Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Ending the Division of Cyprus

David Koyzis


August 11, 2003

In the summer of 1974, an attempted coup d'etat against the government of Cyprus by the military regime in Greece provoked an invasion by Turkey, whose armed forces divided the island nation between its ethnic Greek and Turkish inhabitants. Thousands of Cypriots found themselves uprooted from their homes and unable to return. A heavily fortified barbed-wire fence was extended across the island. United Nations personnel policed the tense border.

Since 1974, there have been numerous, unsuccessful efforts to resolve the impasse, usually spearheaded by the UN. Most observers, even those outside the island, have placed the blame for failure on Rauf Denktash, the aging leader of the internationally unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. He has thus far vetoed every proposal for a settlement.

The most recent UN effort was prompted by Cyprus' scheduled entry into the European Union (EU) next year. The EU indicated that it would admit the internationally recognized government in the south, but preferred to take in a united island. The UN then proposed that Cyprus be governed as a Swiss-style federal state, with ethnic Greek and Turkish cantons roughly corresponding to the present boundary between the divided communities. However, recognizing that Greek Cypriots make up about 80 percent of the population, some territory would be transferred to the Greek side, most notably the Varosha section of Famagusta south of the old walled city. This would allow a large number of Greek refugees—though not all—to return to their homes and properties.

Public opinion polls showed a substantial majority of Turkish Cypriots in favor of the plan. They would, after all, stand to benefit from something that might bring a measure of the south's prosperity to the impoverished north. However, Denktash rejected the proposal once again.

Thus it was all the more astonishing that in April the Turkish Cypriot government suddenly decided to open the so-called Green Line dividing the island, allowing relative freedom of movement for the first time since 1974. Within a short time thousands were lined up to cross at three checkpoints, with Greeks heading north, often to look for homes abandoned nearly three decades ago; and Turks heading south, frequently to secure birth certificates and passports that would give them eventual EU citizenship.

Dramatic stories are now coming out. Greek Cypriots in particular have located their old homes, many now inhabited by Turkish Cypriot families. These encounters, far from being rancorous, have been joyful, and the Greeks have often returned south with cherished family heirlooms and even long lost photographs of loved ones.

Why now? By all accounts Denktash had been under considerable pressure to make a confidence-building move: pressure from his own people; from Ankara, which is trying to make a case for Turkey's own EU membership; and even from Denktash's son, Serdar, who believed it was time for his father to bend a bit.

A just solution should incorporate the following components: 1) a federal division of powers based on the latest UN plan; 2) freedom of movement throughout the island (which would be mandated by EU membership in any event); 3) where possible, the return of people's homes and properties or, where impossible, financial compensation; 4) a concerted effort to develop the north economically; and 5) the removal from the north of both Turkish troops and post-1974 settlers from mainland Turkey. With the surprising amount of good will on both sides, Cypriots themselves are proving to each other and to the world that they can indeed live together in peace once again.

—David T. Koyzis, Professor of Political Science
    Redeemer University College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”