While standing recently in a Cypriot border crossing queue in temperatures over 40°C, I saw a sign describing Nicosia as being ‘the last divided capital’. Recent talks led by the UN-appointed negotiator, Espen Barth Eide, are hoping to end such division, but it will be immensely challenging.
To be a British citizen in the Republic of Cyprus (ROC) is an unsettling experience. In the 1950s, Ledra Street was known as the ‘murder mile’ as British service personnel were attacked by a Greek Cypriot organisation (EOKA), which was fighting against British colonial occupation and promoting political union with Greece (known as ‘enosis’).
While Cyprus secured independence from the British in 1960, the island’s Greek and Turkish communities became divided as communal violence flared. As Greek nationalists promoted the idea of enosis, Turkish armed forces invaded in 1974 in response to fears that Cyprus might become a proto-Greek entity. As division hardened, both sides were forced to abandon property and even entire communities. Internationally, the dispute involved the so-called guarantor powers (Turkey, Greece and the UK) and others including the United States, the United Nations and more recently, the EU.
The United Nations Peace Keeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), originally established in 1964, continues to monitor the cease-fire to this day, patrolling the buffer zone, and undertaking humanitarian missions. The abandoned buildings and aircraft at the international airport in Nicosia serve as a reminder of how entrenched division became following the 1974 invasion. It is now part of the UN-supervised buffer zone.
“Speculation about offshore oil and gas adds to the geopolitical complexity. Who owns those resources and how should they be shared?”
As you drive around the southern part, one can see signs revealing the presence of these UN buffer zones: the security infrastructure of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the limits of the UK sovereign base areas (SBAs) and other ‘retained sites’. Under the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from Cyprus (the 1960 Treaty of Establishment), the UK retains the right to continue to occupy a number of sites, encompassing some 99 square miles. During the Cold War, the SBAs played their part in collecting signals intelligence and monitoring the strategically significant Eastern Mediterranean. Recently, RAF Akrotiri was used to dispatch jets on missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The SBAs are controversial as is the UK military presence and its possible implications for Cypriot security. The UK has offered to cede further territory in the event of any long-lasting political settlement.
Will Cyprus ever be unified? Since 2014, relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have improved and there was a renewing of reunification talks. Since the de facto partition of the island, there have been a series of attempts to promote an improvement in relations between the communities or outright efforts to find a settlement involving bi-communal and bi-zonal federation (such as the 2004 Annan Plan). But as with other disputed spaces such as Israel/Palestine, there are other complications to resolve including the return of property to pre-1974 owners, as well as challenges regarding the treatment of displaced communities and long-term demilitarisation of Cyprus.
Speculation about offshore oil and gas adds to the geopolitical complexity. Who owns those resources and how should they be shared? Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia and the United States are also interested in its resource future. Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered Russian financial support which helps Putin develop close relationships with EU member states as Moscow manages the impact of EU sanctions in the light of the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.
So even now, as in the past, Cyprus continues to find itself embroiled in wider geopolitical dynamics.