The Gordian Knot: Cyprus


In July 1974 Turkish armed forces invaded northern Cyprus in response of an earlier coupe d’état by the Greek Cypriots in favor of “Enosis”, or, in other words, unification of Cyprus with Greece. Over the next month, 40% of the island was captured by the Turkish military, and the ceasefire line, also known as the Green Line, became the UN monitored Buffer zone. Due to the fact that at least one quarter, around 160,000 of Greek population was expelled from Northern Cyprus, and around 60,000 Turkish Cypriots moved from the South to the North after the invasion, the pre-invasion predominantly Greek population of North Cyprus was soon replaced by Turkish Cypriot majority, thus drawing a definitive line along the buffer zone, separating the country not only geographically and politically, but also religiously and ethnically. In 1983, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus declared independence, conclusively partitioning the country in half. For over forty years the seemingly unsolvable Cyprus conflict disrupted the peace and harmony of Europe, becoming the source of some of the most controversial and explosive diplomatic issues facing the EU and the UN. Numerous mediation attempts and constantly ongoing negotiations were fruitless. Thus, a question arises: why a resolution was not achieved?

Based on the conflict resolution literature and theoretical arguments made for the grassroots participation and spoiler issues when dealing with identity-based conflicts, I argue, that a) the absence of a unified Cypriot identity, b) identity-based historical-ethnic animosity and mistrust between Turks and Greeks, c) presence of spoilers in the high ranks of the governments, as well as d) the lack of grassroots participation in the reconciliation/resolution processes, are to account for the still unresolved conflict in Cyprus.

This strategically important Greek island situated on the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, came under the Ottoman control in 1571, as a result of which, predominantly Greek ethnic population came to include around 20% Turkish settlers. Ethnic and religious animosity took roots and flourished between the two groups. In 1923 Cyprus passed from Turkey to Britain under the treaty of Lausanne, and became independent in 1960. A strong sentiment among the Greek Cypriots supporting Enosis erupted during the British rule, giving rise to guerrilla warfare undertaken by the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters. As a response, Turkish side started advocating for a partition into two communities, each associated with its Motherland. On this side, Turkish Defence Organization was formed.

Thus, when the independence was granted in 1960, the situation was volatile and a complex constitution, with power sharing arrangements between all players, was enacted. Turkey, Greece and Britain retained the right to militarily intervene if necessary, in order to safeguard the independence and territorial integrity of the new republic. However, the establishment of the new constitution did not improve communal relations, with each side trying to use loopholes within the new arrangement to gain advantages over the other. Increased level of inter-communal violence brought the UN peacekeeping forces to the ground in 1964. Nevertheless, following the coup of 1967 by the Greek nationalist pro-Enosis forces, the situation could not be contained any longer, and climaxed in 1974, by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

In his early 1990s works Azar explores the complex nature of identity based conflicts, and brings the term “Protracted Social Conflict” into Conflict Resolution literature, in reference to the deeply seated racial, cultural and ethnic hatreds between different communal groups, which invariably lead to violence. He puts the formation of group identity as the focal point of his research, and the designation of the “other” as the tool of re-enforcement of this identity. However, he also points out that not only ethnic identity, but also discriminative social structure comes to play a role, creating an environment of structural violence with unequal economic and political opportunities, limited participation and infringement on the basic social needs of the groups . Rothman builds on Azar’s research to show the intractability of identity-based conflicts. He highlights their intransigent and uncompromising nature, as they stem from struggles which participants view as rooted in the very foundation of their social identities, with values and needs that are deemed irreconcilable . He presents the formative reasons that transform a conflict into an intractable one, pointing out that “the more abstract and interpretive dynamics of history, psychology, culture, values, and beliefs of identity groups” play a huge role and are to be accounted for.

Burton denotes these situations of structural inequality and denied exercise of basic needs such as participation as “deep-rooted conflicts”. The argument he makes, however, is that groups do not negotiate over identity issues, as they would over other issues relating to other types of disputes . Threat to values and needs of identity is seen as existential, and hence, non-negotiable. Not surprisingly, Ronald Fisher in his 2001 article frames the Cyprus dispute as an identity-based conflict. The socio-political roots of identity-based conflicts is underscored by the fact that when one group continues to be denied its basic political and social need for participation in decision-making processes, it is invariably going to address such victimization, thus triggering more oppression and marginalization. What is interesting, however, is that in the case of Cyprus, both groups see themselves as victimized and marginalized, while identifying the other as the oppressor.

None of the four-decade-long negotiation efforts undertaken by different international players to bring an agreement about was engaged with success. Most frequent and central role of the mediator was played by the UN, which spearheaded most of the negotiations and mediation attempts. Power mediation by Britain was tried during the 1950s, with propositions that satisfied neither proponents of Enosis nor those of Taksim, thus rendering them useless. The mediation attempts during the interwar years in London, brought all three guarantors as well as two groups together, however the conference ended without a result, culminating in the events of 1974.

The post-1974 realities brought new propositions to the table. It became widely accepted that a federal model of government was now more applicable than any of the power-sharing or unitary state arrangements previously proposed. In 1979, a UN sponsored talk happened during which four main points were agreed upon, by which Cyprus was going to be a bi-communal, bi-zonal, independent federation. However, all the subsequent talks failed on the basis of disagreement over the power-sharing arrangements between the federal government and communal authorities.

Mid 1980s saw a resumption of talks, with the so called interim agreement presented by the UN, which highlighted the points on which sides agreed and disagreed. However, the points of divergence were substantial, and were not properly addressed, leaving room for the parties to avoid an agreement and to maneuver some more in order to achieve more preferable positions on the federal-confederal spectrum. In 1983, with the Turkish side declaring independence, the intractable nature of the conflict could not be ignored any longer. Thus, with numerous UN propositions and drafts of 1980s being rejected by one side or the other, a period of stagnation followed, with no apparent way to proceed. A round of talks were held in 1990s, with situation of refugees and displaced people, amount of power vested in the federal government, as well as question of territorial adjustments being central to negotiations. Like all the attempts prior to these and like all those still to come, these negotiations failed as well. With the EU starting the process of accession for the Cyprus Republic in the South, the unrecognized TRNC became more and more reluctant to become part of the process, insisting that the negotiations should be taken to state-to-state level, thus driving for recognition and partition in truth.

The breakthrough in the stalemate came in 2004, with the Annan Peace Plan, which was the fifth draft of a 4-year-long round of talks headed by Kofi Annan. The Republic of Cyprus was committed to reunification in its preparations to enter the EU as a united state. The Turkish side was ready to put 30 years of isolation and economic embargo behind. A long awaited agreement, which however, was opposed by both governments, was put to referendum in 2004. With 65% of Turkish population voting yes on it and 76% of Greeks voting no, the peace plan was killed, and the negotiations entered a deadlock.

It was argued that where the EU accession provided a unique opportunity window for both sides to use the incentives and the motivation to agree on a single solution, the post-EU-accession period that started with the failure of the Annan Plan, had the opposite effect. George Kyris argues that the Republic of Cyprus became a less flexible actor as a result of its membership of the EU, and the EU itself lost its role of a trustworthy mediator in the eyes of Turkish Cypriots. Despite the fact that EU became the only international actor to engage with South Cyprus economically and through capacity building programs, as a reward for their positive vote on the Annan Plan, the approval of the EU started to dramatically fall in the North, with 76% of Turikish Cypriots in 2005 seeing the EU accession as a good thing and EU as a positive actor, as opposed to only 48% in 2011. Since the Annan Plan of 2004 collapsed, little to no serious attempts were made to address the issue. The period of stalemate that followed was broken only ten years later, with both sides coming out with a joint declaration and a “roadmap to peace” in February 2014. For the first time both leaders expressed a renewed commitment to restart the peace talks. The new roadmap came to be known as the “Obama Plan” signaling the direct involvement of the United States in this round of talks.

To find the right path towards a resolution and an agreement, there is a vital need to clearly separate resource and interest based conflicts, in which the resources are the stakes, and are divisible, from identity-based conflicts, in which stakes are indivisible. Burton, Azar as well as Rothman consider the conventional methods of negotiation and mediation as futile when it comes to identity-based conflicts, arguing that if not approached differently, such conventional strategies will draw the warring parties further apart rather than bring them together over a solution. Burton emphasizes the importance of addressing security, recognition, and distributive justice during the negotiation processes, as a counter for problems of inequality, violence and underdevelopment. Thus, “identity conflicts require that special efforts be made to ensure accurate analysis, definition, and amelioration precisely because such conflicts are not tangible”. There is a deeply embedded sense of mistrust between Greeks and Turks, cemented through decades of historical animosity, wars and blood. This mistrust is one of the fundamentals plaguing the peace process and blocking the way for any viable solution from being achieved. When there is lack of trust between negotiating sides, and when mediators do not present viable alternatives as guarantors, as in the case of the EU, it becomes somewhat unrealistic to expect a positive outcome for such a complicated dispute. Moreover, as some of the experts studying the conflict started to argue, until a united Cypriot identity is created, the issue of mistrust is not going to go away, and any resolution attempt is going to be crushed by the warring sides.

Pearson in his 2001 article lays down the different approaches used during conflict resolution attempts when addressing identity-based ethno-political disputes. He emphasizes the importance of grassroots level negotiations, contrasting it with the elite level ones, as well as proposes the use of both instrumental and identity nature of negotiations to achieve results, stating: “It is not simply the instrumental modalities of protection that must be determined, but also the mutual understanding and acceptance of each side’s concerns about survival, status, legitimacy, and cultural and political rights”. Byrne argues that failure to integrate local communities and constituents in the early stages of negotiations is going to make them feel disconnected from the process, and thus not follow through with the agreements that were achieved between officials.
Pearson, while talking about identity-based conflicts and importance of grassroots participation, points out that the “bottom-up” approach should be taken depending on the nature of the conflict, and talks of Cyprus as a case in which regional involvement was more important than the grassroots-local one, and thus “top-down” approach was preferable. However, the fact that there is no single unified sense of a “Cypriot” citizen makes this case quite unique. The two parts of the country identify as Greeks and Turks, and see their motherlands accordingly as Greece and Turkey, rather than unified Cyprus Republic. In this scenario, the importance of involving local communities was vital if any agreement was to be achieved. The use of the “top-down” approach resulted in the failure of ratification of the agreement when it came to the people to vote on it in the referendum of 2004. If the grassroots participation had been provided early on, and if people felt that the agreement was their work as much as their leaders’, the outcome would have been different.

“It is a tricky calculus to know when support extends deeply enough at the grassroots or involves enough relevant actors, since just a few extremists can at least temporarily disrupt peace processes,” this statement by Pearson brings us directly to the next issue associated with the Cyprus conflict and failure of the negotiations. Pearlman explains spoiling as a mechanism of internal political contestation, emphasizing the fact that for contesting groups ” participation in or spoiling of negotiations offers an opportunity to advance their struggle for political dominance”. While Stedman addresses the issue of spoilers in peace processes in great detail, pointing out that “the greatest source of risk comes from spoilers – leaders and parties who believe that peace emerging from negotiations threatens their power, worldview, and interests”.
The constant presence of spoilers in the ranks of the governments and ruling elites back stabbed the Cyprus peace process and blocked the way for a resolution. Some of this was done to placate the domestic audience and to retain their positions of power and popularity, other reasons for such anti-agreement positions may have stemmed from the values and beliefs of these leaders, rather than their electoral interests and power considerations. Whatever the back-story, the personal involvement and actions of these high-ranking officials at the negotiation table were instrumental in putting an end to the agreements. History of the Cyprus conflict resolution attempts are abound with such examples, with every stage of the negotiations seeing the rise of a new crop of spoilers, from renown Turkish-Cypriot leader Mr. Rauf Dektansh, who disagreed and killed any proposition made by the UN during his time as the president, and, most famously, acted as a spoiler for the Annan plan , to the Greek Cypriot leaders encouraging their constituents to vote a “No” on it, with the Greek-Cypriot leadership going as far as stating that the “no” on the agreement this time will allow their side to negotiate from a higher ground during next round of talks and gain more from the bargaining, as they will already be part of the EU.

For forty years, the international community tried all possible and impossible angles to approach the Cyprus conflict and bring the parties together over a mutually acceptable solution. The negotiations entered a deadlock after years of fruitless mediation attempts. The causes are varied and have deep historical, ideological and geopolitical roots. It is evident, however, that as a identity-based ethno-political conflict, Cyprus conflict did not receive the necessary instrumental-identity approach to conflict resolution. The issue of mistrust between the warring parties was not addressed, and the absence of a strong mediator to act as a guarantor, was not conductive for a resolution. Moreover, the existence of spoilers in the highest ranks of both governments, lack of a unified Cypriot identity in the face of these spoilers, as well as the exclusion of grassroots participation from the resolution-negotiation processes, are all factors that contributed to the failed attempts at achieving an agreement. A comprehensive approach addressing all these points should be adopted if the process is to be taken out of a deadlock and if a resolution is to be achieved.

Works Cited

“A Glimmer of Hope.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 15 Feb. 2014.
Azar, Edward E. “The Theory of Protracted Social Conflict and the Challenge of Transforming Conflict Situations.” Monograph Series in World Affairs 20.2 (1983): 81-99.
Burton, John W. Resolving Deep-rooted Conflict: A Handbook. Lanham, MD: Uni-versity Press of America, 1987.
Byrne, Sean, 2001. ‘Consociational and Civic Society Approaches to Peacebuilding in Northern Ireland’, Journal of Peace Research 38(3): 327–352.
Fisher, R. J. “Cyprus: The Failure of Mediation and the Escalation of an Identity-Based Conflict to an Adversarial Impasse.” Journal of Peace Research 38.3 (2001): 307-26.
Kyris, George. “The European Union and the Cyprus Problem: A Story of Limited Impetus.” Eastern Journal of European Studies 3.1 (2012): 87-99.
Pearlman, Wendy. “Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process.” International Security 33.3 (2009): 79-109.
Pearson, F. S. “Dimensions of Conflict Resolution in Ethnopolitical Disputes.” Journal of Peace Research 38.3 (2001): 275-87.
Rothman, Jay. Resolving Identity-based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Stedman, Stephen John. “Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes.” International Security 22.2 (1997): 5 -49.
Tirman, John. “One Island, Divisible.” Wall Street Journal Europe 2 Apr. 2004
Yilmaz, Muzaffer. “THE CYPRUS CONFLICT AND THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY.” The Journal of Turkish Weekly. The Journal of Turkish Weekly, 28 Feb. 2004.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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