On Citizenship and Donkeys in Cyprus

Nikos Skoutaris
'Who is a Cypriot'

One of the most famous aphorisms attributed to Rauf Denktash, the historical leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, is that ‘the only real Cypriots residing on the island are the donkeys’. Despite its provocative manner, such a statement reveals how controversial it might be in the context of the Cyprus conflict to attempt to define ‘who is a Cypriot’. This is part of the ramifications of one of the oldest political conflicts in Europe. The Cyprus issue, with all its complexity and intractability, has influenced virtually all aspects of the political and constitutional life of the island during the last 100 years. In this short article I will show how many key moments in the history of the age-old dispute, such as the establishment of the Cyprus Republic, the Turkish military intervention in 1974, the proclamation of the unrecognised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (hereafter TRNC) and the accession of Cyprus to the EU, have formulated differing conceptions of Cypriot citizenship.

The Birth of a Bi-communal Republic

Cyprus became a colony of the British Empire in 1878. During the 1920s the Greek Cypriot community became increasingly dissatisfied with British colonial rule. However, unlike most of the twentieth century decolonisation movements, the desire for freedom was not expressed as a demand for independence. It was rather envisaged as Enosis (meaning ‘union’ in Greek) with the Greek motherland. Any alternative to Enosis, including self-government, was not regarded as appropriate. Aware of the potential danger of Enosis to Turkish Cypriots, the British encouraged the community’s counter-mobilisation to serve its own colonial aims. By 1957, Turkey had already formulated its own counter-position to Enosis, which was to propose partition (‘Taksim’ in Turkish). Britain, however, was determined to retain full sovereignty on the island.

The Macmillan Plan of 1958 contained a suggestion for a compromise (which would be further developed in the Zurich-London Agreements). Such a compromise entailed the establishment of an independent sovereign State of Cyprus while at the same time Britain would retain sovereignty over two military bases. Thus, the Republic of Cyprus gained its sovereign independence from the UK by virtue of three treaties, namely the Treaty of Guarantee, the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Establishment and a Constitution, all of which came into operation on 16 August 1960.

The very complex Constitution of the Cyprus Republic reflected the aforementioned political compromise between the UK, Greece and Turkey and aimed to preserve the balance between the island’s two main ethno-religious segments. In fact, it was drawn up explicitly in terms of the two communities and was referred to subsequently by the Turkish Cypriots as a ‘functional federation’,an expression that does not appear in the Constitution itself. The Constitution provides for ‘an independent and sovereign Republic with a presidential regime, the President being Greek and the Vice-President being Turkish, elected by the Greek and the Turkish communities of Cyprus respectively’. The composition of the cabinet of the ministers (7 Greek Cypriot ministers; 3 Turkish Cypriot Ministers), the legislature (a 7:3 ratio) and the judiciary (e.g. 1 Greek Cypriot judge, 1 Turkish Cypriot judge and 1 foreign judge for the Supreme Constitutional Court) as well as the appointment to other public offices (a 7:3 ratio for public service, and 6:4 for the army) also reflected the bi-communal character of the Republic.

With regard to the acquisition of the citizenship of the new State, the main rules were provided by the Treaty of Establishment. Any British subject of Cypriot origin ordinarily residing on the island at any time in the period of five years immediately before 1960 became a citizen of the Republic of Cyprus on 15 August 1960. Equally, a person could- and still to this day can -also acquire the citizenship of the Republic by birth if one of her/his parents was a citizen at the time of her/his birth but also if s/he is married to a citizen of the Republic and the two have lived together for at least two years. Clearly, this meant that Cypriots of Greek or Turkish origin could claim Cypriot nationality.

Dividing the Country, Partitioning its Citizens

Although independence had been granted to the Cypriots in 1960, the aspiration of the vast majority of the Greek Cypriots including the first president of the Republic, Archbishop Makarios, remained ‘Enosis and only Enosis’. On the other hand, many among the Turkish Cypriots regretted that Taksim did not take place, although most found the Cyprus Agreements acceptable. Under those circumstances, and given that the cooperation of the two communities was a prerequisite for the smooth functioning of the Cyprus Republic, it was unsurprising that the internal stability of the new State would soon be in question. Three years after the establishment of the Republic a constitutional dispute arose over the establishment of separate municipalities in the five largest Cypriot cities. The tension increased when, in November 1963, President Makarios proposed thirteen constitutional amendments to the Vice-President Dr. Kutchuk, which would remove obstacles to the smooth functioning and development of the State. However, many Turkish Cypriot representatives interpreted the move as a preparation for Enosis. The atmosphere after the presentation of the thirteen proposals was very tense. Three weeks later, the first, low-scale, inter-communal armed conflict broke out in Nicosia. As a result, the members of the Turkish ethno-religious segment were regrouped and secluded in enclaves with strong lines of defence. British troops policed a truce in Nicosia and the ‘Green Line’, a neutral zone between the Greek and Turkish quarters in the capital city, was established. Some contemporary writers such as Makarios Droushiotis refer to those events as ‘the first partition’.

From 1963 until 1974, the two Communities, along with the three Guarantor States and the UN, were engaged in negotiations in order to find a viable solution for Cyprus while disorder and anarchy prevailed on the island. On 15 July 1974, the military regime in Greece orchestrated a coup against Makarios. The coup was undoubtedly a breach of the Treaty of Guarantee. Thus, 5 days later, Turkey seized the opportunity to invade the island in the morning of 20 July 1974. The very same day the Security Council adopted Resolution 353 (1974) with which it called upon all States to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Cyprus and demanded an immediate end to foreign military intervention on the island that was contrary to this respect for sovereignty. Nevertheless, on 21 July, the Turkish army seized Kyrenia. One day later Greece and Turkey agreed on a ceasefire and on 23July the Greek dictatorship collapsed. On 8 August 1974, inter-communal talks started but they collapsed on 14 August 1974. Within hours, Turkey had seized 36 per cent of the island including 57 per cent of the coastline up to an ‘Attila Line’ running from Morphou Bay to Famagusta. The result was a humanitarian catastrophe for the population of the island. Thousands of Cypriots were killed and wounded and many were missing. One third of the Greek Cypriot community and another 50,000 Turkish Cypriots were displaced. Varosha, the predominantly Greek Cypriot region of Famagusta, became a ‘ghost-city’ and Nicosia, as Perry Anderson put it in his book The New Old World, a ‘Mediterranean Berlin, divided by barbed wire and barricades’.

Whose citizens are the Turkish Cypriots?

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the Turkish intervention and the consequent territorial segregation of the two communities, a settlement based on some form of ‘functional federation’, like the one designed by the 1960 Cyprus Agreements, has been out of the question. Any proposal for a settlement has to include some form of Turkish Cypriot territorial entity. This became even clearer on 15 November 1983, when the Turkish Cypriots proclaimed their independence as the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’ (TRNC).

As part of its striving for international recognition, the Constitution of the purported State provides rules for the acquisition of its citizenship. In fact, those rules refer to the aforementioned citizenship provisions of the Republic of Cyprus. According to Article 67 of the TRNC constitution, ‘all persons who acquired citizenship of the Republic of Cyprus under Annex D of the Treaty of Establishment […] and were ordinarily resident in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the 15th November, 1983[…] shall be citizens of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.’ However, as a result of the fact that no other State with the exception of Turkey has recognised the TRNC, several courts have refused to recognise its  ‘nationality’. For instance, in Caglar v Billingham,1 the representative of the TRNC in London claimed, for revenue purposes, to be a TRNC citizen in accordance with Article 67 of the TRNC ‘Constitution’ and thus not a Commonwealth citizen. The court held that his possession of the nationality of the Republic, under the aforementioned Citizenship law of 1967, would be asserted against him for the purposes of determining which regime of income tax assessment should be applied.

Despite the existence of TRNC citizenship rules that de facto question the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus, the Republic continues to recognise, in accordance with its own rules, the citizenship and the right to citizenship of all Cypriot residents of Turkish origin, residing in the North, who can prove that they come under the scope of its legislation. This is significant when one considers that Article 20(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU states that‘every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union.’ This means that Turkish Cypriots may ‘activate’ their EU citizenship status as long as they provide proper documentation to the relevant authority of the only recognised Government on the island that would prove that they come under the citizenship rules of the Republic.In practice, the Republic of Cyprus regularly issues passports to Turkish Cypriots upon application.

So, despite the existence of two competing claims of authority on the island,Turkish Cypriots still have access to the citizenship of the Republic and thus to Union citizenship. However, the application of Union law is suspended in northern Cyprus. In other words, Union citizens–including Turkish Cypriots residing in northern Cyprus-cannot invoke any rights derived from primary or secondary Union law against the regime in the North. In practical terms, this means that, for instance, in the case of the exercise of their electoral rights as Union citizens in the European Parliament elections, Turkish Cypriots residing in the North should cross the Green Line to vote in the South provided they have registered there. Obviously, the suspension provides for a clear territorial limit to the enjoyment of Union citizenship rights by Union citizens residing in the North.

However, apart from the Turkish Cypriot citizens of the Cyprus Republic residing in northern Cyprus, there are many residents north of the Green Line who fall within the definition of nationals established by the ‘Constitution’ of the secessionist entity but are excluded from the nationality of the Cyprus Republic, and thus from EU citizenship, because they come under the category of ‘settlers’. Since 1974 Turkey has implemented a policy of systematic colonisation in the northern part of the island in order to change its demographic character. According to reports confirmed in both the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot press, those ‘settlers’ come from the Turkish mainland and are of Turkish citizenship. The TRNC government, while accepting that they have come from Anatolia, refers to the Cypriot origin of those ‘settlers’. Today, according to the Republic’s authorities there are about 115,000 ‘settlers’ north of the Green Line. On the other hand, Turkish Cypriot sources refer to a number less than 90,000. The Republic of Cyprus does not consider the ‘settlers’ as legitimate claimants to Cypriot citizenship and thus they do not have access to EU citizenship via the citizenship laws of the Republic of Cyprus. According to the legislation of the Republic, they are considered to be illegal immigrants.

Citizenship and the future of Cyprus

What is the way forward in Cyprus.jpgHowever, the situation of the ‘settlers’ would have been significantly altered if the Greek Cypriot community had not massively rejected the reunification of the island according to the UN-sponsored plan for the Comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus problem (Annan Plan) in the referendum that took place on 24 April 2004. It is important to briefly recall the provisions of the Annan Plan referring to Cypriot citizenship, not least because it is more than probable that, in any future settlement plan, there will be similar provisions on citizenship. To that effect, the current President of the Republic, Mr Christofias, has said that he is prepared to accept 50,000 ‘settlers’.2

According to the Foundation Agreement, the Constitution of the envisaged United Cyprus Republic (hereafter UCR) would have provided for a single Cypriot citizenship. Moreover, all persons holding Cypriot citizenship would have also enjoyed internal constituent state citizenship status as provided for by constitutional law. Such status, attributed on the basis of the residence at the date the settlement would have come into force, would have been complementary to (and thus not replaced) Cypriot citizenship. The constituent State citizenship status, similar to the regime in the Åland islands and to the EU citizenship, was designed to be connected with the exercise of political rights by the citizens of a reunified Cyprus and especially with the election of the bicameral legislature.

However, it was a Federal Law that would have regulated the Cypriot citizenship and thus access to EU citizenship status for the nationals of this State.3 According to it, the descendants and spouses of any person who held Cypriot citizenship on 31 December 1963 (the day of the ‘first partition’), would have then been considered citizens of the United Cyprus Republic. According to the estimates of the Republic of Cyprus, 18,000 ‘settlers’ have become spouses of Cypriot citizens. In addition to the above, 45,000 persons, whose names were on a list handed over to the UN Secretary-General by each side, would have been considered citizens of the Republic. So, another 45,000 ‘settlers’ could have become EU citizens in accordance with such a provision. Finally, the Federal Law gave the possibility to acquire the citizenship of the United Cyprus Republic by naturalisation to persons who were of full age, had enjoyed permanent residence in Cyprus for at least nine consecutive years immediately before submitting an application, including at least four years after the relevant date, had some knowledge of either Greek or Turkish, were not the objects of a security measure and had not been sentenced for a criminal act for longer than one year. According to the estimates of the Republic, another 17,000 ‘settlers’ would have been eligible to apply for citizenship under this provision. Overall, if this new state of affairs had been realised, around 80,000 ‘settlers’ (45,000 in the list, 18,000 spouses, and 17,000 naturalised) could have become citizens of the United Cyprus Republic and thus of the EU. Although in a possible future unification of the island the number of citizens may be altered, it is also inevitable that similar provisions will give a significant number of ‘settlers’ the opportunity to obtain access to EU citizenship, which has been, until now, impossible under the formerly mentioned legal status quo of the Republic of Cyprus.

What we have seen in this short article is how the turbulent history of the Cyprus issue has influenced the understanding of the concept of Cypriot citizenship(s). In that sense, the fate of this concept is tied with the fate of the current bi-communal negotiations, at the end of which we should know whether the two communities agree on the answer to the question of who is a Cypriot, apart from the donkeys…


Nikos Skoutaris is an Assistant Professor in the International and European Law Department of Maastricht University. He is the author of The Cyprus issue: The four freedoms in a (member -) state under siege. (Oxford, Hart Publishing, 2011).


1 Caglar v Billingham (Inspector of Taxes) [1996] STC (SCD) 150.

2 Christofias interviewed by CNN Turk, referenced in the Greek Cypriot newspaper Politis, 25 March 2008; also in a press statement, London, 5 June 2008.

3 Federal Law to Provide for the Citizenship of the United Cyprus Republic and For Matters Connected Therewith or Incidental Thereto.