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Background: independence and division

Cyprus became independent from the UK in 1960. Under, the Treaty of Guarantee that forms part of the constitution, Greece, Turkey and the UK are “guarantors” of the Republic of Cyprus.  The constitution set up a system of power sharing between the Greek and Turkish communities, but the Turkish community stopped participating in the government in 1963. In 1974, a military coup in Cyprus supported by the Greek military junta raised fears of a Greek annexation of the whole island. This led to Turkish troops occupying the northern part of the island. The island has been divided since, with a “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” established in 1983 (TRNC). The TRNC is not recognised internationally, other than by Turkey.

The Turkish occupied part of Cyprus is separated from the Republic of Cyprus by a UN buffer zone, overseen by a UN force of around 750 troops. The UK contributes around 250 troops. Under the Treaty of Guarantee, the UK also retains sovereignty over two military bases in Cyprus (known as the Sovereign Base Areas).

Peace talks

UN-sponsored peace talks have taken place on and off for many years. In 2004, a peace plan was put to the Turkish and Greek Cypriot communities in separate referendums. The plan would have reunified Cyprus as a federation of two politically equal states, prior to the island joining the EU.  Turkish Cypriots voted in favour, but the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan. Cyprus subsequently joined the EU. While the whole island is technically part of the EU, EU law does not apply in the north. 

There have been attempts to revive peace talks since 2004. These included UN-sponsored talks launched in 2017. These talks collapsed after the Greek foreign ministry said it was impossible for the Greek side to countenance an envisioned federal Cyprus with occupation troops on its soil, while Turkey insisted on its right to unilateral intervention in Cyprus.

Cyprus has an elected president who heads the government. The current president (since 2013) is Nicos Anastasiades of the conservative Democratic Rally (DISY). He supported the 2004 plan.  The TRNC is a semi-presidential republic. Ersin Tatar, formerly Prime Minister at the head of the right-wing nationalist National Unity Party (UBP), was elected President in 2020. Backed by President Erdoğan of Turkey, Tatar rejects the UN model of a federal Cyprus and supports a “two-state solution” formalising the current division of the island. President Erdoğan also backs Tatar’s plans to open up the resort of Varosha. This has been condemned by the UK and EU as a provocative step in breach of a UN resolution.

An informal five-party summit (Turkey, Greece, the UK, and the Greek and Turkish Cypriots) took place in April 2021.  According to reports, Tatar said there was no point in holding formal talks without recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as a state and that he would not drop the two-state proposal. Cypriot President Anastasiades said that this proposal would never be accepted. In January 2022, Tatar said that he asked the UK to host fresh talks between himself and President Anastasiades.

Tensions over gas drilling

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have intensified since 2018 as Turkey has sought to block drilling operations by Cyprus in waters around the island, and to launch its own exploration activities. Turkey disputes Cyprus’s claims to exclusive exploration rights in these waters. The EU imposed limited sanctions against individuals involved in the Turkish operations in 2019. The UK participated in these sanctions and continued them when it left the EU in 2020. Greece and Turkey have held talks to defuse the tensions, but Turkish drilling operations have continued.

Response to Russian invasion of Ukraine

Prior to 2022, Cyprus enjoyed good relations with Russia. It purchased military equipment from Russia and had an agreement allowing Russian navy access to its ports. It also attracted high levels of Russian investment, and gave close to 3,000 Cypriot passports to Russian nationals under a controversial scheme granting citizenship in return for large investments in Cyprus. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Government of Cyprus has revoked the passports of Russians listed under EU sanctions targeting individuals close to the Russian leadership.

The Cypriot Government has reportedly been reluctant to back some of the EU sanctions against Russia, although it has been obliged to implement them once adopted. The EU sanctions on Russia were projected to have a significant impact on Cyprus given the large number of Russian investors and dual passport holders, and income from Russian tourism. Cyprus has also expressed concerns about the impact on Cyprus’s maritime industry of EU proposals to ban all Russian owned ships from docking in EU ports and to ban all EU-controlled oil tankers from transporting Russian oil.  

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