One year after a failed referendum on reunification, divisions on the island of Cyprus are widening. In both the Turkish north and the majority-Greek south, ethnic nationalism is on the rise.

In late April 2004, voters in Cyprus went to the polls to pass judgment on a plan offered by the United Nations that held out the hope of ending over 30 years of conflict. The plan, bearing the name of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, would have reunified the island that has been divided since 1974, when a Greek-sponsored coup aimed at uniting the island with Greece provoked Turkish military intervention. The breakaway Turkish administration declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983, but the Greek-controlled Republic of Cyprus remains the internationally recognized government of the island. Annan and European chanceries put their weight behind the reunification measure, hoping that its acceptance would pave the way for a united Cyprus to enter the European Union on its May 1 accession date. But while a majority of Turkish Cypriots voted yes, Greek Cypriots — in larger numbers — voted no.

One year after the referendum, Cyprus is undergoing new and potentially dangerous transformations. Greek Cypriots rejected the UN plan in the belief that European Union membership would give them a stronger position from which to negotiate a better deal. So far, EU membership has brought them little besides ill will from Europe. What their rejection has wrought in the island is a new period of inter-communal mistrust, along with rising nationalism in the majority-Greek south.

Denktaş Redux

On April 17, 2005, Turkish Cypriots went to the polls again in the final phase of a revolution that over the past two years led to the opening of checkpoints along the divided island’s ceasefire line and mobilization in support of the Annan Plan. Turkish Cypriots elected as their new president long-time opposition leader Mehmet Ali Talat, who in 2004 led the campaign in favor of the UN scheme. After 22 years in office, hardline President Rauf Denktaş, known for his determination to keep Turkish and Greek Cypriots apart, did not even bother to run. But the ouster of Denktaş — seemingly a momentous event — aroused little joy, as northerners watch Greek Cypriot obstacles to a solution appearing to mount daily. At 70 percent, the voter turnout was the lowest in the north’s history.

Indeed, despite Talat’s significant victory with 55 percent of the vote, Turkish Cypriots are dispirited and worried in the face of an uncompromising Republic of Cyprus led by a hardliner who appears in no danger of being ousted. Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos has rejected Annan’s call to submit in writing Greek Cypriot requests for revisions to the plan rejected in the 2004 referendum. He has refused to engage in dialogue with Turkish Cypriot leaders and instead is using his new position as president of an EU country to put pressure on Turkey, the EU’s most controversial candidate for entry. In lieu of a negotiated settlement, the government now appears to encourage the use of individual mechanisms for compensating owners of property lost in the 1974 fighting that led to the island’s division, including using courts both in Cyprus and in Europe. This strategy promises to institute a new regime of legal tangles that may not be easily undone at the negotiating table.

What is most apparent in this new approach is that the Republic’s current government is determined to ignore Turkish Cypriots as political actors. That was clear at the time of the referendum and has become more obvious as the leadership of the Republic has evaded invitations to the negotiating table. But one would not expect Papadopoulos to be particularly concerned to include Turkish Cypriots, given his history. Only days after Talat’s election, the Greek Cypriot newspaper Alitheia created a stir when it publicized that journalist Makarios Dhroushiotis had documented in his latest book a secret plan proposed by Papadopoulos to the Greek army in 1964. [1] The plan provided for the complete annihilation of all Turkish Cypriot civilians within 75 minutes in the event of an impending Turkish invasion. Fortunately, Papadopoulos� Greek military superiors rejected the idea. This revelation surprised no one, but it led many Turkish Cypriots to ask if perhaps Papadopoulos’ present strategy might not be a slower, more effective version of the same plan. [2]

All of this seems to recall a period that many thought had passed, when Rauf Denktaş turned up his nose at opportunities for dialogue, insisting on the independence and sovereignty of his unrecognized state. Moreover, rather than rejecting their rejectionist leader, Greek Cypriots have, since the referendum, called for solidarity in the face of world pressure. While the wave that brought Talat to power has sent ripples through Turkey and Greece, those effects seem to stop at the ceasefire line that still cuts Cyprus in two. Or, as a Turkish Cypriot postal worker put it, “We’ve had our revolution in the north. Now we have to start one in the south.”

Conspiracy Theories Die Hard

Not long ago, right-wing parties in northern Cyprus canvassed the villages with checkbooks and trucks filled with children�s shoes and pressure cookers. Getting services, jobs or promotions depended on one�s party affiliation. It is generally known that those close to Denktaş were favored in the post-1974 distribution of property left behind by Greek Cypriots fleeing southward. One leftist says that such “moneyism,” rather than nationalism, is still very much in evidence. Denktaş-style rejectionism fell out of fashion after the checkpoints opened; when better-off Greeks began to visit the north and patronize Turkish establishments, some of the nationalists went with the flow. “Those same people who ran around with a flag when Denktaş told them to,” the leftist says, “danced on the tables when the Greeks came over with all their money.”

In such an environment, it is not surprising that Turkish Cypriots should be cynical and prone to conspiracy theories. Nor should it be surprising that they were anxious to throw off ties to Turkey. The overwhelming presence of Turkish troops; the opening of the island to Turkish settlers and workers; the use of Cyprus for the Turkish black market, including drugs, gambling, prostitution and human trafficking; and the use by local politicians of ties with Turkey led many Turkish Cypriots to sour upon a power whose intervention they had once desired. Turkish Cypriots unable to find work were leaving the island, while poor Turks were arriving in droves. Denktaş infamously remarked that “the ones leaving are Turks, the ones coming are Turks,” suggesting that it made no difference whether they were from Cyprus or Trabzon. This remark is still repeated by Turkish Cypriots with a certain wry amusement today. The result was a rebellion against a local regime whose main political tactics seemed to be bribery and threat.

But while the main slogans of the Turkish Cypriots’ revolution reviled the Turkish occupation of their island, events began to take a different turn. By the end of 2002, Turkey was no longer the same old Turkey, and the new Justice and Development Party was eager to resolve problems in Cyprus to clear the way for its own EU accession bid. Meanwhile, the opening of the checkpoints in April 2003 made it clear that the reunification of the island would not be as simple as long-lost siblings embracing. Turkish Cypriots had prepared to rebel against Turkey if necessary, and it was something of a denouement when it turned out that the new Turkish government was as anxious to be rid of the Cyprus problem as Cypriots were to be rid of the “motherland.” The real surprise came when Greek Cypriots, who had always declared themselves ready for a solution, were caught off guard at the transformation of the subject of their propaganda into a real possibility. As one Turkish Cypriot researcher recently phrased it, “Because of Turkey we began to feel ourselves to be Cypriots. But now, because of the Greeks, we’ve become Turks again.”

One misconception common in the south is that the key to a solution is simply pressuring Turkey. Greek Cypriots are aided in this misconception by an interesting coalition of far left and far right in the north, who have united in the claim that the revolution that ousted Denktaş and brought Talat to power must be orchestrated by foreign powers, whether Turkey or the US. The absurdities of this situation become apparent when one realizes that the far-right, ultra-nationalist Greek Cypriot newspaper Simerini favors the far-left, ultraradical Turkish Cypriot newspaper Afrika as its source of information about the north. The latter insists that the current government in the north is only a puppet of Turkey, confirming for nationalists in the south that Turkish Cypriots have no political will of their own, are at the mercy of Turkey, and should be politically and economically strangled for their own good.

The reality is that while Turkey’s cooperation is certainly necessary for any solution to the Cyprus problem, Turkey could not force a solution on Turkish Cypriots. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, recognizing this situation, has repeatedly invited Cypriot leaders to the negotiating table. In the south, Erdoğan’s call is seen as evasion, and Papadopoulos now threatens to erect barriers for Turkey at every step of its EU accession process. These threats are hailed in the south as a sort of David-and-Goliath battle. Unfortunately, the only possible results of this legal gamesmanship are either the Republic’s own further isolation from other EU countries or Turkey’s withdrawal from the EU process. Seemingly, these are both results that the Republic should not want, especially after years of insisting that Turkey should conform to EU norms. But it seems that these days the view from the moral high ground has grown a bit cloudy.

Preparing the People

These developments are disheartening for an island that only two years ago experienced the excitement of long-closed checkpoints opening, allowing Cypriots to visit their former homes. There was an initial enthusiasm, replete with emotional reunions with former neighbors in villages left unwillingly behind. But interestingly, it seems that one of the primary reasons for Greek Cypriots to reject the Annan Plan was the realization in very concrete ways that life simply would never be as it once was. What Greek Cypriot civil society leaders now repeat time and again is that the Annan Plan failed because there was no time “to prepare the people.” That preparation would have been as much psychological as political, “preparing” them to accept a new reality that for 30 years had never been part of their horizon of possibility.

A year ago, not long before the fateful referendum, I had the opportunity to return with a Greek Cypriot couple to their former village and to act as interpreter as the Greek Cypriot woman visited for the first time since 1974 the house where she was born and grew up. She had fled the village without a chance to look back, “without even a handkerchief,” as she says. A family from a village outside Ankara now lives in her childhood home, persuaded to immigrate by their son, who was wounded during the Turkish invasion of the island. The Turkish family acquired the property from the government, sold all their land in their former village and invested in the house that they now fear losing.

Many Greek Cypriots despised the Annan Plan because it appeared to legalize this sort of plunder. But the real irony of the plan is that it would have allowed both the Greek Cypriot couple who desire to return to their village and the Turkish family now living in their house to remain neighbors in a new sort of community that many have had difficulty imagining. The plan called for a bizonal, federal state in which property issues would have been resolved through restitution or compensation and a limited number of Greek Cypriots would have returned to their homes. Although it would have returned to the Republic of Cyprus many villages that before 1974 were primarily Greek, the plan also would have allowed large numbers of Turkish immigrants to remain in the island. As a result, the dream of recreating their communities that has sustained Greek Cypriot refugees for 30 years would have been sacrificed to a realpolitik that appears to many cynically to disregard the demands of what Greek Cypriots call “justice.”

The use of abstract, supposedly universal principles for culturally specific aims has a long history in the Greek Cypriot community. The dream of uniting the island with Greece was, even in the early part of the twentieth century, expressed in terms of abstract principles of “justice.” In the 1950s, Greek Cypriots expressed that dream in terms of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Greek Cypriots understood this as their majoritarian right, even though Turkish Cypriots perceived the demand for union with Greece as what Tocqueville called the “tyranny of the majority.” Since the division of the island in 1974, the only “just” solution for Greek Cypriots has been one that would expel the Turkish army and ensure an absolute return to their homes and the reconstitution of their communities.

The Annan Plan guaranteed none of that, and as a result, it was, for most Greek Cypriots, unjust. Much of what appeared to overtake Greek Cypriots prior to the referendum was a sort of self-righteousness about compromising such principles. In early May, when Papadopoulos reiterated that “no hardship, pressure or threat can force me to sign a settlement that will undermine the present and future of my country,” many saw him as sticking by the principles that have shaped the community for decades. [3] At the same time, such a principle of “justice” helps explain why the same Greek Cypriots who rejected a plan that would have provided them compensation for their lost property are now seeking that same compensation in courts of law.

Moreover, at a psychological level, large numbers of Greek Cypriots have found themselves caught between the moral demand that they remember and the pragmatic demand that they forget. Institutions of memory that have permeated life in the south for 30 years have been aimed at the constant reliving of trauma, rather than at overcoming it. Refugee organizations, committees of relatives of missing persons and even political parties all develop, sustain or symbolize narratives that produce what historian Dominick LaCapra calls a historical “acting-out,” or a compulsive repetition of the site of trauma. [4] Indeed, compulsive “acting-out” has been the dominant mode of historical engagement in Cyprus for more than 30 years. At the same time, people have, by necessity, gone on with their lives, creating contradictions that only became apparent after the opening of the checkpoints, when refugees returned to their villages and realized that the past was gone. The Annan Plan forced into full public view the heretical idea that nothing would ever return to the way it once was.

In this situation, it should not be surprising that Greek Cypriots are now having some trouble articulating exactly what they want from a solution. It should also not be surprising that all official efforts in the past year involve not dialogue with their Turkish Cypriot compatriots but the use of legal mechanisms gained by their new position as members of the EU. For those who believe that the only “just” solution is a full restitution of everything lost, taking the problem to a court of law seems the natural next step.

The Spoils of War

In the past few years, the north has sprouted a real estate agency on every corner, many foreign or with foreign ties. Indeed, since the introduction of the Annan Plan, northern Cyprus has experienced a property boom. Because the plan would have provided everyone who has invested in property with compensation, foreigners no longer afraid of losing their investments in the event of a settlement have begun to snatch up property in the highly desirable, heretofore undeveloped north. Turkish Cypriots appalled by the construction’s effects on the environment nevertheless shrug that as long as they are under embargo, they do not have many choices. If they cannot export goods, they can at least import buyers.

This development boom has created an even greater property tangle than the one that previously existed, when the essential problem was that of Turkish Cypriots and Turkish settlers living in former Greek Cypriot property, with a smaller number of Greek Cypriots living in Turkish Cypriot property left in the south. Now not only are foreigners being issued unrecognized titles to land in an unrecognized state, but Greek Cypriots are finding their dreams of return cluttered with bulldozers and bungalow complexes.

Much of the tangle of the current state of affairs is reflected in what has come to be known as “the Orams case,” after an English couple by that name. When Meletis Apostolides returned to his village of Lapithos, now in Turkish northern Cyprus, and found that the Orams had built a villa in what used to be his garden, he decided to take the couple to court in the Greek Cypriot south. Not surprisingly, he won the case, which demanded that the villa be demolished and compensation paid. The case is currently under appeal, but many are waiting to see what the EU will do about the unanimous decision of the parliament of the Republic of Cyprus demanding that the EU extradite EU citizens such as the Orams. Of course, many frightened foreigners now await the final results of the Orams case and others like it.

Moreover, since the opening of the checkpoints and the Republic�s entry into the EU, the south has come into possession of much more information about northern Cyprus and Turkish Cypriots than it previously could access. The Republic, in its claim to be the single government of the entire island, has always recognized Turkish Cypriots as its citizens. So when the checkpoints opened, large numbers of Turkish Cypriots, desperate for easier ways to travel, immediately crossed to receive their identity cards and passports from the Republic. Former Turkish Cypriot president Denktaş called those acquiring Republic of Cyprus identity cards traitors, though he later took a more pragmatic view of the issue when his own grandson became a Republic of Cyprus passport-holder.

At the end of April, the first lawsuit against a Turkish Cypriot for use of Greek Cypriot property was brought against a restauranteur in Famagusta, using information obtained when he applied for an identity card in the south. Because of the open checkpoints, Greek Cypriot officials were able to bring the summons to the restauranteur�s front door. In a move that appears to encourage such suits, the Republic recently passed a law giving a two-year prison sentence to anyone who occupies the property of a citizen of the Republic without the legal owner’s permission. With its two-year prison sentence, the law was intended to meet the EU criteria for extradition. Although the law’s author, Androulla Vassiliou, claims that the law was not addressed to Turkish Cypriots, [5] the first four arrest warrants, issued in early May, included three Turkish Cypriots. [6] Now, hundreds of lawsuits to be brought by Greek Cypriots against their Turkish compatriots are reportedly queued in the courts of the Republic, with others pending in the European Court of Human Rights. Because Greek Cypriots cannot sue a government that they do not recognize, they have resorted to suing individuals.

In the north, those individuals able to be sued constitute about 80 percent of the population. Many Turkish Cypriots originally from the north had their property destroyed when they fled their villages in 1963-1964; when they returned more than a decade later, they settled in Greek Cypriot houses. Many other Turkish Cypriots came from villages in the south, and the government in the north issued them Greek Cypriot housing. Most Turkish Cypriots at the time were too war-weary to think much about the legal consequences. As one woman put it, “I had three children and a baby in my arms. We had lived in a tent for eleven years. All I could think about was having a roof over my head.”

Many Turkish Cypriots visiting their former homes in the south report that the homes are now either rubble or have been flooded by dams or made into shopping malls, hotels and parking lots. If the Republic succeeds in implementing the extradition plan, Turkish Cypriots convicted in the Republic’s courts will no longer be able either to cross to the south or to set foot on European soil without risk of arrest. For some there are ominous reminders in all this of the period between 1963 and 1974, when Turkish Cypriots were forced into enclaves but encouraged to emigrate by the then Greek-controlled Republic, which many report offered them plane tickets and passports. Much of the construction boom in the north, and especially its sales to foreigners, bears an unfortunate resemblance to stripping bare a sinking ship.

There is now some talk of Turkish Cypriots initiating their own lawsuits, but some reports say that the Republic is blocking information for Turkish Cypriots wishing to sue for compensation for their own property in the south. The disappointment for many is that the Annan Plan had promised to rescue Turkish Cypriots from a life built on spoils and from the tenuousness of an existence in which all aspects of life are “so-called” and dubiously legal. Now they are faced with the possible creation of a legal, de facto “solution” that would stand in the way of a true political one.

“We just have too many lawyers,” commented one Greek Cypriot activist, “and we’ve all been trained to think of the legal side of things. We have to start thinking of the human side.” But that human side may also be changing. One Turkish Cypriot mukhtar recently put it rather simply: “We gave lives in the name of all of this. For them [Greek Cypriots], it was more a matter of losing property.” While the mukhtar’s comment in no way reflects the reality of Greek Cypriot losses, it certainly reflects a perception that seems to be growing in momentum among Turkish Cypriots today: namely, that Greek Cypriots want it all, and they will sell their compatriots up the river to get it.

In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that even Turkish Cypriots who a year ago voted in favor of a plan that would have brought Greek Cypriots into their communities now say that they do not want them there. We want a solution, they say, but not one that brings them back. For Greek Cypriots now asking what they lost in voting against the Annan Plan, this should be an important answer.

The Pieces of Peace

When Papadopoulos declared in his pre-referendum speech that “I took over an internationally recognized state. I am not going to hand over ‘a community,'” it was difficult at the time to imagine the resonance that that statement would have among Greek Cypriots. [7] In fact, it may have surprised some Greek Cypriots to realize that they had developed a loyalty to the republic that they had never wanted. The Greek Cypriot anti-colonial fight had been the only one in the world aimed not at independence but at annexation to another country. “The flag of the Republic of Cyprus is the best in the world,” former President Glafcos Clerides once remarked, “because it’s the only one that no one would die for.” Yet many Greek Cypriots apparently discovered a loyalty to the Republic when they felt under threat of losing it. What the Republic now guarantees them is a political voice of their own and a legal weapon with which to fight for the justice that they believe the Annan Plan denied them. Giving up their status as the only recognized government of the island would mean giving up their chances of getting anything more.

Overwhelming rejection of the Annan Plan and the belief in the impending success of legal mechanisms appears to be emboldening individuals in a trend that many see can only lead to conflict. During the Easter holiday, many Greek Cypriots crossed to the north to visit their former homes and villages. Among them was a group of refugees from the village of Karmi, formerly an entirely Greek village and now a quaint community of foreigners who have restored the village houses on long-term leases. Foreign residents in the north have borne the brunt of Greek Cypriot ire since the checkpoints opened, and Karmi, as a foreign enclave, has reportedly experienced more than most. When a Greek Cypriot woman entered the garden of her father’s coffee shop to pick flowers, she was stopped by policemen called in by the current resident. She and her companions were arrested for trespassing, detained overnight and released with a fine.

On both sides, it seems, good will is wearing thin. Indeed, the specter of Greek Cypriot officials turning up at one�s door with summons or eviction notices has led many people openly to declare that they will not go out without a fight. In the wake of these new and dangerous developments, Turkish Cypriot parties and newspapers that were a year ago in the forefront of the peace movement and support of the Annan Plan now openly say that Turkish Cypriots are under no obligation to unite with the south. Certainly, if matters continue to move in this direction, the reclosing of the ceasefire line that divides the island seems to be only a matter of time.



[1] Makarios Dhroushiotis, I Proti Dichotomisi: Kypros, 1963 – 1964 [The First Division: Cyprus, 1963 – 1964] (Nicosia: Alfadhi, 2005), cited in Alitheia, April 27, 2005.

[2] See Damla Özhan, “Sürpriz Olmadı”  [It Wasn’t a Surprise], Afrika, April 29, 2005.

[3] Fileleftheros, April 3, 2005.

[4] Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

[5] Yenidüzen, May 11, 2005.

[6] Kıbrıs, May 11, 2005.

[7] Simerini, April 8, 2004.


How to cite this article:

Rebecca Bryant "A Dangerous Trend in Cyprus," Middle East Report 235 (Summer 2005).

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