Island, interrupted: Peace remains elusive for divided Cyprus

Cyprus has a lot to teach the world about the poison and polarization of unchecked nationalism, writes Nil Köksal.

Negotiations break down again in country divided since 1974

Blocked and barbed. Time stopped at the old Nicosia airport in the summer of 1974, at the height of the conflict between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

Thousands of deaths, secret mass graves and decades steeped in anger — small but strategically located Cyprus has much to teach the world about the poison and polarization of unchecked nationalism. 

Hate does not give up its grip easily. And here, the past consistently sabotages the future.

For more than 40 years, the Mediterranean island has been divided into north and south.

Even before that, outside forces have coveted — and taken — pieces of the island. Neighbours turned on neighbours. Canada stepped in decades ago and has had a crucial role in trying to keep the island safe.

And now, the most promising peace discussions in years are in jeopardy after talks collapsed in late February. They are on hold indefinitely.

This is a look back at the decades-old disputes still dividing the island.

Peace talks were going well earlier this year in Geneva between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, left, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, centre, and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci. Now, they are on the verge of collapse. (Pierre Albouy/Reuters)

Union vs. partition

Nationalism and violence started tearing the communities apart in the 1960s. 

Some 2,000 people, from both sides, disappeared during short but deadly bursts of intercommunal violence in 1963, 1964 and 1974.

Enosis — "union" in Greek — became the slogan for Greek Cypriots who wanted to become part of Greece.

Taksim — Turkish for "partition" — was the word used by Turkish Cypriots who wanted to maintain their identity on the island.

The island was split into two in the summer of 1974. Greek Cypriot nationalists launched a coup attempt, hoping to become part of Greece. Turkish troops intervened — the intention, Turkey said, was to protect the minority Turkish Cypriots living on the island. Greek Cypriots believe it was an invasion and a land grab.

Turkish Cyprus, in the north, is not recognized as a country by any international body.

The south is Greek Cypriot territory. It is recognized and is a European Union member country.

A man rides a bicycle past a barricade outside the UN buffer zone in Nicosia, Cyprus, February 16, 2017. (Yiannis Kourtoglou/Reuters)

Canadian connections

Since 1964, around 25,000 Canadian peacekeepers have moved through the island, helping guard the United Nations buffer zone that divides the two sides; 28 Canadian soldiers died during the Cyprus mission.

Operation Snowgoose, as it is known, was cut back in 1993. Today, there is just one peacekeeper representing Canada in the broader United Nations force.

The head of that force and the deputy special adviser to the Cyprus negotiations is also a Canadian — Elizabeth Spehar.

Chasing peace in Cyprus

CBC News

4 years ago
The old Nicosia airport is one of the most obvious scars of the Cyprus conflict. The site of a pivotal battle, and a ceasefire secured by a Canadian peacekeeper. Major David Marcotte tells Nil Köksal about that historic moment. 1:09

Chasing peace

The closest the two sides have been to peace before now was in 2004.

The so-called Annan Plan, negotiated during the tenure of then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, made it all the way to the referendum stage.

Turkish Cypriots voted yes; Greek Cypriots rejected the plan.

Relations have thawed since then.

Cypriots from both sides are able to move through border crossings using their national ID cards or passports. 

Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci are now 21 months into a fresh peace process.

The UN is at the table, but this round of talks is seen as Cypriot led.

For the first time ever in any Cyprus talks, the two sides put their maps on the table and outlined their visions for a united island.

Why now?

Economic worries on both sides of the island have added urgency to the idea of reunification.

Also fuelling the push for a peace deal are natural gas reserves found off the shores of Cyprus in 2011. Europe is looking for ways to reduce its need for Russian resources and Turkey is working with Israel on a pipeline that would carry Israeli natural gas through Cypriot waters. The Greek Cypriot government has made it clear it will block that pipeline plan if the island is still divided.

Maintaining a presence


4 years ago
Canada's lone peacekeeper on Cyprus raises the Canadian flag in Nicosia. Canada maintains a limited presence on the divided island as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force. 0:37

Talks on hold

But a new law, voted on while peace talks were underway, threw a wrench into discussions last month.

It makes it mandatory for students to commemorate the 1950 vote to join Cyprus with Greece.

Akinci wants the law pulled. Anastasiades says it is a minor issue that shouldn't derail the discussions.

Security is another serious obstacle. Many Turkish Cypriots want the more than 30,000 Turkish troops on the island to stay, Greek Cypriots see them as a potential threat.

A deal this time could end with a two-state federation, with a rotating presidency alternating between Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot leadership.

Both sides tell the UN they want to keep talking, but there are no new dates set for that to happen.

Turkish troops land in Kyrenia, Cyprus, on July 20, 1974. (Associated Press)


Nil Köksal is the host of World Report, CBC's flagship national radio news show. She begins her mornings with more than a million loyal listeners. She returned from her post as CBC’s foreign correspondent in Turkey in 2018.