The poet T. S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, the month of change, the month when memory collides with desire. In Cyprus, April has become not only the month of cyclical changes, but the month of decisive ones. In April 2003, the checkpoints dividing the island since the 1974 Greek-sponsored coup and Turkish intervention opened; only a year later, a United Nations plan to reunite the island was approved at referendum by Turkish Cypriots and defeated by their Greek Cypriot neighbors. And in 2009, only a few days before the fifth anniversary of the twin referenda, parliamentary elections in the Turkish Cypriot north brought a conservative party back to power and ended the reign of the party that many international observers have described as the “party of peace.”  The Republican Turkish Party lost its hold on Parliament and instead Turkish Cypriot voters brought back to power the National Unity Party (UBP), a party that is populist, nationalist and primarily concerned with maintaining whatever semblance of autonomy the unrecognized state in Cyprus’ north may have.

But only days after the election, on April 29, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) issued a judgment that may be even more decisive both for the north’s autonomy and for future negotiations. The decision, pertaining to an ongoing property case, affirmed the validity of the Republic of Cyprus’ (RoC) laws over the north. Predictably, the judgment created panic in the north and gloating in the south. RoC government spokesman Stephanos Stephanou told a local English-language newspaper that “we are holding onto this legal triumph, [and] we will use it in our political battle,” acknowledging that the decision is bound to rock ongoing negotiations. [1]

Closed-door negotiations had begun more than a year earlier, following the election of Communist party leader Dimitris Christofias to the presidency in the south. At the time, many hoped that the election would bring a change from the hardline policies of former President Tassos Papadopoulos.  Christofias pledged to negotiate a solution to the island’s division, one that would unite it under a federal system. And many people believed that he could do it, since his counterpart, Turkish Cypriot President Mehmet Ali Talat [2], was a long-time friend and head of the main socialist party in the island’s north. When these old comrades met as leaders, there was much hope, as well as hype, both locally and internationally, proclaiming this as “the last chance.”  If they can’t do it, most people said, no one can.

But negotiations have so far been hampered by the specter of a previous reunification plan that Greek Cypriots rejected at referendum in 2004, and by general indifference on the part of the Cypriot public. While the 2004 referendum remains an open wound for Turkish Cypriots, indifference to the negotiations represents a change in public attitudes on both sides of the island since the ceasefire line that divides it opened. And now, even as the property battle is heating up in EU courts, diplomats based on the island are talking about taking a new plan to referendum by the beginning of 2010.  All signs indicate that a referendum is likely to fail on both sides of the island, but EU diplomats, especially, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the tangle that they aided in tying, and they acknowledge that they have no backup plan should a referendum fail.

Greek Cypriots are likely to experience few negative effects if another referendum fails, living as they do in a recognized state that the EU admitted as member in 2004. Turkish Cypriots, on the other hand, will continue to be squeezed tighter by the legal and political vise created by living in a state excluded from the EU’s acquis communautaire. Indeed, the EU’s involvement has created a new dynamic to the Cyprus Problem, as the legal and the political, the communal and the individual, are being entangled in new ways that will make the problem harder and harder to unknot.

The Last Chance?

In order to understand the current state of affairs, one needs to take a step back — in fact, about five years back, to the moment when the checkpoints opened. The late President Papadopoulos had been in office only a few months when the authorities in the north of the island ordered the opening of the border in April 2003. There was an immediate euphoria at the new freedom of movement, followed by a period of disappointment, even dismay, as many people returned to the homes that they had abandoned three decades earlier and found that everything had changed. Greek Cypriots, especially, had long been encouraged by their political leadership to remember their lost villages as they once were, in anticipation of one day returning there. Visits to their homes brought the sudden realization that things had changed for good, that even “real” return and settlement in their villages would not be a return to a lost past. The response of many Cypriots to this new reality was confusion, and for many Greek Cypriots there was anger at their own government for what they saw as inadequate guidance.

This confusion and anger quickly found direction, however, when negotiations resumed over the latest UN attempt at a negotiated settlement, which became known as the Annan Plan, after then Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Although Papadopoulos had sworn to negotiate on the basis of this plan, this was when it still seemed that the Turkish Cypriot side would remain intransigent. When protests forced Turkish Cypriot leaders to the negotiating table, Papadopoulos quickly became the plan’s major opponent.  In the period leading up to the April 2004 referendum on the plan, he called on citizens to vote against it.  Turkish Cypriots who had mobilized in support of the plan felt betrayed when 76 percent of the Greek Cypriot electorate soundly defeated it.  Much of the good mood and good will created by the checkpoints’ opening evaporated overnight.

Moreover, after Papadopoulos successfully worked to defeat the plan, he then refused to negotiate with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, who in April 2005 became the new president of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Indeed, for almost four years, Papadopoulos oversaw a worsening of relations with Turkish Cypriot leaders and the rise of nationalisms on both sides of the island. It was a new type of “cold war,” one in which Papadopoulos sought to push Turkish Cypriot leaders out into the cold and to negotiate only with Turkey. The main reason that Papadopoulos thought he could do this is that one week after the defeat of the Annan Plan at referendum, the Republic of Cyprus joined the EU without the northern part of the island. Although Turkish Cypriots are able to acquire EU citizenship, the EU’s borders technically end at the ceasefire line that divides the island. Papadopoulos planned to use this new membership to bribe and blackmail Turkey, the country with the most ambivalent relationship to Europe of any EU candidate state.

The defeat of Papadopoulos in the February 2008 election and the rise to power of Christofias, who has a history of seeking cooperation with Turkish Cypriots, seemed to signal a change. But there was no shift of fundamental values with Christofias’ election. His party, AKEL, had a bicommunal history that, in many Turkish Cypriots’ eyes, they always had betrayed, as they consistently supported nationalist leaders. AKEL supported the nationalist struggle of the 1950s, and they helped bring Papadopoulos to power in 2002.

Even more importantly for their Turkish Cypriot friends, AKEL had betrayed them through its last-minute rejection of the Annan Plan, refusing to buck the rising tide of popular sentiment against the plan and hence ensuring its defeat. And in the recent election, too, Christofias came to power in large part because of his repeated promises that the Annan Plan was dead and buried, that it would not be coming back either in substance or in spirit. The Annan Plan, then, became a specter hovering over the negotiations, both because of Turkish Cypriots’ acceptance of and insistence on its basic principles and also because of its demonization in Greek Cypriot society. Although Greek Cypriot support for Christofias demonstrated a desire for a solution to the island’s division, public opinion insists that that solution must bear no resemblance to the previous plan.

Even if the election did not represent some fundamental change, however, attitudes since then show that there has been a more glacial change. Since spring 2008 Christofias and Talat have held closed-door meetings in which they have tried to hash out between themselves and their advisory committees the parameters of a workable solution within the framework of a bicommunal, bizonal federation. Despite the initial press, though, negotiations have proceeded with little interest from the public. Journalists in the north report that when newspapers put news of the negotiations on the front page, they sell far fewer papers than on other days. In the south, negotiations have been overshadowed by other events, such as the controversial announcement by the Ministry of Education that they would change the textbooks and curricula in order to produce youth prepared for a solution. The whirlwind of controversy that resulted led even the communist Minister of Education to proclaim that he was a Hellene and proud of the nationalist fighters of his youth.

Disinterest, then, seems to be the key word. But it is a particular kind of disinterest. In newspapers and public discourse on both sides of the island, many people are less concerned with whether or not the negotiations will succeed than with which side is going to come out ahead when they fail. This does not mean that people are unconcerned with a solution. But now, it seems, the solution that many people are seeking is not so much one single solution to the” Cyprus problem” but many individual solutions to their own “Cyprus problems.” Greek Cypriots living on Turkish land in the south, or Turkish Cypriots living in Greek houses in the north; people with business interests and speculators who want to get on with making money; people who have unfinished emotional business that they would like to resolve — all of these have begun seeking individual ways to resolve their own problems in the absence of a solution to “the” problem.

Solving the Many Cyprus Problems

This individualization of “the problem” also may be traced to the changes put in motion by the checkpoints’ opening five years before. At that time, much of Turkish Cypriot society was mobilized either in vocal support or in fervent opposition to the Annan Plan. No one knows for certain who ordered the checkpoints’ opening. But it was clearly a response by powers in the north to the loud and insistent protests by Turkish Cypriots against the uncompromising regime of long-time leader Rauf Denktaş. In the previous few years, north Cyprus had experienced an accelerated neoliberal opening, followed by a banking crisis in 2000 and an economic crash in early 2001 that followed on the heels of Turkey’s own. Turkish Cypriots had just begun to taste the neoliberal freedoms of choice, and they were tired of having their economic fate tied to that of Turkey.

So when the UN presented its new plan to reunify the island, members of parties on the left and the right, civil servants and businesspeople, united to support the plan and defeat those who opposed it. In meetings of up to 30,000 — a huge number for a citizen population of only 180,000 — they chanted that they wanted to be “masters in their own country,” that they wanted to be “tied to the world.”  And the only way to create those new ties, it seemed, was to defeat their defeatist leaders, negotiate with Greek Cypriots, and enter the European Union on 1 May 2004 as a united island. In response to such demands, leaders in the north decided to open the checkpoints, probably hoping that divisive, intercommunal incidents would follow.

Subsequent events, though, have shown that nothing is as simple as either the nationalists or the peace activists had hoped. While nationalists in the north had long proclaimed that the closed border was their only means of safety and that once opened Greek Cypriots would come to slaughter them, peace activists on both sides had long asserted that the problem was only one between leaders and that once the two sides could mix, peace would surely follow. Both sides have been proven wrong, but in ways that very few people would have expected. Although there have been no serious violent incidents since the border’s opening, Greek Cypriots began in November 2004 to open lawsuits against foreigners and even Turkish Cypriots using their property in the north.  This is something that I have called elsewhere a form of “lawfare,” or a continuation of the conflict by legal means. [3] And although many friendships have been formed, no political solution has been forthcoming. Indeed, recent polls show that larger numbers of people on both sides of the island prefer to live in their own separate state than prefer to have people from the other community as neighbors.

Some activists in the south blame the government’s flaccid reaction to the open checkpoints for the current situation. Papadopoulos’ government was taken by surprise when the opening was announced, and they were unable immediately to formulate a response. Greek Cypriots wishing to cross or thinking of crossing, whether to visit the homes that they had abandoned or to simply see the island’s other half, were given no guidance from their government and contradictory advice in the media. A lawyer would appear on television and tell people that crossing to the north and presenting their passports at the checkpoints constituted “implied recognition” of the government there. The next day another lawyer would appear to tell them that it constituted no such thing. Many people perceived the state as absent during this period, leaving it to them to make decisions that could have lasting personal and political consequences.

It was in this spirit of individualized political choices that Meletis Apostolides, a refugee from a town in the north, opened a lawsuit against a British couple, the Orams, who had built a villa on his property. His intention was to put a halt to a construction boom on Greek Cypriot property in the north — something that both he and a global real estate crisis have since managed to do. Not long after, in response to a separate suit, a committee on immovable property was established in the north with the approval of the European Court of Human Rights, allowing Greek Cypriots to apply for restitution or compensation for their properties there. This has created controversy in the south, and Greek Cypriots are discouraged from applying, as it again appears to entail a form of recognition. But the fact that 330 Greek Cypriots have nevertheless taken their cases to this court, and that so far 45 of these cases have been settled, indicates the ways in which the unresolved and seemingly irresolvable Cyprus problem has, for many Cypriots, become a much more quotidian matter of individual problems, the solutions for which they may more successfully seek on their own.

Indeed, within only a few months of the referendum, it had become quite common for Cypriots to remark that the Cyprus problem “is really all about property.” What they meant by this is that the most important thing for many Cypriots in considering a solution is what will happen to the properties that were abandoned or destroyed during the island’s several periods of conflict.  Echoing these comments, a colleague told me, “If we solve the property issue, the Cyprus problem is finished.” This does not mean that they believe that resolution of the property issue will result in something as clearcut as reunification, or a victory for either side. Rather, when people say that the Cyprus Problem will be “finished,” they simply mean that it will end, that there will be nothing left to argue over.

Disinterest in the current negotiations, then, does not imply lack of interest in a solution, but rather lack of hope in a negotiated one. Cypriots have begun to seek individual means to solve their own problems created by the larger “problem.”  “I’m trying to solve my Cyprus problem,” has become a phrase heard now on both sides of the island.  But while many people hoped that the courts might represent a potential means to solve their own “Cyprus problems,” the recent ECJ judgment has shown that even individuals may affect the course of a larger conflict. It has also shown that the EU’s continuing hands-off approach to a thorny political problem at its periphery may only bring that problem closer and closer to Europe’s center.

The EU’s Cyprus Problem

Since the early 1990’s, Greek Cypriots have used transnational courts as a political tool. Until the opening of the checkpoints in 2003, Greek Cypriots brought suits against Turkey in the ECHR for preventing the use of their property in the island’s north and for refusing to investigate the issue of missing persons in the island. After Greek Cypriots’ rejection of a reunification plan that would have solved the property issue, the ECHR put their cases on hold, upholding the right of Turkey’s “subordinate authority” in the north to come up with a sufficient remedy for the problem.  This took the form of a property commission, one aimed at offering restitution or compensation to Greek Cypriots who applied. The open checkpoints made this possible, although all cases have remained confidential in order to protect applicants from pressure not to proceed.

The open checkpoints also made possible Apostolides’ suit, which it has now become clear may be at legal odds with the commission approved by the ECHR. Because while the property commission allows some autonomy to authorities in the north, Apostolides’ suit is based on the RoC’s claims to sovereignty over the entirety of the island. Apostolides brought his case in the RoC’s courts, using the open checkpoints to issue a summons to the Orams in the north. Not surprisingly, the judgment of the court demanded that the Orams demolish their villa and pay compensation. Because Apostolides was unable to enforce a decision of the RoC’s courts in the island’s north, he decided to use the RoC’s status as a new EU member state to have the decision enforced in the British courts. He sought to seize the Orams’ assets and property there and the UK court of appeal decided to refer certain questions to the ECJ about the status of EU law in Cyprus’ Turkish Cypriot north, which is outside the EU’s acquis communautaire. The ECJ decision confirmed that the laws of the RoC are valid over the unrecognized north, noting that, “[a]ccording to national legislation, the real property rights relating to those areas of the Republic of Cyprus in which the Government of that Member State does not exercise effective control (‘the northern area’) subsist and remain valid in spite of the invasion of Cypriot territory in 1974 by the Turkish army and the ensuing military occupation of part of Cyprus.” [4] As a result, the ECJ acknowledges the jurisdiction of courts in the south over property in the island’s north.

In the Greek Cypriot south, this was interpreted as a victory for “justice,” while Turkish Cypriots understood that the decision was based in a highly political interpretation of Cyprus’ history. The day after the judgment was announced, Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat stressed that “it is not acceptable that the ECJ, which issued this decision, refused to see that the case between the Orams couple and Apostolides is not one of the Orams couple disregarding the law but one originating from Cyprus’ property problem and from there being two separate property regimes and two separate legal regimes in the island.” [5]  And Apostolides’ lawyer, Constantinos Kandounas, noted in his own press conference that the view that Turkey had invaded the island and that the north is under military occupation had not been expressed before in any other decision, whether by the UN, the ECHR, or any other European institution. Kandounas remarked that this judgment, then, carried important political significance, at the same time countering Turkish Cypriot claims that the judgment might affect negotiations. “Is the argument of our Turkish Cypriot brothers that for them to participate in negotiations, they should be permitted to continue the plunder of Greek Cypriot properties?” he asked rhetorically. [6]

Others, however, were less coy. The vice president of the political party DISY, Ionas Nicolaou, asserted that the case was important to negotiations over the property issue. “I would say it strengthens our position for the return of Greek Cypriot properties in the occupied areas to their owners,” he said. [7]  And the nationalist right-wing daily Simerini declared the decision a victory and stated that the “solution of the property issue will not be the result of give-and-take but a consequence of the decisions of the European Courts.” [8] The general atmosphere in the media of the south, then, has been that lawsuits not only represent a way to solve the many Cyprus problems of individuals, but even to solve the Cyprus problem, and to solve it in the way that the majority of Greek Cypriots want.

Recent behind-the-scenes efforts to speed up negotiations, then, seem to indicate that even EU and other diplomats see this “last boat” quickly headed for the legal rocks. It is also not hard to see that the past five years have polarized Cyprus in unprecedented ways, not only leading to rising nationalisms on both sides of the island but also to divisions around the EU’s role. While Greek Cypriot leaders have sworn to negotiate a “European solution” to the island’s division, one that they interpret to mean the protection of certain human rights, Turkish Cypriots are frustrated with the EU approach, and they expressed this frustration in the recent defeat of a party openly supported by Europe. Leaders of that party also blamed Europe for their defeat, citing promises made — such as direct flights and trade — that were not kept.

More important than empty promises, however, has been the EU’s refusal to define the status of north Cyprus in regards to Europe, so that the island’s north now appears on its maps as “the area not controlled by the Government of Cyprus.” Turkish Cypriots are able to acquire EU passports through the recognized government, the RoC, even as they live in a state that is de facto outside Europe.  But law is always based on politics, and as we have seen in Cyprus’ property cases, the absence of a stance on a political issue just means that the law will have to define one. The EU’s hands-off approach, then, has created its own Cyprus problem, one that promises to tie the EU’s hands with a set of precedents that may be difficult to overcome.


[1] Cyprus Mail, April 30, 2009.
[2] Although his party lost the parliamentary elections in 2009, Mehmet Ali Talat maintains his office and position as chief negotiator, at least until the next elections in 2010.
[3] On the particular case that has become iconic of the new phase of the property issue, see Rebecca Bryant, “Of Lemons and Laws: Property and the (Trans)national Order in Cyprus,” in Waging War and Making Peace: Reparations and Human Rights, ed. B. R. Johnston and S. Slyomovics (San Francisco, CA: Left Coast Press, 2008).  On more recent developments in the property issue, see Rebecca Bryant and Mete Hatay, Suing for Sovereignty: Property, Territory, and the EU’s Cyprus Problem, policy brief written for the Global Policy Center, İstanbul Kültür Üniversitesi, available online at
[5] Kıbrıs Gazetesi, April 29, 2009.
[6] Haravgi, May 31, 2009.
[7] Cyprus Mail, April 30, 2009.
[8] Simerini, April 29, 2009.

How to cite this article:

Rebecca Bryant "The Many Cyprus Problems," Middle East Report 251 (Summer 2009).

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