Peacebuilding: The Cyprus Problem

For being a relatively tiny island nation in the Mediterranean, Cyprus and its political woes have been a thorn in the side of the international community by remaining one of the world’s longest running intractable conflicts. Cyprus, as a word, has become synonymous with intractable international conflict. No matter how much effort has been employed by various UN secretaries-general, six of which have devoted time to this issue to date; the Cyprus Problem appears to be stubbornly immune to all peacemaking proposals. This has earned the island the title, “Diplomat’s Graveyard”, as no one seems particularly optimistic that a solution is possible in the near future.

Ostensibly, the Cyprus Problem appears to be an ethnic conflict over land and geography. A precursory look into the history of the issue will initially highlight the role of foreign actors as bearing some significance to the issue. Foreign interference is Cyprus has been no secret. Throughout the Cold War, conflict on the island had the potential to ignite an armed confrontation between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, which many believe led to the US backed invasion by Turkey. In fact, many see this Cold War positioning of the island as a main cause for the conflict, whilst the national interests of the nations involved served as additional attractors to prolong the conflict further.

While this historical account may be true, it still remains only part of the story. It has been easy from a historical perspective to look back and point fingers at the many parties involved. However, this paper will focus on how Cypriots themselves, both Greek and Turkish, have perpetuated the conflict and have become the main obstacle for resolution, as well as the main hope for change. This paper will focus on how their stance on a resolution has been affected by attractors such as their dependence on national identity, their aspirations to reconcile injustices rendered, and their profound sense of mistrust to change and to each other. These attractors have further served to escalate the comfortability of the conflict, resulting in its lengthy continuation.

All previous attempts at reconciling the Cyprus Problem, including the Annan plan of 2004, which was the closest both parties have come to a resolution, have failed. This is partially because all attempts thus far have focused on providing simple solutions to a complex problem. To put it simply, this has been the difference between peacemaking and peacebuilding. Peacemaking, which has essentially revolved around resolving land disputes and attempting reunification, has yet to address the root cause of the conflict. The signing of a peace settlement does not change perceptions and grievances of both sides that have been consistent and largely self-fulfilling for over four decades. This is the reason why conflict resolution experts have failed to even get signatories to the negotiation table. Perhaps this is because the public knows what the negotiators have yet to realize, namely that “the opening of borders does not automatically result in hybridization of ethnic and national identities. It does not radically transform our strong ethnic or national affiliations and loyalties.” These experts have falsely perceived that selling the idea of reunification to the public would incentivize them to vote in favour of a settlement, but this has done little to address the issues of Turkish and Greek identity and the mistrust harboured by both sides.

Any wholehearted attempt at peacebuilding, which may be the only solution for a protracted problem such as Cyprus, must delve deeper to understand that land is not the solution, that the crisis is a matter of identity, of the personality of individual communities, and part of the collective memory of many generations. “The problem is understood as an identity conflict characterized by the deep mistrust of “the other” … which all historical and current issues are viewed in such a way that there is only “our truth” and “their propaganda”. The main attractors here are identity and mistrust that have become a permanent part of the collective memory of the people, validated by the very fact that the conflict has existed for so long. All negative perceptions and the acceptance of segregation have become normal, and society as a whole revolves around these accepted “truths”.

An important part of effective peace building is an in depth understanding of these attractors, which will be useful in creating a peace plan specifically for Cyprus. As a matter of urgency, interventionists and conflict resolution specialists must understand that the Cyprus Problem is unlike many other intractable conflicts and that its core, defining characteristics make it a separate and distinct case. For example, there has been relatively no violence on the island since 1974, for the most part. Without violence, the public on both sides experiences conflict in a different way and internalizes it differently into their routines and daily lives. This manifests into a comfortable status quo that is accepted as permanent. Cypriots on both sides of the green line have moved on with their lives since the ceasefire and for the most part are comfortable with the way things are. The prosperity level of Cypriots on the Greek side, for example, “makes it difficult for even Cypriots to identify the impact of the conflict on their everyday routines. The conflict is comfortable and not particularly difficult for either side. This leads to a strong lack of incentives to solve the problem. “ Greeks don’t count on a resolution and so have moved on with their lives and are comfortable.

There is therefore no sense of urgency for a resolution. Status quo is more desirable than an unknown alternative. For this reason, the population is unwilling to take risks. Both sides fear that a settlement will dilute their identities. The public on both sides want a solution based on justice, without any consideration that each side conceptualizes justice in very different ways. The fear of the escalation of the conflict has lessened dramatically since joining the EU, further lessening the urgency for a solution. To add to the comfortable status quo, partial freedom of movement along the border has done something to dispel the fear of the “other” in some ways. The Turkish side has even made some income from the Greeks, despite many Greeks refusing to spend money when they visit the Turkish side.

Life has moved on but this does not mean, however, that the conflict is not a part of people’s lives, even if they have learned to live around it. It is in fact the most internalized issue and remains a central focus point in society. Conflict is very internalized within society because of how long people have had to live with it. A good portion of the population does not even remember a time when things were different. New generations have been born and raised with the stories of war and what was lost to the enemy. These narratives have been reiterated time after time in educational material at schools, in pop culture, on the news, and it the stories and memories shared at family gatherings. This sustains the conflict and reaffirms that the Cypriot identity does not exists outside of this conflict. This causes a vicious cycle that keeps the conflict central to society but its very centrality perpetuates a need for resorting to unchanged behavior and expectations. As this centrality has become ingrained in the identities of the people, a resolution may be seen as “an attack on each sides “ontological” security, or the security of the self… which is needed as much as physical security.”

The internalization of the conflict is also based on political and social rhetoric that immune to change or variation. Civilians still expect the Cypriot Problem to be a top priority with politicians and media, who are the main power players in this conflict. Newspapers and television news channels dedicate lengthy coverage of this topic with special programming documenting anniversaries of the conflict, the details of the war and the plight of those affected personally, running throughout the year. This obsession with the conflict heightens its complexity as the governing elite, the media and the public cannot stop conflict-perpetuating behavior or challenge the existing discourse. There is a constant recycling of threats and negative perceptions of the other by both politicians and the media. The media’s livelihood is guaranteed by constantly reporting on impending “threats” to the state that keep readers tuned in. They have made themselves central to feelings of security by always keeping the public alert and on edge. In the meantime their financial gains and political influence continue to solidify and grow.

There is much intergroup conflict here amongst governing elite as positioning on the subject could make or break a political career, causing competition and aggression over who is handling the situation well and who will be blamed for things going wrong. This political discourse creates political careers based on the position taken on the conflict. There is also a tremendous wave of negative media for the policies of others, which may have been perceived as jeopardizing the Cypriot identity. For example, President Papadopoulos famously stated before the Annan Plan Referendum was voted on, “ I have received a state and will not deliver a community”. It seems that no politician wants the potential fracturing of the Greek state to happen in his term. This signifies that in many ways each party and each individual politician is more concerned with his or her legacy than on disturbing the status quo that has served them well thus far.

It is therefore assumed that any shake up of the status quo comes at a high political cost to any politicians championing an innovative solution to the problem. The governing elite and the media hold the power to perpetuate the complexity of the conflict. There is a dichotomy for being in this position of power as there are two conflicting obligations to be met. Constituents want solidarity with the “national cause”, but the international community wants dedication to conflict resolution. It has also been proven that taking a neutral stance on the issue will not help either. This is an inherent fear of appearing weak in front of the enemy as distrust states that they will not see this neutrality as collaborative but soft, as will the public who will fear that there leaders are unable to protect them.

Much of this can be reduced to the issue of mistrust and the fear that the other side will not uphold or honour what was mutually agreed upon during the settlement process. This leads to a fear of exploitation, fear of being embarrassed in the eyes of the international arena, and in the eyes of the constituents. A fear of being taken advantage of or being made a fool of limits genuine attempts at a solution and leads to half-hearted promises of dedication that might not always be sincere.

Changing this public discourse and the dynamics of powerful state actors should therefore be a priority in any peacebuilding initiative. However, settlements thus far have ignored this obvious hindrance to peace, to their detriment. The mistake in the handling of the settlements, or at the very least, the understanding of what could bring about change, is the speculative insistence that making a solution financially attractive to both sides will incentivize action. While these theories may have some merit in other conflicts, the Cyprus problem has been resistant to all economic incentives to unify the island.

Economically, Greek Cypriots have felt their economy will be negatively affected by the weaker Turkish economy if unification occurs. Turkish Cypriots, in turn, feel the more prosperous Greek side will overpower them financially. The pressure to assimilate two very different economies could serve as a further attractor and raise tension and anxiety further, especially given the “economic shock therapy that the Turkish Cypriot side needs to undergo to harmonize with EU standards.”

If theories on economic incentives were valid, the recent financial crisis on the Greek end would have provided ripeness for negotiations. Some studies have suggested that unification will provide economic benefits that are desperately need during these harsh times of economic austerity. Perhaps these benefits are too small to incentivize change, however. After all, in the eyes of both sides, you cannot buy justice or place a monetary amount on its worth. The public’s reaction to this proves they value justice and identity more than economic prosperity, even if they are bankrupt. Economic incentives are not incentives for a solution, as many scholars and diplomats thought prior to the financial crisis.

This is further evidenced by the discovery of oil off the Cypriot coast, which appears to have become another attractor and has created even further complexity. To export this commodity, Greek Cypriots are unwilling to consider passing their gas pipelines through Turkey, even though popular opinion states that this is the most logical option from a financial standpoint. There is too much political risk to allow Turkey to control the flow of their natural gas. This has stirred up old feelings of distrust, and a paranoia that the Turks will take even more of what belongs to the Greeks as part of an expansionist campaign by Turkey.

The only viable solution to the Cyprus Problem will be a concerted effort made by the public and civil society on both sides to work together to dispel the negative myths directed at each other. For over forty years, Cypriots on both sides have looked to their elected leaders and to the UN to solve this issue while they have done next to nothing to bring about change. This dependence on track one diplomacy has failed, and I propose a call for track two and track three diplomacy to take its rightful role at the conflict resolution table. It is the duty of civil society and the members of both communities to open up communication channels and to familiarize themselves with their neighbours.

As mentioned above, there has already been progress made between both sides dispelling the myth of the “other” since the border has been partially opened. This is a favourable outcome that should inspire the need for further contact between Turks and Greeks. This should ideally start the high school and university level, with student groups arranging meetings on both sides of the green line. Younger generations will hopefully be less prejudiced as they remember less of the initial dark days of the conflict. Collaboration and fraternization would lead to friendlier ties at least in one aspect of society, with hopes that it will spiral upwards to civil society and eventually be represented in governance.

Communication will bring about change and this will be accomplished on the basis of shared culture. I have not mentioned differences in religion or language in this paper because I feel this is largely irrelevant to a solution. At this point in the collective history of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots, respective cultures have more similarities than differences, and this is evidenced in the interests of the youth on both sides, on similar cuisine, similar music, and above all, the fact that both sides have been living with the stain of segregation on their conscience. Culture is not a hindrance but a solution, and it may be may be the common thread that can unify Cyprus. After all, there are no Greeks or Turks, there are only Cypriots.


  1. Lindsay, James. The Cyprus Problem What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
  2. Varnava, Andrekos. Reunifying Cyprus the Annan Plan and beyond. London: I.B. Tauris ;, 2009. Print.
  3. Lindsay, James. Resolving Cyprus: New Approaches to Conflict Resolution. London: I.B. Tauris, 2015. Print.
  4. “The Cyprus Problem; Intractable or Insoluble.” Economist29 Nov. 2014. Print.