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The Cyprus Problem: Fractured National Identities Struggling For Control

Written by Gabriel Blondeau

The Nicosia derby opposing APOEL FC and AC Ommonia; the biggest rivalry in Cypriot football, is indicative of the larger political situation plaguing the island and how identity-making lays the bedrock for nationalism.

The rivalry and conflict are truly built into the history of the two teams: Ommonia was created as a splinter group from Apoel. This division exemplifies the split that lies at the centre of Cyprus, dividing the Northern Turkish side and the Southern Cypriot side, building on identity to form different nationalisms. For example, the colours of Apoel (bronze and blue) represent Greece and Byzantium: a symbolic link to the past and the historic ties to Greece, while Ommonia’s green colour stands for ideals of social justice, equality, and solidarity among Cypriots. Support for these football clubs and their general impact on Nicosia (Cyprus’ capital) demonstrates how identity-making stakes a claim in History in order to legitimise nationalism. Nationalism is an incredibly powerful mechanism predicated on the relationship spanning 3 key factors: identity, state, and power. In order to grasp how nationalism as a concept works, it is useful to look at specific examples, and Cypriot identity-making offers a compelling example of how nationalism builds and creates identities in order to unify a group into a nation. It was and still remains a clear case study of the inherent and internal problems to nationalism. 

The Island of Cyprus has a long and storied history, considering archaeological findings trace human activity to around the 10th millennium BC. Cyprus’ long history is one of invasion: by the Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Lusignans, Venetians, Ottomans and most recently the British, who still maintain military bases around the island to this day. Throughout this history of annexation, identity-making has proved to be quite complex: how can a nation unify and build its identity amidst constant successive invasions? Cyprus achieved independence in 1960 as non-aligned neutral republic guaranteed by its constitution nevertheless its governance was complicated by the inability to rule due to complicated legislative safeguards and a context of political turmoil and demographic inequality as the Greek Cypriot outnumbered the Turkish Cypriot. Further breakdown in relations from both parties resulted in intercommunal violence (‘Bloody Christmas’) and the government collapsed. The United Nations secured the island but a breakdown in peace-making as well as consistent infighting led to a deadlock in communication. This was broken by an enosist coup d’état led by the National Front and the Cypriot National Guard in Greece which proclaimed Greek sovereignty over Cyprus. Turkey replied with intervention and invasion. Both these actions were limited in scope and effectiveness; the enosist government failed and so the conflict resulted in an unusual solution of a divided island in which no side of the conflict won out right. Cyprus and it’s capital are divided by a buffer zone regulated by the UN. This division resulted in the only European country whose capital is still currently divided and a technical state of defense against invasion. Cyprus’ modern history has been littered by advances and setbacks; each government taking one step forward while the other one step back.

Map of Present-day Cyprus

The partition and difficult cohabitation throughout history have contributed to the rise of nationalisms in many different forms. The two opposing poles are defined by the relationship to the perceived ‘motherland’: either an attachment to the motherland or pride in the island, defined as ‘Cypriotism’. Concerning the attachment to the motherland: this is particularly true when looking at Greek Cypriot nationalism; the concept of enosis belonging to the megaliidea dreams of reuniting Cyprus with Greece. Greece is seen as a perennial and organic entity across time, waiting on Cyprus to fulfil its destiny. In the case of Turkish Cypriots, nationalism has been driven less by the idea of destiny, an attachment to the motherland, than a pride based on their ethnic Turkish roots and fondness for a nation that guarantees their existence and provides their defense. It also rests on the concept of taksim: a belief that the only way to protect the interests of the Turkish Cypriot community was to divide the island. 

Greek and Turkish Cypriotism rely on an identification to their particular ethnic community. Both of these nationalisms rest on the same idea of a ‘fundamental Cypriot character’ or spirit and yet both compete with one another. While Turkish Cypriot nationalism is driven by the fear of marginalization and of the Greek Cypriot demands as well as insecurity, Greek Cypriot nationalism draws upon the overconfidence of the majority, an ethnic superiority complex as well as xenophobia. Even within the nationalisms, divisions caused strife: they were “united in reference to their love for their land, people, and culture; they simply proposed or agreed to different solutions to the conflict”.

Significantly, these nationalisms respond to real grievances, hurts that still echo from generation to generation: a striking example is the seaside resort of Varocha in Famagusta which remains completely abandoned after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 when its Greek Cypriot population fled. Thousands lost their homes and this still remains a very contentious point of negotiation between the two governments. Recently, it has been reopened for civilians which has caused an uproar and has further delayed the hope of a peaceful settlement demonstrating its symbolic value. Finally, a true testament to the broken relationship and hurt between the two governments is the mandatory military service which every young male Greek Cypriot must complete; during a year they will stand guard at the borders of the nation in case of a Turkish attack (which has not happened since the 1974 invasion). Again, this may seem ridiculous considering this conflict has been frozen since 1974, however it is telling of the pain, suffering and the intergenerational trauma that continues to this day.

Varocha: Ghost Town in Famagusta, Northern Cyprus

These different branches of nationalisms all rest on the same idea: the mythologisation of the genesis, the point of origin. Greek Cypriot nationalism rests on the idea that Cyprus had a Greek presence long before the Ottomans invaded.  As such, they should abide by that spirit. Similarly, the Turkish Cypriot take pride in their Ottoman roots and Turkey lays claim on Cyprus. The ownership of the territory and the legitimacy as a ‘Cypriot’ is predicated upon the claim of the genesis. Which identity is the ‘original’: Greek or Turkish? A competition of ‘who was here earliest?’ quickly becomes farcical when dealing with at least four hundred years of presence on the island from both sides. Yes, the Greek presence dates back further but Turkish Cypriot is as vital to Cypriot culture as Greek Cypriot. This is where identity and ethnicity in Cyprus prove to be extremely complex. Identity is blurred in many different ways: starting out with the numerous invasions, Cypriot identity is not and has never been stable.

Selimiye Mosque (formerly Ayia Sofia Cathedral) in Nicosia

One could argue that national identities have never been stable but are constructions at large. Cypriot identity has been blurred by multiple invasions, resulting in an extremely diverse and rich culture. But, contrary to many national identities, Cypriot identity is one and yet does not exist: it borrows references from different sources and transforms and recreates sense of the cultural sharing. Cyprus is a particularly enlightening example of what nationalisms wants us to forget: national cultures exist only through memories elevated at the rank of national history. Culture itself is not eternal, enduring, never changing or unified that imbibes and nourishes the national spirit. This explains why the Cyprus problem is impossible to solve when considering it like a conflict: not about why Turkey or Greece has the better claim upon the Island but rather, what makes the people of Cyprus, Cypriots. There have been many movements and attempts in Cypriot history to unite the Island around a common cultural heritage, a shared culture, history, and practices that have come to define what it means to be a Cypriot.  The differences between the two cultures exist on a micro scale: the languages may be different yet kleftiko and kebabi both mean meat that has been cooked in an oven. 

Ex Iparhis was a journal started by Josef Payatas and others which emphasized common cultural elements trying to create a civic form of nationalism.The objective of the CAT (Cyprus Artefact Project) was not to let the conflict define the identities of the population but rather what they shared, what was common in their way of living. The Home For Cooperation acts as a ‘bridge-builder between separated communities’ through its ‘peace-building programs’ working on Cypriot art and culture. All of this points to the artificiality of the divide as well as the importance of identity-making and the role it plays in nationalisms. 

Finally, it is also important to point out that Cyprus remains a clear example of what ‘national cultures’ are: nothing more than the expression of the lives of the population. Populations are ever-changing. While ‘national cultures’ might be proven to be outdated, the glaring artificiality of the national identities and the confusion in the liminal spaces in the Cypriot case point out the assumptions and mistakes nationalisms perpetrate in order to create these identities.  

Featured Imagery: (1) Map of Present-day Cyprus; (2) Ghost Town by Sean Gallup for Getty Images; (3) Selimiye Mosque by Kirill Makarov on Shutterstock.

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