their narrative, Cyprus shouldn't have joined any other country without their consent. If there was to be a change in the status quo, that meant for the Turkish Cypriots some sort of partition into a Turkish Cypriot sector that will go to Turkey and a Greek Cypriot sector that will go to Greece. So the two sides develop opposing nationalism as a result of the forces unveiling after World War II.

Keri Phillips: They were obviously the players in Cyprus itself, but what about the external powers that also took an interest in what was going to happen in Cyprus?

Neophytos Loizides: The British wanted to keep Cyprus because of its strategic importance, especially after their withdrawal from Egypt. The Soviet Union was very comfortable with the idea of the two NATO allies at the time after '53, Greece and Turkey joined NATO, of the two NATO allies fighting with each other over Cyprus because that meant are split within NATO. The Americans were alarmed that the two allies were fighting on a new front.

On the Greek and Turkish side, after joining NATO, both countries have secured their borders from the Soviet Union in the case of Turkey, and Yugoslavia in the case of Greece. Remember at the time that Greece fought a civil war and Yugoslavia was supporting the leftist guerrillas in the northern part of the country. So after '53 both Greece and Turkey feel secure with regards to their borders. And at the same time they cannot control, even they encourage the respective Greek and Turkish Cypriot nationalism in the island.

Hubert Faustmann: By the 1950s the Greek Cypriots have decided to go international and get the support of the international community by trying to get Greece to appeal to the United Nations, which they do in 1954 for the first time. In parallel one year later they start an armed anticolonial struggle, in a way to support the internationalisation effort, to make it clear there is a problem here, and world opinion should pressure Britain out. And Britain responds to this pressure with a classical divide and rule move and invites Turkey and to some degree Greece into the conflict to show that if Britain was to leave there would be a war between Greece and Turkey and a war between the two communities of the island, and therefore the continuation of the British rule was the only way out. That completely backfired, and by the late 1950s we have such a mess that a compromise was found that nobody wanted and that was independence for the island of Cyprus based on political equality or almost political equality between the Turkish Cypriots minority and the Greek Cypriot majority, and the trick being since 1956 this Turkish Cypriot minority was recognised not as a minority anymore but as a second equal community.

Keri Phillips: That deal, the Zürich Agreement of 1959, lead to independence for Cyprus the following year, but it also prohibited both union with Greece and the partitioning of the island.

Neophytos Loizides: In the 1960s there was an agreement that allowed the British to keep sovereign bases in the island in exchange for the independence of the Republic. And the two sides have agreed on a form of power-sharing with each other which meant that there would be a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president with a right to veto legislation.

Following that, the Republic, the power-sharing experiment collapsed in 1963, and there were several reasons why this happened. There was mistrust between the two sides, there was no international peacekeeping, unlike many of the power-sharing arrangements that we know today. There was a presidential system that didn't allow each side to vote for the representatives of the others. There was exclusive voting between the two communities. The Republic of Cyprus didn't have the resources, didn't have the institutions to keep the two communities together. There were lots of ambiguities and flexibility in the Constitution of the 1960s. So there was a very good number of reasons why the Republic of Cyprus collapsed in 1963.

Christalla Yakinthou: In December 1963 there was what's called the Bloody Christmas killing, and that's when Turkish Cypriots were killed at a particular juncture.

Keri Phillips: Dr Christalla Yakinthou is a political scientist at Birmingham University.

Christalla Yakinthou: It really represented this flash point where Turkish Cypriots withdrew in protest over various things, but especially over that from government. And what we saw after 1963 was an increasing separation of the two communities. Greek Cypriots blockaded Turkish Cypriots from particular roads. You saw more roadblocks going up. Access to building materials and so on was banned because Greek Cypriots really feared that Turkish Cypriots would be building bombs and so on and creating a counter-insurgency movement.

So what you saw in the post '63 period was Turkish Cypriots pulling away into enclave communities to protect themselves from real violence from Greek Cypriot militias and also threats of violence. So in that 1963 to 1967/'68 period there was a tremendous amount of implicit and explicit violence, burning down of Turkish Cypriot houses, more talk about uniting the country with Greece, although more dissent in the Greek Cypriot community around that.

And so what is most important about that period is that those communities that did have some trust, that did live side by side, started really withdrawing from each other. The Turkish Cypriot community moved into enclaves in urban areas where they formed their own protection forces or counter militias, very loosely termed, and you saw this withdrawal and everyone got to battle stations, and at the same time vary enflamed rhetoric at the high level, but also real insecurity and growing mistrust at the communal levels.

Hubert Faustmann: From 1967/'68 onwards relationships improved. There was a short wave of violence in '67 over an incident. But from '68 the sides start to negotiate. The Turkish Cypriots largely accept minority status and the Greek Cypriot demands, but at the same time even the Greek Cypriot community, a conflict emerged between the supporters of the Greek Cypriot leader and president of the Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, and opponents of him who didn't like the fact that he officially gave up on enosis, on union of the island with Greece. And at the same time there is a military junta, a dictatorship in Greece going, and Makarios goes into open confrontation with that junta, and that leads to the junta overthrowing him in 1974 and putting a Greek Cypriot nationalist who had also a reputation for killing Turkish Cypriots as a president, and that triggers the Turkish military intervention which then realises what Turkey always had wanted, the partition of the island.

Journalist [archival]: At the northern coastal town of Kyrenia after two and a half days of bitter fighting, Turkish troops are now in firm control of the area. The centre of the resort town near the harbour where the Turks first established their beachhead on Saturday is strewn with debris, knocked out tanks and the bodies of Greek soldiers. Turkish forces are digging in for a long stay. In addition to capturing the port of Kyrenia, they're holding a 15-mile stretch of highway south to the Turkish quarter in Nicosia.

Journalist [archival]: The first indication that a fresh war was about to be unleashed on Cyprus came from Turkish radio which broadcast warnings to shipping and aircraft to stay clear of Cyprus. Then at 5 o'clock in the morning Cyprus time, Turkish jets swooped down over the capital Nicosia to bomb its radio station and several other targets. Eyewitnesses say there were soon big clouds of smoke rising from various points around the Nicosia skyline. The sound of artillery barrages could be heard in the mountains between Nicosia and the Turkish occupied port of Kyrenia, 16 miles to the north. Civilians were seen rushing out of their houses to seek safety in the basements of big buildings. Shooting and shelling were reported along the green line in Nicosia that separates the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities there.

Hubert Faustmann: Turkish Cypriots flee from massacres and out of fear of Greek Cypriots in the British bases and other territories and the enclaves, and by 1975 the population exchange under pressure from Turkey is completed and almost all Turkish Cypriots in the north and the surviving Greek Cypriots live in the south.

Andrekos Varnava: Well, as a result of that the island was partitioned into two, so that the partition of 1963/'64 becomes more consolidated into, broadly speaking, two areas. So there was an exchange of populations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. There were 155,000 Greek Cypriots displaced, roughly 30% of the population. And 60,000 Turkish Cypriots displaced, roughly half the population of the Turkish Cypriots. And basically the Turkish Cypriots have established their own government. There was a government beforehand but now they've taken next steps by unilaterally declaring their independence.

Keri Phillips: And that's how things have remained since then, with the island divided into the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus in the south, and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus recognised only by Turkey.

You're listening to Rear Vision with Keri Phillips on RN, Radio National, with online streaming at our website and also by podcast.

After 1974, the two parts of the island remained entirely sealed off from each other, separated by the green line, a buffer zone guarded by UN peacekeepers.

Neophytos Loizides: I'm from Cyprus myself, and I was a student in Cyprus. Until 2003 we didn't know much about what was going in the north. It was like the border of the two Koreas today. It was closed and very few people had the opportunity, unless you went through a process or an embassy program you wouldn't have the opportunity to travel to the north. The zone was divided, there were minefields between, incidents at times between the two zones because of protests and because of violence. So there was tension even after 1974.

At the same time there were problems in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey as a result of the Cyprus problem, so every decade you had any near war situation between Greece and Turkey. On the Greek Cypriot side the major loss was territory, the ancestral homelands, of communities in the north. And on the Turkish Cypriot side the major casualty was international recognition, because even though the Turkish Cypriots got more land than their percentage of population, they couldn't use it properly because of a lack of access to international recognition, international trade. They were necessarily made dependent on Turkey, and as a result of the Turkish Cypriots as a community remained less developed than the Greek Cypriot side.

Keri Phillips: UN peacekeepers had actually been in Cyprus since 1964, and the UN held talks with Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders throughout the 1970s. But it wasn't until the European Union surprisingly agreed to allow Cyprus to work towards EU membership in the 1990s that reunification emerged as a real possibility.

Hubert Faustmann: What we do have in the immediate aftermath of the Turkish invasion, talks start about how the two parts of the island can be reunified in 1977 and 1979 two so-called high level agreements between the leaders of both communities that determined that the island will be unified in the framework of a bi-zonal…so this new entity will consist of two zones, one Greek and one Turkish Cypriot, bi-communal…so the two communities will form two entities, federation…so in the form of a federation. So far so good.

Until today they have never 100% agreed how this bi-zonal, bi-communal federation should look like, and you have circles of negotiations that come close or less close to a deal but always fail. For many decades it was mainly the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash who didn't want the reunification sabotaging it, and on the other side were more or less hardline Greek Cypriots who wanted or did not want to settle, until in the 1990s, when we have a new dynamic when the Republic of Cyprus applies for EU membership. To the surprise of the Turks the European Union then accepts that Cyprus could join the European Union without a solution of the Cyprus problem, and this leads to frantic efforts in the late '90s and early 2000s to settle the dispute before the Republic of Cyprus joins, and that leads us to the famous Annan Plan that failed miserably in 2004, only days before Cyprus was joining the European Union.

Christalla Yakinthou: The joining of the European Union and the presentation of a plan to unify the country more or less at the same time triggered two different things in the two parts of the island. In the Turkish Cypriot community it triggered hope for a better future because of course the Turkish Cypriot community is embargoed because it's a breakaway state, and Turkish Cypriots have very little future prospects. And in the Greek Cypriot community it triggered a feeling that, well, if we're going to become European, now we will have European protection, and once we join the EU we will be able to negotiate a better plan.

And at the same time a third thing happened that was important that we haven't talked about which is that the checkpoints between the two communities also opened. So for the first time in 30 years Greek and Turkish Cypriots could cross from one side to the other and see homes that they had left and people that they had left behind, and that was a tremendous point of change because all of a sudden…and I remember it, you can cross to this land that has been forbidden to you as a Greek Cypriot or this land that you've only heard about as a Turkish Cypriot and meet Greek or Turkish Cypriots, so all of a sudden we could talk to each other and we could see what was left behind and what has changed in the country that we didn't know about.

And there was an effort to reunify the country with this peace plan that was more or less led by the UN. And there was the Republic of Cyprus joining the EU. So these three things came together at probably the worst kind of one-year juncture of time because it was just too much I think, it was just too much for Greek Cypriots particularly to register what their homes really looked like and what the north actually looked like and to be presented with a peace plan and to join the EU with this very particular cultivation by Greek Cypriot politicians that we can get something better later. So it was almost a fatally flawed plan to start with.

Neophytos Loizides: The European Union at the time offered an incentive through accession to both sides. So for the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots, you both have a much more secure future within the European Union, with access to the market, access to European institutions. However, in order to do so, both sides had to compromise. That meant for the Greek Cypriots that they should share power with the Turkish Cypriots in a reunified Cyprus. And for the Turkish Cypriots, that they will have to return part of the territory occupied in 1974 to the Greek Cypriots.

The incentives were significant. However, neither side was ready to make concessions quickly enough in order to reach an agreement. For the Turkish Cypriot side there was a resistance initially. The process started in the 1990s. So for a whole decade the Turkish Cypriot leader was essentially refusing to negotiate, even though on the Greek Cypriot side until 2003 we had a moderate leadership essentially ready to make compromise.

By 2003 the Greek Cypriots have changed leadership, and have already secured accession to the European Union on paper. So there was very little incentive after 2003 to compromise when the Turkish Cypriots make a remarkable change in their political structure and moderate political forces emerge in the northern part of the island in the Turkish Cypriot community. So the European Union accession created those incentives, but unfortunately the moderation on the two sides did not occur at the same time. We didn't have two moderate leaders in Cyprus at the same time before the accession of the island in the European Union.

Journalist [archival]: Greek Cypriots have voted to reject a UN peace plan to reunify their divided island. Opponents of the plan celebrated the result after officials announced that three-quarters of the people voted no. But there was disappointment at the United Nations, the European Union and among Cypriots who supported the plan.

Man: After so many years of efforts and continued struggles, we failed to reunite our country today.

Keri Phillips: Under the Annan Plan, Cyprus would have become a loose federation of two states, but both communities had to vote in favour. In the simultaneous referendums of April 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted in favour almost 2 to 1, while the Greek Cypriots voted against, around 3 to 1. A week after the vote was lost, Cyprus joined the EU. Although the whole island is considered a member, the EU's body of laws are suspended in the north. In January the latest round of reunification talks began in Geneva, in what has been described as the best and last chance to resolve the Cyprus problem. What stands in the way?

Neophytos Loizides: The most important one is security. Who guarantees the security of the Republic of Cyprus, my personal security as a Turkish Cypriot, my personal security as a Greek Cypriot? This has been the issue that most international observers will think is extremely important. And for the Turkish side it meant military intervention, something that the Greek Cypriots today would not accept because of the experience of 1974. But the Turkish Cypriots will see that that is absolutely essential. So you have the first sticking point is what happens with Turkish military guarantees and whether they can be replaced by a much more updated, free Cyprus-led initiative.

The second sticking point is territories of the two federations. As I mentioned before, the Turkish Cypriot side as a result of the 1974 events, ended up with more territory than its percentage, so the Turkish Cypriots were 18%, the Turkish army controlled areas today at about double that percentage. So negotiations since 1974 focus on reducing that territory to about 28%, 29%. That means that about 7% of the territory will be returned to the Greek Cypriots and that would allow up to half of our refugees, of the Greek Cypriot refugees to return under Greek Cypriot administration.

But the exact villages, which cities, which territories in order to reach that half of the Greek Cypriot population, which territories will be returned has been a sticking point as well because, as you will imagine, on the Turkish Cypriot side they wouldn't like to lose territories that people have been living in for 40 years, that's reasonable. And on the Greek Cypriot side they would like to have enough territory that will make sense for them to make concessions on power-sharing.

Power-sharing is also another sticking point. To what extent that a community that is about 20% of the population will have equal say with the Greek Cypriots in some institutions. So you have 80% and 20%, can they be equal? Another point that is very important is the presence of Turkish settlers, migrants that Turkey sent to Cyprus after 1974, they are newcomers. Greek Cypriots see that as a process of colonisation, of demographic engineering. The Turkish Cypriot side argues that these people have been there for decades, therefore they have gained rights. So there's an effort to merge those views as well in the negotiations.

And finally there are questions about properties. What happens to individuals' personal property? People who lost property in 1974, the old owners who can be Greek Cypriots who lived in the north, but also Turkish Cypriots who had property in the south. So what happens to those properties? Does the old owner get priority or the new owner who has kept that property for, let's say, four or five decades now has a right to make a first choice. So all these issues have been debated in the negotiations. And you imagine, these are multiple issues, issues that are very emotional for both communities, and very difficult to be resolved after so many decades.

Keri Phillips: Given all that, how likely are these talks to result in the reunification of Cyprus?

Hubert Faustmann: Well, they are in the final phase of the final phase of the negotiations that have been dragging on, which is a typical feature of talks about the Cyprus problem. If you can't agree, you delay because nobody wants to lose the blame game and lose the support of the international community. We will not have a breakthrough before the referendum about the presidential system in Turkey in April, and after April we will see if we can come up with a deal, and that's a very open question given that the two communities are still apart on huge issues. And nobody knows if Turkey really wants to settle or not.

And then the next problem is that once they reach a deal, if they reach a deal, we will again have two simultaneous referenda and it will be very difficult to get a Greek Cypriot ‘yes’ since they will not get a good deal and feel they have a lot to lose. And even a Turkish Cypriot ‘yes’ is not 100% guaranteed, so it's by far more likely than a Greek Cypriot one. So it's the best chance we have since 1974, but within the context of Cypriot history and politics since 1974, it's still not a very, very likely scenario. It's a possibility. But if I had to bet money, nobody ever lost money betting on the failure of the talks and non-reunification.

Keri Phillips: Professor Hubert Faustmann from the University of Nicosia. You also heard Andrekos Varnava from Flinders University, Christalla Yakinthou from Birmingham University, and Neophytos Loizides from the University of Kent.

Leila Shunnar is the sound engineer, and I'm Keri Phillips. Bye til next time from Rear Vision.

Professor Hubert FaustmannProfessor of History and Political Science at the University of Nicosia
Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in CyprusDr Andrekos VarnavaAssociate Professor in History at Flinders UniversityDr Neophytos LoizidesProfessor in International Conflict Analysis at the University of KentDr Christalla YakinthouDepartment of Political Science and International Studies
University of Birmingham

PresenterKeri Phillips ProducerKeri Phillips