The history of Cyprus – the third largest island in the Mediterranean (after Sicily and Sardinia) and situated south of Turkey and to the west of the Syrian-Lebanese coast – is long and turbulent. Since ancient times, its numerous natural resources, in particular copper, and its geostrategic position right in the centre of commercial trading routes, have made the island extremely desirable for a large number of foreign powers who have continuously attempted to take control of the island. Through centuries of war, the island has adopted different cultures and relics of past civilizations. But its Hellenistic character, which has survived centuries, is one of the fundamental aspects of Cyprus’s history and identity. The Greeks came to live on the island in the 12th century BC and by the 6th century AD the influence of Greece had come to completely dominate the island.
Successive Dominations and the Hellinization of the Island
Originally independent and autonomous under the control of nine kingdoms within the island itself, it was during the 6th century BC that Cyprus became a source of conflict between the Persians and the Greeks. Cyprus came under the power of Persia and was assimilated into the empire of Alexander the Great. Following his death, the kings of Egypt and Syria argued over the island and Cyprus then became property of various princes of the Ptolemy family of Egypt. This marked the beginning of the hellinization of the island, which has been maintained throughout the years. Nowadays Greek is spoken by 80% of the population (of 1.1 million) who maintain the Greek lifestyle and belong to the Greek Orthodox Church.
For the most part, the island retained its Greek culture even throughout the Roman invasions of 58BC and 330AD, and when Cyprus became part of the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs took control from the Greeks in 648AD and in 1191 Richard I of England, during the King’s crusade, conquered the island before donating it to the King of Jerusalem, Guy of Lusignan in 1192. The house of Lusignan then ruled the island for 300 years despite a brief Genovese invasion in 1372 and another by the Marmeluks in 1426. This was followed by the Venetian period (1489-1571) which didn’t last even a century before being taken over by the Ottomans who then controlled the island for the next five centuries. They introduced the Turkish language and Islam to the island but permitted the continuation of the Orthodox Church. The Turkish community thus began to grow, which now forms 18% of the population.
Following the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 the Ottoman Empire ceded Cyprus to the British who installed a military base on the island in order to protect the Turks from a Russian invasion. However in 1915 Britain fought Turkey during WW1 and consequently made Cyprus a British colony in 1925.
Cyprus: a British Colony
British rule brought many benefits to the island; it became a stable regime with a strong administrative and justice system. The island also saw economic growth and advances in medicine, most notably the eradication of malaria.
However the Greeks quickly made known to the British, not only their desire for independence, like many other colonies at the time, but also their desire for Enosis, the reunion of Cyprus and Greece, which had become an independent nation in 1830. This pacifistic movement remained peaceful until after the Second World War when, encouraged by the promise of self-determination for colonised people in the Atlantic Charter and by the UN, and the decolonization of British overseas territories, the movement gained momentum.
However, Britain had no intention of ceding Cyprus to Greece due to its geo-strategic location; its military base on the island was deemed too necessary to British security in case of a Soviet attack or a threat against Britain’s oil interest.
However after a passionate and violent anti-colonialist fight and incessant violence on the island the United Nations took the decision to grant Cyprus independence in 1957. This was granted in 1960 by the Treaty of Zurich which also protected the rights of Turkish-Cypriots. The Archbishop of Nicosia, Makarios III, became the first President of the newly formed Republic of Cyprus.
A Divided Island
However the imagined system did not work at all on the island as it necessitated the two affronting communities, Greek and Turkish, to work harmoniously. Following Makarios III’s reform proposals in 1963, the violent confrontations between the two groups plunged the country into a civil war.
Profiting from the situation, Turkey re-launched its demand for the partition of the island. The Turkish community, extremely loyal to Ankara, began to implement seperationalist plans and ethnic-cleansing operations implemented by the Greek community provoked similar retaliation from the Turkish side. By the beginning of 1964 the country was, quite literally, being torn apart.
Attempts to mediate the conflict by the United States failed, leaving the Greek and the Turkish militias to battle it out. Adopting Resolution 186, the UN sent in Peacekeeping troops in March 1964 in order to quell the situation and restore peace. But the situation just became more agitated and the Coup d’état of 1974, carried out by Greece with the aim of annexing Cyprus to the motherland, led to the military invasion of Turkey in order to protect the Turkish minority on the island.
This intervention led to the partition of the island and the reestablishment of Cypriot democracy. The Turkish community in the north proclaimed independence in 1983 in the establishment of the Turkish Republic of Cyprus. However, this was a violation of international laws and the state is not recognised in the international community, except for by Turkey.
Following failed negotiations between the North and South of the island, the Secretary General of the United Nations proposed the reunification of the island. This, under the name of the Annan Plan went to a referendum on the 24th April 2004 but was rejected by the Greek-Cypriot population. The island remains divided till this day.
Cyprus and the European Union
The Republic of Cyprus was admitted into the EU on the 1st March 2004 even though part of its territory is still under Turkish military occupation. EU laws have, for that reason, been suspended in the north of the island and economic differences between the two communities have grown.
Since its accession to the EU, Cyprus has shown a revived desire to reunify which raises both important economical and political issues for the island. The creation of crossing points between the two zones in 2005 represents the first step towards progress of the situation.
The solution to the conflict appears to have been found in the role of the European Union as a mediator as it can, unlike the UN, put pressure on the two sides. However differences of opinion between Member States mean that the EU has so far been unable to adopt a decisive position.
It’s therefore down to the European Union to find more effective means to resolve the Cypriot problem in overcoming its own statuary limits which is blocking its actions. The EU must also take into consideration the position of Turkey in resolving the conflict as the removal of the influence of Ankara in Cyprus is one of the conditions for Turkey to enter the EU. But this launches a whole new debate: should the EU let Turkey join? This question is evidently too multi-faceted to lead to the resolution of the Cypriot conflict.
What is certain is that the European community must overcome this ethnic conflict with the ultimate goal of uniting all Europeans and creating long-lasting peace on the continent.