#09 Prejudice
Jerry Sommer

Cyprus – Prejudice and Bias Prevent Reunification

Cyprus has been a divided island for decades – mutual mistrust seems the only thing that Greek and Turkish Cypriots share. But how did the prejudices that are preventing the reunification of the two halves of the island arise?

Cyprus is a divided island. The "Republic of Cyprus" (RoC), a member of the European Union since 2004, is located in the south. The RoC is home to almost exclusively Greek Cypriots and internationally the only recognized representative of the entire island although it only rules in the southern part. The northern third of the island is the self-declared "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" (TRNC) only recognized as a state by Turkey. The island has 1.1 million inhabitants of whom roughly 80 percent are Greek Cypriots and around 18 percent are Turkish Cypriots.

The history behind the division

Turkish and Greek Cypriots cannot even agree on the question of when the island was divided[1]. Turkish Cypriots generally concur that the rift began in 1963/4 under civil-war like conditions on the island, when the Greek Cypriot president rescinded the constitutional consensus that had granted the Turkish Cypriot minority considerable co-determination and veto rights since the 1960 Declaration of Independence of Cyprus (until that point Cyprus had been a British colony). Although extremists on both sides committed acts of violence, Turkish Cypriots suffered the most from these attacks. Around half fled their homes to barricade themselves into secure enclaves on the island. In 1963 UN peacekeeping troops were sent to Nicosia, the island's capital, to patrol the borders and prevent further violence.

In contrast an overwhelming majority of Greek Cypriots view 1974 as the year the island was divided. This was when Turkey invaded Cyprus, after which the entire island was divided by a demarcation line, the so-called "Green Line". This was preceded by a coup when right-wing extremist Greek Cypriot nationalists together with Greek soldiers stationed on Cyprus ousted then President Archbishop Makarios from power. Their aim was to unify the entire island with Greece.

Turkey intervened with overwhelming military force. But Turkish forces remained on the island even after the coup collapsed and Makarios returned to office. They advanced even further, ultimately occupying 38 percent of the island. Gruesome atrocities occurred on both sides. 162,000 Greek Cypriots had to flee to the south, while 40,000 Turkish Cypriots moved north into the area controlled by the Turkish Army. To this day UN peacekeepers are still stationed along the "Green Line".

"Collective Memory"

This experience of the violence, pain and suffering caused by the events in the 1960s and in 1974 has led to a unique "collective memory" – a specific view of 'history', 'truth' and also of 'security' in each of the two Cypriot communities. Perceptions – often one-sided – have resulted in convictions and prejudices that have continued to hamper or render impossible the attempts made to reunify the island since 1974. Nationalists from both sides have perpetuated and instrumentalised these perceptions for their own political aims, "preventing thereby the possibility of perceiving and understanding the pain and the grievances of the other side".[2]

This experience of the violence, pain and suffering caused by the events in the 1960s and in 1974 has led to a unique "collective memory" – a specific view of 'history', 'truth' and also of 'security' in each of the two Cypriot communities.

The "Green Line" opened in 2003 and there are now a number of border crossings both Greek and Turkish Cypriots can use to pass to the other side of the island. Although this has made it possible for both sides to get to know each other better, fear fed by prejudice continues to dominate both communities. An opinion poll conducted in 2010 reported that 84 percent of Greek Cypriots and 70 percent of Turkish Cypriots assumed that: "the other side would never accept the actual compromises and concessions that are needed for a fair and viable settlement".[3]

A failed reunification plan

The mistrust of Greek Cypriots was also responsible for the failure of the most concrete reunification plan thus far, presented in 2004. At the time, after long negotiations between representatives of both groups, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan offered a plan that was put to a popular vote on both sides of the island. Almost two thirds of all Turkish Cypriots agreed to the reunification plan, in particular because they hoped to enjoy economic benefits from reunification and EU membership. 76 percent of all Greek Cypriots voted "no", however, as encouraged by their president at the time, Thassos Papadopoulos.

Security concerns were one important reason for this "no" vote by Greek Cypriots. Then there were – and indeed still are – over 20,000 Turkish soldiers stationed on North Cyprus. Greek Cypriot government organisations estimate their number as high as 40,000, though in all likelihood this is an exaggeration.[4] Greek Cypriots view the Turkish troops as occupiers. The 2004 UN Reunification Plan stipulated that the number of Turkish troops would drop to a maximum of 6,000 by 2007, at most 3,000 by 2011 and be limited to no more than 650 soldiers after 2018. (The same number of Greek soldiers would have been allowed to remain on the island – currently there are only 1,250 Greek soldiers stationed on Cyprus.)

The Greek Cypriot government at the time saw the stationing of even one single Turkish soldier as a "huge threat" (according to then Social Democratic Minister of Defense Kyriakos Mavronikolas)[5]. Then Greek Cypriot President Thassos Papadopoulos even viewed the small number of 650 Turkish soldiers who were to remain on the island after 2018 as a military threat, arguing that they could serve as a "bridgehead" for a Turkish invasion.

This threat perception was challenged by European politicians and Greek Cypriots who were in favour of the reunification plan. The Vice President of the DISY opposition party and former Greek Cypriot Minister of Defense Socrates Hasikos, for example, pointed out that Turkey had changed. He noted that since Erdogan's government, which was seeking EU membership, came to power, a military attack on Cyprus had become unthinkable. He also described the military presence of 650 Turkish soldiers on a unified Cyprus as purely symbolic. To asses this as a "military threat" was "a joke, especially if you consider that mainland Turkey is only 60 miles away from Cyprus".[6]

But deep-seated convictions and prejudices against Turkey and the dangers it presents riddled the Greek-Cypriot government at the time and swayed the overwhelming majority of Greek Cypriots to reject the UN reunification plan. Arguments that focused on the new historical context and a change in Turkish policy along with the low military importance of 650 Turkish soldiers did not stand a chance. The result is that Greek Cypriots are still forced to live with 20,000 to 35,000 Turkish soldiers in the island's North to this day. If the UN reunification plan had passed, there would only be 3,000 soldiers currently stationed there.

Troop deployment? Entirely unacceptable!

How acceptable or unacceptable do you consider each of the following options (Greek Cypriots)

Today mistrust and prejudice against Turkey and Turkish soldiers continue to play a large role among Greek Cypriots. In 2008 reunification negotiations resumed between representatives of Greek and Turkish Cypriots. These continue to move at an exceptionally slow pace, and all the Greek Cypriot parties are demanding the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island. According to an opinion poll in 20097 58 percent of all Greek Cypriots view it as "entirely unacceptable" for even a small number of Turkish (and Greek) troops to remain on Cyprus for a transitional period of three years following reunification. 86 percent object to a transitional period of seven years. In contrast 74 percent viewed the immediate and complete withdrawal of Turkish and Greek troops after reunification as "absolutely essential".

Among Turkish Cypriots fears of the possible threat posed by Greek Cypriots is also widespread. These are fuelled by their perception of historical events between 1963 and 1974. The great majority is afraid of again being rendered the helpless victims of further atrocities committed by Greek Cypriots. And they are frightened of being dominated or even exterminated by Greek Cypriots in general.[8] Therefore a large majority views the Turkish troops in the TRNC as "protective forces". Apparently, though, mistrust and prejudice in the Turkish community are not as widespread as they are among their Greek counterparts.

Only 35 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted "no" on the referendum for the UN reunification plan from 2004.

How acceptable or unacceptable do you consider each of the following options (Greek Cypriots)

Only 35 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted "no" on the referendum for the UN reunification plan from 2004. One factor that led to the plan's rejection by some was the perception of both a general and a military threat: "Greece and the Greek Cypriots didn't shy away from attacking in 1974. The Greek Cypriots have not changed. Only the Turkish army provides for security", stated Tahsin Ertugruluglu, for example, a former foreign minister of the TRNC and politician in the UDP nationalist Turkish Cypriot party, which was the largest party in government until 2003 and has been back in the government since 2009.[9]

In 2009 as well, an opinion poll showed that 45 percent of Turkish Cypriots would see it as "entirely unacceptable" to have all Turkish and Greek troops leave the island immediately following reunification, something three-quarters of all Greek Cypriots view as "absolutely essential". A 60-percent majority of Turkish Cypriots see the deployment of Turkish (and Greek) troops on Cyprus after reunification for a transitional period of three or seven years as positive, "satisfactory" or at least "tolerable if necessary". In contrast over 85 percent of Greek Cypriots reject such a solution outright.


The threat perception on the part of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots has not changed to account for prevailing conditions today. Though there are still extremists on both sides, it seems impossible to imagine that the specific historical context that led to the civil-war like attacks by Greek Cypriots on Turkish Cypriots in the 1960s and the invasion of Turkey in 1974 could ever reoccur. But the deeply rooted prejudices held by both sides limit many people's ability to see this fact. It is therefore correspondingly difficult to develop a reunification plan that would receive the approval of a convincing majority on both sides of the island.

To date, at any rate, all diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement have failed. Mutual security policy convictions and prejudices are a complicating factor in concluding negotiations – as are the large differences in opinion on politics, the economy and the law. Overcoming such biases would require education supported by those in power from both ethnic groups and underpinned in the respective educational system and the media. This is not happening, however, since both sides are often swayed by nationalistic points of view born of political interests, which only serve to perpetuate mutual prejudice.


[1] On the history of the conflict see int. alia: David Hannay: Cyprus – The Search for a Solution, New York/London 2004, p. 1ff; Jerry Sommer: Security in Cyprus: Threat Perceptions, Possible Compromises and the Role of the EU; Bonn International Center for Conversion, BICC paper 44, 2005, p. 12ff; Available at http://www.bicc.de/uploads/tx_bicctools/paper44.pdf

[2] Harry Anastasiou: Communication Across Conflict Lines: the Case of Ethnically Divided Cyprus. Journal of Peace Research 2002, vol. 39, no. 5, p. 590.

[3] Cyprus 2015 Initiative: Solving the Cyprus Problem: Hopes and Fears; 2011, p. 38; available at: www.undp-act.org/data/articles/cyprus2015%20solving%20the%20cyprus%20problem%20en.pdf

[4] There are no official figures on the number of Turkish soldiers in Cyprus. There are generally estimated to be about 35,000. But the British Minister of State Denis MacShane put the number of Turkish troops at between 20,000 and 35,000 according to a report by the "Cyprus News Agency" from 22 March 2005. A high-ranking European diplomat, currently based in Cyprus, told the author in a personal interview on 2 February 2005 that he estimates between 20,000 and 25,000 Turkish soldiers are on the island.

[5] Kyriakos Mavronikolas, Minister of Defence of the Republic of Cyprus and Vice President of the Social Democratic Party EDEK. Interview with the author in Nicosia, 1 February 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cyprus 2015 Initiative: Solving the Cyprus Problem: Hopes and Fears; 2011, p. 89 (see footnote 3)

[8] Hubert Faustmann: Gibt es Sicherheit für alle auf Zypern? "neafon", 03/2002, Stuttgart 2002, p. 52f

[9] Tahsin Ertugruluglu, interview with the author, Nicosia. 4 February 2005

Related Articles

20 Years After the Outbreak of the Bosnian

The terrible effective power of prejudices came fully to the fore in the Bosnian War

» more

The Devil's Work

Attacks on women set off unrest in Sri Lanka

» more

Sudan - Avoiding a New Crisis

Sudan: the international community needs to invest capital in North-South dialouge.

» more