Location: Largest island of eastern Mediterranean
Population: Total 657,000; Greek-Cypriots 510,000 (est.), Turkish-Cypriots 140,000 (est.)
% of population: Greek-Cypriots 78%, Turkish-Cypriots 18%
Religion: Greek Orthodox, Sunni Muslim
Language: Greek, Turkish, English

The island of Cyprus lies 80 kilometres from the Turkish coastline and 800 kilometres from the Greek mainland. The population, given as 556,000 at the last reliable census at independence in 1960, is 78% Greek and 18% Turkish, with small Armenian, Maronite and British communities. The island is 9,251 square kilometres in size, 225 kilometres long and 94 kilometres wide at its widest point.

Mycenaean Greeks are known to have colonized Cyprus in the second millennium BC and the island passed under the authority of Assyria, Greece, and Rome. In 1570-1 the Turks took Cyprus from the Venetians, and Muslims settled throughout the island. The Turks maintained control over the territory until 1878, when it was ceded to Britain for administrative purposes; the British formally annexed it in 1914, making it a Crown Colony.

The pursuit of Enosis

From the early nineteenth century Greek-Cypriots had favoured union with Greece, a concept known as Enosis. In this they were inspired by events in Crete and other Greek-speaking islands, which had thrown off Ottoman domination to become part of independent Greece. The British had acceded to demands for Enosis when they relinquished the Ionian islands including Corfu, but they opposed the call for the merging of Cyprus with Greece since Cyprus formed part of their strategic line to the Middle and Far East; another reason for British opposition to Enosis was the delicate position vis-à-vis the two communities on the island. Relations between Greeks and Turks were tense throughout the region and Britain did not want to provoke a civil war. On the mainland, conflicts between the Greeks and Turks in Asian Turkey had resulted in 1923 in a massive and compulsory exchange of populations, eliminating the Greeks from Asia and allowing them to remain only in Istanbul and two islands of Turkey whilst the Turks were expelled from Crete and most other Greek territory.

Cyprus was not involved in the population exchanges, having been annexed by Britain, and Turkey renounced all claims to sovereignty over the island as part of the 1923 agreement; nevertheless Greek-Cypriots continued to call for Enosis and demonstrations continued sporadically. In 1931 Government House was burnt to the ground, and in 1955 attacks on government buildings and residences were organized and carried out by EOKA (The National Organization of Cyprus Fighters), led by Colonel Giorgios Grivas, who had led an extreme right-wing guerrilla group during the Axis occupation of Greece.


In 1956, as EOKA attacks intensified, the British prepared proposals on self-government under British sovereignty. Opposition to the proposals — on the grounds that it wasn’t Enosis — was led by Michael Mouskos, recently appointed Archbishop Makarios, and Colonel Grivas. The Turkish government favoured partition, one of the options considered by Britain. Violence between the two communities escalated in 1958 and for the first time Archbishop Makarios indicated that he would accept independence for Cyprus rather than union with Greece. Direct talks between Greece, Turkey and Britain resulted in February 1959 in an agreement comprised of three treaties and a Constitution. The Treaty of Establishment declared Cyprus a sovereign republic with the exception of two British bases. The Treaty of Alliance between Cyprus, Greece and Turkey included provision for Greek and Turkish troops to be stationed on the island, and the Treaty of Guarantee gave the three outside states the right to act singly or collectively to maintain the status of the island. The Constitution provided for the election of a Greek Cypriot President and a Turkish Cypriot Vice-President, each with a veto power, and there was to be a House of Representatives and two communal chambers, one Greek and the other Turkish. The public services were to employ people on a 70:30 Greek-Turkish ratio. The agreement came into effect on August 16, 1960, with Cyprus being admitted to the Commonwealth in March 1961. Archbishop Makarios was declared the first President of Cyprus and Dr Kutchuk Vice-President.

The 1960s were marked by a series of crises. In November 1963 Makarios proposed 13 amendments to the constitution, amendments which had the effect of removing distinctions of nationality and both streamlining the administration and resolving the conflict in the Greek favour. The Turkish government rejected the proposals and the tension erupted into violence in which the Greeks launched a paramilitary attack on Turks in Nicosia and Larnaca, taking 700 hostages. In 1964 there were widescale killings on both sides, and villages were looted or destroyed as 20,000 Turks fled their villages in the south. An uneasy truce was declared and the British, Turkish and Greek forces already on the island were formed into a temporary peace-keeping force. Various attempts at a solution failed, rejected by one side or the other, and the Turks were by now settling in enclaves. In 1967 Grivas led an attack against Turkish Cypriots at Kophinou. The Turkish government demanded Grivas’ immediate return to Greece in addition to the withdrawal of Greek troops illegally based on the island. Greece, now ruled by a military junta, capitulated to the Turkish demands, a decision which contributed to Makarios’ change of view regarding the desirability of Enosis.

The crisis of 1974

Makarios’ decision to give up the pursuit of Enosis led to deteriorating relations between Cyprus and the Greek junta and to the fomenting of a new internal opposition to Makarios from supporters of Grivas and Enosis. There were two assassination attempts on Makarios in 1970 and 1974. Following the latter attack, which had been authorized by the Greek government, Makarios escaped to Akrotiri and was replaced by Nicos Sampson, former EOKA terrorist and leader of the 1963 attack on the Turks of Omorphita. The Turkish government, deeply offended by this appointment, called for Sampson’s immediate removal, and when no prompt reaction was forthcoming Turkish troops landed in Cyprus and advanced southward, reportedly looting property and murdering indiscriminately. Despite mediation by the British and the establishment of a UN ceasefire on July 22, massive Turkish troop reinforcements were shipped into the island. A narrow corridor between Kyrenia and Nicosia held by the Turks was extended, until 36% of the island was under Turkish control, a situation which continues today.

Cyprus is today divided into two ethnic zones by a barrier — known as the Green Line — which runs for 180 kilometres right across the island and through the capital Nicosia. 180,000 people are refugees on one or other side of the divide, and there are now fewer than 1000 Greeks living in the north and about 130 Turks in the south, both groups regularly receiving supplies from the UN. Reports of Turkish atrocities were widespread and many of the 1,619 Greeks missing are believed to have been taken to the Turkish mainland and presumably killed. Evidence of retaliatory massacres by the Greeks has also been found. The great majority of Greek refugees have now been rehoused in new estates, although they still hope to return eventually to their homes in the north. The Turkish sector, under the leadership of Rauf Denktaş, contained most of the country’s cargo-holding capacity in the port of Famagusta, most of the tourist industry — with 65% of existing hotel accommodation and 87% of hotels under construction — 50% of agricultural exports including 75% of citrus fruits, and nearly 50% of the country’s industrial production.

Community perceptions and politics

The Greeks dealt with the disastrous loss of revenue by embarking on a huge building boom, concentrating particularly on Limassol. Whereas they began by indiscriminately erecting buildings, they now carefully plan all building schemes. Since the Greek-Cypriot government, under the leadership of Spyros Kyprianou and later George Vassiliou, is almost universally acknowledged as the government of the island (the northern government being recognized only by Turkey) the Greek community has been able to rely on the EC and World Bank for financial assistance, and they have been greatly helped by the collapse of Beirut as the economic, financial and servicing centre of the Middle East, a role which Greek Cyprus looks set to assume. Recognized as the government of Cyprus, the Greek-Cypriot government has the advantage of representing the island at international conferences where it is able to influence the decision-making process of other countries regarding Cyprus. Ships have been discouraged from putting in at the northern port of Famagusta, the export of citrus fruits from the north has been curtailed and Turkish Cypriot stamps have been declared illegal and invalid. The Greeks see this influence as being their only answer to the illegal occupation of over one third of their country by the Turkish army and the theft of their assets.

The Turkish Cypriots undoubtedly feel more secure living as a separate community and have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity offered by the wealth of the north. There is a lively system of multi-party politics and the November 1983 declaration of independence as the Republic of North Cyprus was very popular; however since partition the northern economy has stagnated and it is heavily dependent on aid from Turkey. The Turkish lira is now the official currency and Turkey pays two-thirds of the total budget. Although official unemployment figures are low there is a high degree of disguised unemployment, and lack of productivity is a problem. The civil service employs 13,000 people, a figure kept deliberately high in order to discourage emigration. The luxury hotels remain empty as no one has the confidence to run them, and the tourist industry as a whole has suffered greatly from the ban on flights into the country except by Turkish airlines, effectively excluding package holidays. There has been a gradual increase in the number of non-Turkish tourists entering the region but the industry has certainly not regained its buoyancy. Per capita income is much lower than in the south: US $1,100 compared to $4,400 in 1981, but some Turks have managed to do well financially by selling electrical goods to Turkey. The population of the north is given as 121,000 by the Greeks and as 153,000 by the Turks. The discrepancy is probably due to the immigration of large numbers of Turks since 1974, although many are known to have returned to the mainland, finding it hard to settle in Cyprus. In mid-1989 there were reports that the Turkish government intended settling ethnic Turkish refugees from Bulgaria in northern Cyprus.

The search for a solution

The political scene was initially dominated by Denktaş and Kyprianou’s proposals for settlement. Denktaş advocated a gradual move towards federalism. Makarios, who returned to power in December 1974, met Denktaş twice in 1977 and guidelines for future negotiations were established. These included acceptance of the idea of an independent, non-aligned Federal Republic, and the possibility of arriving at boundary lines by objective criteria rather than by population ratio. With the death of Makarios a few months later positive signs of a new Constitution ceased, however, and later talks between Makarios’ successor Spyros Kyprianou and Rauf Denktaş failed to reach agreement. Various proposals put forward by the two UN Secretary-Generals Kurt Waldheim and Perez de Cuellar also failed to achieve a settlement between the two sides. Kyprianou put forward comprehensive proposals involving the complete demilitarization of the island and assisting the north to catch up economically with the south in addition to the loss to Turkish-Cypriots of 10% of the land they are now holding and a stronger system of provincial government.

The most promising chance of a workable settlement came in early 1985 when the two sides had been meeting regularly under UN auspices for five months. This plan was backed financially by the US who wished to see a settlement with its NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and also by the USSR, who wished to see a demilitarized Cyprus. Under the plan Denktaş made significant concessions, offering to reduce the Turkish-held area from 37% to 30%, agreed to accept a Greek President and a Turkish Vice-President rather than a rotating presidency, and a 70:30 ratio of Greeks to Turks in the federal cabinet and lower house of parliament. In addition the UN proposed that each side would give up 3% of its territory to form the basis of a federally administered territory. However Kyprianou made it clear that he considered these points for discussion, not agreement, and the talks collapsed amid recriminations on both sides. Denktaş called elections for June while Kyprianou was censored by his own combined parliamentary opposition.

In February 1988 George Vassiliou, campaigning on a non-party compromise platform, defeated the hard-line Kyprianou in the Cypriot presidential election. Open-ended talks began in September 1988 between leaders of the two communities, initially in Geneva and later in Nicosia, with regular reportbacks to the UN Secretary-General. But despite a promising start there appeared to be an unbridgeable gap in perceptions. While both sides agreed on the need for a federated government with a large amount of provincial autonomy in the Greek and Turkish sectors, the Greek side proposed “bi-communalism” — a demilitarized federal republic with a strong central government (which the Greeks would dominate by virtue of their numbers) — and the Turks “bi-zonalism” — with the partition of the island on ethnic lines — thus to a large extent institutionalizing the status quo. By August 1989 no agreement had been reached while there had been clashes between Greek-Cypriot demonstrators and UN soldiers across the Green Line.

The future of Cyprus

There appears to be no solution in sight to the present division of Cyprus, although it is unlikely that there will be a major new eruption of conflict. There are some factors which might support reunification: an obvious desire from ordinary people on both sides for a more permanent settlement, the use by both sides of English as an international language, and an application to join the EC, with which Cyprus already has trading arrangements. Nor is Cyprus an issue of international superpower rivalry. Huge obstacles to successful negotiations remain, however: the question of whether or not minority groups should be allowed to remain in the two provinces, the existence of large numbers of Turkish immigrants and the almost 30,000 Turkish troops in the north, the problem of trust between the two communities, and not least the fact that in any settlement both leaders will be forced to make unpopular concessions — these and other issues contribute to the difficulties involved in settling the dispute to the satisfaction of both Greeks and Turks.

(See also Greeks of Turkey; Turks of Western Thrace in Eastern Europe)