The Intractable Conflict In Cyprus

Although the situation in Cyprus has not garnered the same level of attention as other intractable conflicts, it has persisted for decades and continues to affect the lives of Cypriots to this day. Because of the nature of this conflict, it is crucial to understand the long history of Cyprus before addressing the current situation. In 1570, the Turkish invaded the island of Cyprus and initiated three centuries of Turkish rule. In 1878, as the Ottoman Empire was beginning to collapse, it made a deal with Britain in exchange for military protection in the case of a Prussian invasion. Cyprus would remain under Turkish sovereignty but be controlled by the British government. During World War I, the British gained complete control and sovereignty over the island. While the Greek Cypriots demanded to join Greece, the Turkish Cypriots wanted independence or to be returned to Turkish rule. The struggle continued until the island was granted independence from Britain in 1960.

As an independent nation, Cyprus has struggled from the outset with appeasing both its Greek majority and Turkish minority populations. The Turkish were given a disproportionate number of seats in parliament, and the budget of the young state was not approved because it could not achieve the double majority it required. In response, the Greek president Makarios enacted amendments to remove the political support given to the Turkish minority. The Turkish members then left the government entirely, until the island was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and Cyprus was partitioned into Turkish and Greek sides after a short war. The two sides were completely shut off from each other until passage across the border was allowed in 2003 through checkpoints.

Today, Cyprus remains politically and socially divided between the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots. The majority of the population identifies themselves as Greek or Turkish rather than as Cypriot, and there is still a lot of tension and hatred between the two groups. Only ⅓ of Cypriots regularly cross the border, and each side harbors grievances about the actions and abuse from the other throughout the past century. Cyprus remains divided.

Although the international community has made some efforts to address the conflict, very little progress has been made. The UN established the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) in 1964 in order to promote peace on the island and prevent the outbreak of violent conflict. Ten years later, the force was expanded and deployed to monitor the UN Buffer Zone, a stretch of land between the Greek and Turkish halves of the island. It was created in response to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Although the UN intervention was crucial in the short term to stop the violence in Cyprus, it did virtually nothing to address the underlying tensions and causes of the conflict. Cyprus remains divided and the hostility between the two sides runs deep. The buffer zone may have stopped the bloodshed by separating Greek and Turkish Cypriots, but it did little to transform the conflict in a meaningful way.

There was an attempt at peace talks from 2015 to 2017 in an attempt to reunify the country between Turkish leader Mustafa Akıncı and Greek leader Nicos Anastasiades. Although initially promising, the talks broke down after a UN-sponsored summit in Switzerland in July 2017, with each side accusing the other of outrageous demands. With the United Kingdom, Greece, and Turkey as guarantors, the negotiations were framed squarely within the context of Greco-Turkish relations, making it more difficult to come to an agreement. In addition to the interests of Akıncı and Anastasiades, Greek and Turkish political interests played a role in the talks, making it more complicated to reach a solution that appeased all sides. Additionally, not enough was done to build trust between the two groups, nor was anything done to address the historical harm that fuels the conflict to this day. Although conflict transformation must be forward-looking, sometimes it is necessary to address past issues in order for both sides to move forward productively and collaboratively.

In order to transform the conflict in Cyprus, there must be a sustained dialogue between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Instead of only focusing on negotiations between the two sides, a relationship must be established between the two communities by creating a safe space for them to interact, do activities, and hold dialogues that are not directly related to negotiations. Building a positive and trusting relationship between the two communities is the best way to encourage and empower the leaders to come to a resolution that benefits both parties. The world café format is a great way to structure these dialogues, where the participants are divided into small groups that rotate members. This format allows for the comfort and intimacy of small groups while still ensuring that people hear diverse perspectives from all participants. By having unbiased third-party mediators lead these discussions, they will remain respectful and peaceful while still being productive. The UN is one potential option for these mediators, as long as they are not representatives of states with vested interests, such as Greece or Turkey. 

Although the younger generation has no memory of the events, such as the violence of 1974, that fuel the conflict, both communities have formed collective narratives of the events so that even young Cypriots feel personally harmed by the other side. Reckoning with past harm is an essential step to transforming conflicts such as this one, where the past still informs behavior to this day. Once a relationship has been established between the two communities, holding open discussions of the past and each side’s perspective is the next step in moving forward toward positive peace in Cyprus. Once again, unbiased third-party mediators will be crucial to this process. Mid-level and high-level political and community leaders should also be present at these events in order to ensure that the relationship is built at both the grassroots and top levels of the communities.

The third essential component that must take place before successful negotiations can occur is constructing a cohesive national identity. Although it is not realistic that this will be completely achieved by the time the negotiations begin, initiating the process helps promote unity and collaboration. Most Cypriots identify primarily as either Greek or Turkish rather than as Cypriot, which is both a cause and a result of the conflict. Once a positive relationship has been established, promoting a Cypriot national identity through government messaging, school curriculum, and the dialogues themselves is an important step toward unification. This will encourage unification and counteract some of the othering that is happening between the two groups. By thinking of themselves all as one people, it will be much more difficult to dehumanize and demonize the other side. 

Once these three components are in place, negotiations that resemble the ones initiated in 2015 will be much more attainable and realistic. There will be grassroots support for reunification, and more flexibility from both sides to come to an agreement. An unbiased third-party mediator will still be essential to the negotiations, and it should once again not be a state with a vested interest in the outcome. The aforementioned strategies will address the root of the conflict and lay the foundation for productive negotiations between the two sides. Intractable conflicts cannot merely be negotiated, the root issues must be addressed, and the relationship must be repaired before anyone comes to the bargaining table. However, by taking these steps before a new round of negotiations, there is a real chance of creating a reunified, stable, and peaceful Cyprus. This situation is simply an example of a larger trend in which intractable conflicts are addressed with band-aid solutions that do not transform the dynamics of the issue or address the root causes. While it is important to intervene to stop violence from occurring, a ceasefire is not enough. The power dynamics, past injustices, and sociocultural issues must be fully addressed to create a collaborative and just society in which violence will not break out again.


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