Invasion 30 years ago still scars Cyprus

The legacy of a divided island remains a critical problem for the EU, writes Brendan Ó Cathaoir

The legacy of a divided island remains a critical problem for the EU, writes Brendan Ó Cathaoir

On July 20th, 1974, 300 Turkish tanks along with 40,000 troops rolled on to the beaches of Cyprus. Ankara called it a "peace operation", although the generals codenamed it "Attila". The forces of one of the most powerful military countries in the world went into action against one of the least powerful.

After the fighting had ended, some 35 per cent of the Republic of Cyprus was occupied, 4,400 people were dead and 1,500 missing. The occupied area was ethnically cleansed of its Greek Cypriot population: about 142,000 people - 23 per cent of the island's population - were driven from their homes and became refugees in their own country.

They and their descendants are still refugees. Some 40,000 Turkish Cypriots were persuaded to move to the north, while 115,000 settlers were brought from Turkey to complete the demographic transformation. The illegal settlers now outnumber the indigenous Turkish Cypriots, whom Ankara ostensibly intervened to protect.


The pretext for the invasion was a coup against President Makarios in Nicosia, orchestrated by the Greek military junta. As a result of the Greek Cypriot tragedy, democracy was restored in Athens. The left-wing poet, Yannis Ritsos, wrote in his lament for Cyprus:

Keep faith, little daughter of ours, who have become our mother,/ Song of the joy and grief of life, and a bell of resurrection.

For a significant part of its 11,000-year history Cyprus has been predominantly Greek in culture, language and population. It was occupied by one power or another because of its strategic significance. In 1571 Cyprus, the island of Aphrodite, located only 47 miles from the Turkish coast, fell to the Ottomans and in 1878 came under British rule.

During the 1955-59 Greek Cypriot struggle for self-determination, Britain cultivated bad feeling between the two communities by using Turkish Cypriot special constables against Greek Cypriot fighters. Turkey was drawn into the struggle on the island. Ankara jumped at the chance to regain control of at least part of the island, and began to advance partition as a solution while Greek Cypriots campaigned for union with Greece.

Under the Zurich-London compromise imposed by Britain, Greece and Turkey, union with Greece or partition were ruled out and Cyprus became an independent republic in 1960. Britain retained two sovereign bases.

Archbishop Makarios was forced to sign agreements to share power with Turkish Cypriots on a 7:3 ratio. The 18 per cent Turkish Cypriot minority was thus given 30 per cent representation in all government and state institutions, together with veto rights.

Inter-communal relations, which had been peaceful for centuries, deteriorated due to a conflict of aims after independence. This led to clashes, UN mediation and peacekeeping, and ultimately the Turkish invasion.

The Cyprus Republic survived the 1974 catastrophe and built a spectacularly successful economy. Across the Green Line, the policy of integrating the occupied area with Turkey brought economic ruin, even though it was the richest and most developed part of the island at the time of the invasion.

Thirty years later, on the brink of achieving EU membership, the internationally-recognised government of Cyprus rejected the latest UN plan for reunification in a bizonal, bicommunal federation. The government decided that no deal was better than another imposed solution.

Consequently, 76 per cent of Greek Cypriots rejected the framework put forward by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. They believe that the Annan plan was tailored to win Ankara's support, while the fears and expectations of the majority community were disregarded. Turkish settlers, who constitute a majority on the electoral rolls of the breakaway Turkish state, helped to carry the plan in the north.

Greek Cypriots resent the claim that they voted against the reunification of their country. Instead they say they rejected a plan that envisaged Turkish troops remaining in Cyprus, even after Ankara's eventual accession to the EU; which denied to the majority of refugees the right to return to their homes in safety; and would have established a weak and potentially dysfunctional central administration connecting two autonomous federal states.

President Tassos Papadopoulos pointed out to Mr Annan on June 7th, that the arrangements would have given Turkish Cypriots real benefits governmentally, politically, internationally and economically from the first day of the plan coming into operation.

He continued: "We were willing to accept, on humanitarian grounds, that a number of Turkish settlers should have the right to stay in Cyprus as citizens . . . what we were not willing to accept was that all should be entitled to remain . . . However, under the final plan not only the entirety of settlers were to remain in Cyprus, and the possibility for a permanent flow of settlers from Turkey was left open, but all of them were allowed to vote in the referendum . . . despite international law and UN practice." It was evident, he concluded, that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership were not genuinely interested in the economic development of the Turkish Cypriot community, but in "the upgrading and ultimate recognition of the secessionist entity".

It was not possible for Greek Cypriots, he pointed out, to accept the indefinite continuation of Turkey's guarantor status over a country which has suffered an invasion and subsequent occupation by this guarantor power.

Although the Annan plan was rejected by the Greek Cypriots, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been given credit for sweeping aside 30 years of Turkish intransigence on the Cyprus question, eased Greek-Turkish tensions, and improved Ankara's chances of receiving a date to start EU accession talks. Turkey's membership is inconceivable, however, without reunification of the island on terms which both Turkish and the Greek Cypriots can accept.

A solution will have to be based on the reality that a predominantly Turkish region has been created in northern Cyprus. The size of the present enclave is manifestly unjust.

Brendan Ó Cathaoir is a historian and Irish Times journalist