Cyprus: an island divided | Irfan Hussain


Irfan Hussain Latest Column in Dawn Newspaper .

Cyprus: an island divided

Cyprus, the disputed island in Eastern Medit­erranean, has been inhabited since 9000 BC, and in its troubled recent history — as well as in its beauty — it has much in common with Kashmir. Both have been partitioned, with religion and nationalism featuring in the dispute. The baggage of history weighs heavily for both, and two bigger players call the shots.

Cyprus has been populated since 9,000 BC, and later was part of the Hittite Empire. Conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, it was then absorbed into Ptolemaic Egypt. The island was next part of the Roman Empire before falling to the soldiers of early Islam, and was for three centuries an outpost of the Caliphate (643-966 AD).

Despite the many changes in its rulers, Cyprus is now known as a Greek island, and its ties with mainland Greece are strong. Although it became part of the Ottoman Empire, 78 per cent of the population is Greek today, with Muslim Turks at 18pc. When the Ottomans joined Germany in the First World War, Britain seized the island and later declared it a Crown colony.

Given the close ties between Greek Cypriots and Greece, their spiritual homeland, it came as no surprise when the pressure to unite began building, and burst into violence under the banner of enosis —unification. The uprising was put down by force by the British, but simmered on under the surface.


As a reaction to this movement among their Greek compatriots, the Turkish community, too, hardened their resolve to resist any unification with Greece. The result was a rise in ethnic/religious tensions that broke out in vicious fighting in Nicosia in 1963 which spread across the island. This escalated over time, with the two communities now at daggers drawn.

When in July 1974, a coup led to a declaration of enosis between Cyprus and Greece, the Turkish government under Bulent Ecevit launched an invasion of the island, and carved out a Turkish enclave that incorporated around a third of the land. Although widely criticised, Turkey recognised the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC). Pakistan, in a show of solidarity, followed suit, and there was an embassy of the TRNC in Islamabad. But this entity has not been recognised by anybody else.

Since then, there have been many attempts to reunite the island. While the Greek part has prospered as the Republic of Cyprus, and is a member of the UN and the EU, its Turkish third has lagged behind, attracting few tourists or foreign investment. Cyprus has long remained a thorn in the Turkish side by its adamant resistance to Turkey’s application to join the EU. As Turkey refuses to allow Greek Cypriot ships from entering its ports, it is in breach of EU rules.

Despite the history of hatred, there have been recent talks aimed at reunification. Both sides seem to realise that for all their differences — as exemplified by the ‘green line’ separating the capital city of Nicosia and extending 112 miles across the island — Cyprus would be better off together. A meeting between the ‘guarantor powers’, i.e., Britain, Turkey and Greece, is scheduled to be held in Geneva next month. But all the participants are wary of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to torpedo this latest attempt at unification. His strong nationalistic streak, combined with his mistrust of Greece, could well evoke a hostile reaction from him.

In fact, this animosity towards Athens was recently reinforced by a Greek court’s refusal to permit the return of a few Turkish officers who sought sanctuary in Greece following last year’s failed coup in Turkey. Tension between the two neighbours is high, and recently, two gunboats from either side confronted each other in the Aegean Sea.

In Turkey itself, attachment to Cypriot Turks has dimmed since my days there as a student in the early 1960s when frequent demonstrations were held in support of fellow Turks living under the Greeks. Now, the old slogans are relics of the past.

For Europe, Nicosia is the only city that is still partitioned, and EU diplomats have devoted much time and effort to bring about reconciliation and reunification. Much progress has been made in narrowing the differences. But a generation has grown up without being in contact with the ‘other’. For them, a state of separation is the only one they know. If and when the ‘green line’ is erased, it will be interesting to see how they interact: will they nurse the grudges of the past, or decide to forgive and forget?

And there is much to forgive and forget: during the fighting in the ‘60s and ‘70s, thousands were killed on both sides, and ethnic cleansing on a large scale occurred. Memories of these atrocities have sustained decades of animosity.

A major difference between the partition of Cyprus and Kashmir is that there’s a significant constituency to reunite the former, while the rest of the world has washed its hands off Kashmir. The only reason the major powers retain a vestige of interest is that both India and Pakistan have nuclear arsenals, and both have been to war several times over the disputed valley. Cyprus, on the other hand, is a recognised state, and nobody wants to see two Nato members go to war over it.

If, as is widely hoped, the Geneva talks do lead to reunification, there will be much to celebrate. One more flashpoint will have been removed. But sadly, there remain many more to sort out.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2017