Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights

The start of ethnic violence between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots led to segregation of the two communities and the disintegration of the Republic of Cyprus.

Summary of Event

Among the many successive rulers of Cyprus since antiquity, only the Greeks and Turks had sizable demographic impacts. The Greek Cypriots are descendants of Greek colonizers from the second millennium b.c.e. The Turkish Cypriots are the descendants of soldiers and settlers who moved to Cyprus during Ottoman rule from 1571 to 1878. Great Britain British Empire;dissolution took control of the island, with consent of the Ottoman sultan, and then formally annexed it in 1914. In 1960, following a bloody four-year guerrilla war, Britain granted independence to Cyprus, thus ending the colonial relationship. From 1960 to 1963, Cyprus went through a transformation, and ethnic conflict emerged as the dominant problem. The causes and dynamics of the ethnic conflict can be understood better if seen against the background of the fragmented historical and social foundations of the newborn Cypriot republic. Civil unrest;Cyprus
Cyprus;ethnic struggles
Nationalism;Greek Cypriots
Nationalism;Turkish Cypriots
[kw]Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights (Dec. 22, 1963)
[kw]Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights, Greek and (Dec. 22, 1963)
[kw]Cypriots Clash over Political Rights, Greek and Turkish (Dec. 22, 1963)
[kw]Political Rights, Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over (Dec. 22, 1963)
[kw]Rights, Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political (Dec. 22, 1963)
Civil unrest;Cyprus
Cyprus;ethnic struggles
Nationalism;Greek Cypriots
Nationalism;Turkish Cypriots
[g]Europe;Dec. 22, 1963: Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights[07780]
[g]Cyprus;Dec. 22, 1963: Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights[07780]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 22, 1963: Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights[07780]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 22, 1963: Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights[07780]
[c]Political science;Dec. 22, 1963: Greek and Turkish Cypriots Clash over Political Rights[07780]
Makarios III
Kutchuk, Fazil
Grivas, George
Vasiliou, George
Denktash, Rauf

At the time of independence, Cyprus had a population of 570,000, consisting of 78 percent Greek Cypriots, 18 percent Turkish Cypriots, and 4 percent other minorities. There were Greek, Turkish, and mixed villages in all regions. The Greek and Turkish groups were divided along linguistic, historical, ethnic, cultural, and religious lines. The Greek Cypriots spoke Greek and identified with the Greek nation, culture, and classical heritage, and with the Byzantine Empire. Almost all of them were members of the Orthodox church of Cyprus.

The Turkish Cypriots spoke Turkish and identified with the Turkish nation and culture and with the Ottoman Empire heritage. Virtually all were Sunni Muslims. Despite four centuries of coexistence and considerable geographic intermingling, the two communities remained separate and distinct ethnic groups. A partial physical separation occurred with the eruption of ethnic violence in December, 1963. An almost complete separation occurred with the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

Certain factors helped the two ethnic groups preserve their national identities throughout centuries. The Orthodox church, which maintained a dominant position among the Greek Cypriots, helped them remain Greek Orthodox. When the Ottomans took Cyprus from the Venetians in 1571, they destroyed the Roman Catholic Church and restored the Cypriot Orthodox church. The autonomy of the church was reconfirmed and the archbishop was recognized as ethnopolitical leader. The church became a symbol of political and ethnic unity, as most political, social, cultural, and intellectual life was associated with religious organizations. The Ottoman millet administrative system separated the two communities on the basis of religion and ethnicity. Administration and tax collection were carried out with the help of religious institutions. Under British rule, the two groups retained control over religion, education, culture, personal status, and ethnic institutions. The segregated and divisive educational system perpetuated ethnic distinctiveness by transferring conflicting ethnic values from generation to generation. The two communities had separate schools that were largely controlled by their religious institutions.

Throughout the Ottoman period and the early years of British rule, the teachers were mostly local Orthodox or Muslim religious leaders. During the British period, curricula were almost identical to those in Greece and Turkey and emphasized religion, national heritage, ethnic consciousness, and the longtime Greek-Turkish rivalry. The two communities had antagonistic loyalties to Greece and Turkey. Each community honored the national holidays, played the national anthem, and used the flag of its mother country. Cypriots from both ethnic groups returned to the mainland and fought as volunteers on opposite sides during the 1912-1913 Balkan Wars, World War I, and the 1919-1923 Greek-Turkish War. Attachment to two rival and often belligerent countries promoted ethnic chauvinism and prevented development of unifying patriotic bonds and cohesive Cypriot nationalism. The two groups held conflicting views about the island’s political future. Throughout the British period, enosis (union of Cyprus with Greece) was the most persistent and rigid Greek Cypriot goal. It was part of the wider Panhellenic movement of megali idea (the great idea), which aimed to reconstruct the Byzantine Empire under Greek hegemony. As a counterforce, the Turkish Cypriots advanced the idea of taksim (Cyprus partition into Greek and Turkish sectors). The two movements were strongly supported by Greece and Turkey, respectively.

Attachment to the conflicting goals of enosis and taksim led to political polarization. The British colonial policy of “divide and rule” maintained and reinforced ethnic, administrative, and political separation. The British colonial administration made no effort to create a unified native Cypriot consciousness. The two communities were treated as separate groups, and antagonism between them was stirred up. Maintenance of a psychological gap between the two groups was used to ensure British control. Against the background of these historical and sociopolitical realities, the Republic of Cyprus emerged on August 16, 1960, as a bicommunal state. Greece and Turkey had, in effect, negotiated a settlement in Zurich and London under British auspices. The political institutions of the newborn state formalized and reinforced ethnic differences through divisive structures and practices. The two communities were treated as distinct ethnic groups, and the Turkish minority was given extensive privileges and guarantees, including disproportional participation in the government, public service, army, police, legislative process, and handling of foreign affairs. Ethnic dualism was institutionalized in all sectors of public life. Although the ethnopolitical goals of enosis and taksim were formally ruled out by the constitution, no measures were taken to promote integrative practices and unifying bonds cutting across ethnic lines.

Old controversies revolving around ethnopolitical goals and differences (including enosis and taksim) and conflicting loyalties remained part of private and public life on both sides. Ethnic segregation in large towns, ethnic division in the administration of justice, and the hiring of government employees on the basis of disproportionate ethnic quotas favoring the minority were some of the more controversial issues that were never resolved.

On November 30, 1963, after three years of intensifying ethnic and legal controversies, the Greek Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios III, proposed to the Turkish Cypriot vice president, Fazil Kutchuk, a thirteen-point amendment of the constitution that would make Cyprus a more unitary state and bring the two communities closer together. The Turkish Cypriots rejected the proposal because they were afraid it would take away some of their privileges and safeguards. They were especially concerned about their right to disproportionate participation in the armed forces and public service, as well as their right to veto legislation on defense and foreign affairs. All attempts to find common ground for negotiation failed, and heavy fighting broke out on December 22, 1963. Despite peace efforts and mediation by Britain, the United States, and the United Nations, the fighting spread and intensified. Greece and Turkey also became involved in military operations, and international concern shifted from the Cypriot setting to the imminent danger of a Greek-Turkish war.

A United Nations peacekeeping force was sent to Cyprus in March, 1964. In early June, a Turkish invasion and Greek-Turkish war were averted through the adamant insistence of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson, Lyndon B.
[p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;international relations that there would be no war between two North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. Another major crisis erupted in August, 1964, when Greek and Greek Cypriot forces launched an attack against the Turkish Cypriot enclave in the Tylliria region. Turkey was using that enclave, the only one with access to the sea, to smuggle soldiers, arms, and supplies into Cyprus. Turkey responded by launching large-scale air attacks on military and civilian positions in the region. Napalm bombs were used during the air raids.

In November, 1967, another crisis brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war and caused intensive diplomatic intervention by the United States, NATO, and the United Nations. The Greek military government, which was largely responsible for the crisis, satisfied most Turkish demands, including withdrawal from Cyprus of ten thousand Greek troops and the removal of General George Grivas from the position of commander of Greek Cypriot forces. Uneasy peace was established, but a settlement of the broader ethnopolitical conflict was never within sight.

On July 15, 1974, the military regime in Athens staged a bloody coup against President Makarios. Turkey reacted by invading Cyprus five days later. Turkish forces took control of 37 percent of the island and established the Attila line, dividing Cyprus into north and south sectors. Greek Cypriots living in the north were forced to move to the south and Turkish Cypriots were transferred to the north. The forced population movement completed the physical separation of the two communities that had started in December, 1963. Despite international condemnation and several U.N. resolutions, the Turkish army continued to occupy the island’s northern part into the first decade of the twenty-first century.


The outbreak of ethnic violence in Cyprus in 1963 marked the beginning of violent disintegration of the Republic of Cyprus and physical separation of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. Twenty years later, on November 15, 1983, the Turkish Cypriots, under the leadership of Rauf Denktash, unilaterally declared the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey, which militarily occupied northern Cyprus, was the only country to recognize the Turkish Cypriot “state.” The rest of the world, through U.N. resolutions and otherwise, has repeatedly condemned both the Turkish occupation and the unilateral declaration of independence. Although Cyprus was still internationally recognized as one country in the early twenty-first century, its people were completely segregated along ethnic lines. Prospects of unification have not been good, but efforts were made by the United Nations to negotiate a lasting settlement.

The impact of ethnic violence on the people of Cyprus has been devastating. The protracted armed confrontation undermined not only the republic but also the prospect of reuniting the Cypriots under one flag and one administration. As a result of hostilities, thousands of people, including civilians, were killed and wounded. Following the Turkish invasion of 1974 and the forceful physical separation of the two ethnic groups, one-third of the population became refugees. This painful demographic surgery was accompanied by extensive damage to the economic structure and resources of the island and an enduring trauma of the Cypriot psyche—Greek and Turkish alike. The southern Greek sector showed signs of economic expansion, but Turks in the north did not live up to their economic potential. The two groups remained separated not only by a widening economic gap but also by trenches, minefields, and columns of tanks and cannons that neither side could cross. Interaction across the dividing line became almost nonexistent after 1974.

Several rounds of talks between Greek Cypriot president George Vasiliou and Turkish Cypriot leader Denktash, under the auspices of U.N. secretary-general Javier Pérez de Cuéllar Pérez de Cuéllar, Javier , created a spirit of optimism but led nowhere, and efforts by subsequent U.N. secretaries-general have been little more successful. A sense of pragmatism has emerged on both sides, however, favoring rapprochement and a settlement based on bizonal federalism. Given the realities of Cyprus—geography, economy, size, distribution of natural resources, demography, and the traumatic experiences of the past—this seems to be a feasible and promising solution. Civil unrest;Cyprus
Cyprus;ethnic struggles
Nationalism;Greek Cypriots
Nationalism;Turkish Cypriots

Further Reading

  • Attalides, Michael A. Cyprus: Nationalism and International Politics. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. A good presentation and analysis of the Cyprus issue in the context of national movements, societal changes, and international politics. The relationships of the two Cypriot communities with their homelands are discussed extensively. The book has a contemporary focus but also provides brief historical background.
  • Carment, David, Patrick James, and Zeynep Taydas. Who Intervenes? Ethnic Conflict and Interstate Crisis. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. A collection of case studies in world politics and crises. Includes the chapter “The Cyprus Puzzle: Two Nations, One Island,” which addresses the ethnic conflict of the island nation and the question of the international community’s responsibility to intervene, or not.
  • Ehrlich, Thomas. Cyprus, 1958-1967: International Crises and the Role of Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. A scholarly work with a legal perspective. Looks for the origins and major elements of the problem in the legal structure surrounding the creation of the Republic of Cyprus. Examines major decisions and crises on Cyprus from the viewpoint of international law.
  • Hitchens, Christopher. Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger. New York: Noonday Press, 1989. A popular book by a prominent journalist and frequent visitor of Cyprus. Provides a critical analysis of American policy toward Cyprus and argues that the problems facing the island are the result of external interference. Supportive of Greek Cypriot views and critical of Turkish policies and actions on Cyprus.
  • Joseph, Joseph S. Cyprus: Ethnic Conflict and International Concern. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Examines both the domestic aspects and international implications of the Cyprus problem. Examines the historical, social, cultural, institutional, and political roots of the ethnic conflict. Looks at the impact of Greek-Turkish antagonism, superpower politics, and United Nations involvement in the conflict. A scholarly work of analysis and interpretation.
  • _______. Cyprus: Ethnic Conflict and International Politics—From Independence to the Threshold of the European Union. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. An updated look at the conflict, with a focus on Cyprus and its place in the realm of the European Union.
  • Katsiaounis, Rolandos, ed. United Nations Security Council and General Assembly Resolutions on Cyprus, 1960-2002. Nicosia: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Cyprus, 2003. Collection of four decades of United Nations’ resolutions on Cyprus.
  • Koumoulides, John T. A., ed. Cyprus in Transition, 1960-1985. London: Trigraph, 1986. A good collection of eight articles with diverse perspectives and viewpoints. Although each article reflects the interests, expertise, and background of its author, the book as a whole provides a rounded and objective look at the ethnopolitical conflict and its consequences.
  • Kyriakides, Stanley. Cyprus: Constitutionalism and Crisis Government. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968. One of the most authoritative works on the constitutional aspects and breakdown of the Republic of Cyprus. The causes and consequences of the 1963 constitutional crisis are examined in the context of domestic Cypriot politics and external interference.
  • Leventis, Yiorghos. Cyprus: The Struggle for Self-determination in the 1940s—Prelude to Deeper Crisis. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. History of the anticolonial battle of the Cypriots against the British that focuses on the roots of the 1960’s conflict that would tear the island apart.
  • Loizos, Peter. The Heart Grown Bitter: A Chronicle of Cypriot War Refugees. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982. The story of Greek-Cypriot inhabitants of a village who became refugees after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Very informative and revealing of human attitudes and social conditions. Also a good source of information about the huge refugee problem that resulted from the war. Based on field observation and interviews with refugees.
  • Markides, Kyriacos C. The Rise and Fall of the Cyprus Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977. A widely quoted book on the social aspects of national movements and rivalries among Greek Cypriots. Extensive discussion of the enosis movement, nationalism, and the role of leadership in the light of ethnic conflict. A good scholarly work with penetrating analysis.
  • Salih, Halil Ibrahim. Cyprus: The Impact of Diverse Nationalism on a State. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1978. The work of a Turkish Cypriot who argues that the two Cypriot communities cannot coexist in a united Cyprus. Discusses the causes and effects of the ethnic conflict with the intent of proving his point. A good part of the book is made up of several useful appendixes.
  • Volkan, Vamik D. Cyprus—War, and Adaptation: A Psychoanalytic History of Two Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979. A study of the poor relations and mutually negative perceptions held by the two Cypriot communities about each other. Helpful for readers interested in the causes and consequences of the conflict at both the individual and group levels. A unique study of the myths and realities that divide the Cypriots.

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