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A Primer on the Cyprus Conflict as Talks Begin

Some answers to basic questions about the conflict:

Who Lives in Cyprus?

Cyprus has 1.1 million inhabitants, about the same as Rhode Island, but in an area around three and a half times the size. About 78 percent are Greek Cypriots (most of them Orthodox Christians) and about 18 percent are Turkish Cypriots (most of them Sunni Muslims). The country has three officially recognized Christian minorities — Maronites, Latins (Roman Catholics) and Armenians — and a small Roma, or Gypsy, community.


The divided capital, Nicosia. Credit Petros Karadjias/Associated Press

The internationally recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls only the southern two-thirds of it. The remaining third is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey.

How Did the Conflict Start?

Cyprus came under British control in the late 19th century, during the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Many Greek Cypriots supported the political union of all Greeks living under Turkish rule within a sovereign Greek nation, while many Turkish Cypriots favored a partition of the island between Greece and Turkey.

In the late 1950s, a guerrilla group, the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, rebelled against British rule. As Cyprus slid toward war, the United States and Britain feared that the conflict could open the door to Soviet dominance in the eastern Mediterranean. Archbishop Makarios, the longtime Greek Cypriot leader, agreed to independence as an alternative to union with Greece. The new country’s Constitution, ratified on Aug. 16, 1960, provided for a Greek Cypriot president, a Turkish Cypriot vice president, and a Civil Service 70 percent Greek Cypriot and 30 percent Turkish Cypriot.

Britain, Greece and Turkey pledged to maintain the “sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence” of Cyprus, and Britain kept two sizable military bases there. But after Archbishop Makarios, as president, proposed amendments to the Constitution, fighting between the two communities broke out. Turkish Cypriots say their side was expelled from the government; Greek Cypriots say Turkish Cypriots left the government to form a parallel administration.

The pivotal year was 1974. That summer, the leader of Greece’s military junta, which controlled a guerrilla group in Cyprus, ousted Archbishop Makarios, who went into exile. Turkish officials believed that a Cypriot union with Greece was imminent. In June, Turkey invaded to protect Turkish Cypriots. The junta in Greece collapsed, but during peace talks Turkey sent in a second wave of troops in August, overrunning the north. Turkish settlers also descended on the north, while about 160,000 Greek Cypriots were displaced.

How Might It End?

Over the years, support for political union with Greece has dissipated. Since the late 1970s, leaders on both sides have agreed in principle on a “bizonal, bicommunal federation” as the basis for reunification, but have different understandings of that term. The disagreements affect key issues, including the return of displaced Cypriots and the handling of their property, repatriation of Turkish settlers, demilitarization of the island and the future role of Greece, Turkey and Britain.

For most Greek Cypriots, a new federation means two tightly linked federal units, neither defined mainly in ethnic terms; for many Turkish Cypriots, maintaining control over a strongly autonomous region is key.


From left, the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mustafa Akinci; the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon; and the Greek Cypriot leader, Nicos Anastasiades, at settlement talks in Mont Pèlerin, Switzerland, on Monday. Credit Fabrice Coffrini/Reuters

Land is also a key issue. Turkish Cypriots control 36 percent of the island’s area, and by most estimates, that proportion will decline to between 26 percent and 29 percent under any lasting peace deal. But the percentage is in dispute, as is where to draw the boundaries.

What Happened in the Last Major Round of Talks?

Mr. Annan, the previous secretary general, proposed a power-sharing plan, along with a compromise on former Greek Cypriot property. The plan also allowed a limited right of return for displaced members of both communities, and gradual reductions of Greek and Turkish troops.

Momentum for the deal was considerable. In 2003, the Turkish Cypriot authorities relaxed travel restrictions, and within two weeks, 200,000 people had crossed the Green Line. Turkey’s new prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, supported the talks. One major incentive was the Republic of Cyprus’s candidacy for membership in the European Union.

But in April 2004, a week before the country formally joined the European Union, Greek Cypriots rejected the deal in a referendum, while Turkish Cypriots voters approved it.

What Has Changed?

The two leaders are fairly new — Mr. Anastasiades, a lawyer, took office in 2013, and Mr. Akinci, an architect, last year — and seem open to compromise. Unlike past Turkish leaders, Mr. Erdogan is not seen as being personally invested in Cyprus; the Greek government, for its part, is dealing with a lingering economic crisis.

The legal landscape has shifted. The European Court of Human Rights opened the way for lawsuits from Greek Cypriots who lost property; by one reading, even ordinary tourists to the north could potentially face fines for staying at hotels or eating on restaurants built on Greek Cypriot land. That could have a potentially disastrous economic impact in the north. Putting pressure on the Turkish Cypriots, they may soon be outnumbered by the settlers who arrived after the 1974 invasions, and their descendants.

The pressure on the Greek Cypriots to negotiate is less clear. While some now believe a de facto partition is permanent, the mainstream view is that reunification is the best outcome, although substantial disagreements remain over what it should look like.

Source: NYT > World

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