Its fine climate, former mineral riches and excellent geographical location have long made Cyprus a popular destination for both travellers and invaders. Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Venetians, English and several more all once thought themselves masters of the island. And sometimes they fought over it.

At the present (which is what this article will examine), Cyprus is divided into two parts: the northern third (37% to be precise) under occupation, the southern 59% a sovereign state. In between the two parts lies a buffer zone occupying 4% of the territory. This situation is one of the most enduring quandaries to face both the United Nations and the parties involved, at times assuming the qualities of a geopolitical soap opera.

The timeline leading up to the current situation is the following:

  • 1453: Constantinople falls to the Turks, setting the stage for an era of bitter rivalry between Greeks and Turks that would last until this day.
  • 1489: The island is occupied by the Venetians.
  • 1571: Famagusta, last bastion of resistance falls and Cyprus becomes part of the Ottoman Empire. During the subsequent three centuries, Turkish settlers will become a significant minority population.
  • 1878: The Ottoman Empire cedes administration of the island to Great Britain, which annexes it in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and makes it a crown colony.
  • 1960: Cyprus is proclaimed an independent state and becomes a member of the Commonwealth. The 1959 Treaty of London with Britain, Greece and Turkey as guarantors leaves too many unresolved issues.
  • 1963: Violence erupts between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The next year a UN peacekeeping force arrives under UN Security Council resolution 186 but the unrest simmers.
  • 1974: Parts of the National Guard, aided by Greek army units acting under directions from the junta in Athens, stage a coup against president Makarios with the goal of politically uniting the island with Greece. Turkish forces land on the island, ostensibly to protect the Turkish population as a guarantor under the Treaty of London. Indecisiveness and poor preparation leave the Greek forces without a chance. The Turkish army gains control over 37% of the island's territory following the second wave of the invasion, codenamed Attila.
  • 1983: The northern Cypriot occupied zone makes a declaration of sovereignty under the name of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a move rejected in UN Security Council resolution 541. Only Turkey recognises it as a sovereign state.
  • 2003: Cyprus is accepted into the European Union. Last-ditch talks to reunite the island under a Swiss or Belgian model of shared power lead nowhere. Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash ignores massive demonstrations in favour of reaching a deal and shoulders much of the blame for this failure. The country, represented by the Greek Cypriot government, signed the treaty of accession to the EU in Athens.
  • 2004: Greek Cypriot voters reject a UN plan aimed at bringing a unified island into the European Union. Turkish Cypriots, in a parallel plebiscite, approve it.

The Cyprus problem is not much closer to a resolution that it was in 1959 or 1974 and still has a long way to go. Turkish forces continue to occupy a disproportionate amount of territory (the island's Turkish population in 1974 was 18%) and the Cypriot government, backed by Greece, will not budge on the subject of independence for northern Cyprus. The country is host to the longest-serving force of United Nations peacekeepers, who patrol the "green line" dividing the country and maintain a buffer zone between the two parts. UN proposals since have been toyed with and rejected, the Turkish Cypriot side sometimes taking an ever harder line than the Ankara government.

So far, Greek Cypriots do not want to go further than a federation while Turkish Cypriots want to settle for no less than a confederacy of independent states. The resettling of ethnic Turkish immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Bulgaria on the island is also a sore point between the two parties. Ironically, this balances out the numbers since they essentially replace native population which has emigrated. The position of prime minister in the internationally recognised administration remains unfilled since the constitution reserves it for a representative of the Turkish Cypriot community. Another outstanding issue is the fate of 1532 (as of early 2010) remaining missing Greek civilians and military personnel and around half that number on the Turkish side as well as the matter of 200000 refugees from the 1963-74 period, many of who settled in Greece and the UK.

In the meantime, southern (Greek) Cyprus witnessed an economic boom and become an international banking and shipping centre as well as a popular destination for European tourists. Northern Cyprus shares the economic woes of Turkey on which it depends financially. This difference in prosperity and Cypriot European Union membership may eventually lead to a compromise on behalf of Turkish Cypriots since it's accepted that it would guarantee their rights within a united Cyprus and provide major economic benefits due to EU funding targeting the poorer areas and not the more affluent Greek Cypriot areas. Until this happens though, no solution or even progress is expected. A reunification referendum before joining the EU in 2004 was passed on the Turkish side of the border but was solidly rejected by the Greek Cypriot public, who viewed it as giving away too much.

The last real sign of progress came on 2003-04-23, when Turkish Cypriot authorities opened border crossings to the south, and the Greek Cypriot government reciprocated. Many people have since crossed from one part into the other, some of them visiting homes they lost 29 years earlier. Violence has been almost non-existent, and many reports speak of emotional reunions and parties with old neighbours.

The Cyprus question remains a point of tension in the eastern Mediterranean and the major obstacle to normalising relations between NATO allies Greece and Turkey. In the region, attempting to solve the Cyprus question has become synonymous with pointless debate and presents a modern day version of the Gordian Knot.

Since this is a touchy subject for some, here's the disclaimer: This document does not intend to present opinion in favour of one side or the other. I do not wish to engage in a debate as futile, well, as trying to solve the Cyprus question, but aim to present historical and geopolitical facts.