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Hopes were high in the Turkish part of the divided island of Cyprus as the two sides of the island came the closest yet to a settlement in 2004 through months of intervention and a proposed reunification plan by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. However, the Annan plan ultimately failed after the Turkish side voted yes but the Greek side voted no in a referendum on April 24. Mehmet Ali Talat, who became Turkish Cypriot prime minister following legislative elections in December 2003, resigned in November 2004 when his coalition lost its majority; fresh elections were expected in 2005.
Annexed by Britain in 1914, Cyprus gained independence in 1960 after a 10-year guerrilla campaign by partisans demanding union with Greece. In July 1974, Greek Cypriot National Guard members, backed by the military junta in power in Greece, staged an unsuccessful coup aimed at unification with Greece. Five days later, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus, seized control of 37 percent of the island, and expelled 200,000 Greeks from the North. Today the Greek and Turkish communities are almost completely separated in the South and North, respectively.
A buffer zone, called the Green Line, has divided Cyprus since 1974. The capital, Nicosia, which is located at the Green Line, is similarly divided. Tensions and intermittent violence between the Greek and Turkish populations have plagued the island since independence. UN resolutions stipulate that Cyprus is a single country in which the northern third is illegally occupied. In 1983, Turkish-controlled Cyprus declared its independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), an entity recognized only by Turkey.
A major change occurred with the election in November 2002 of a new Turkish government, which has been much less indulgent of Turkish Cypriot president Rauf Denktash's opposition to reunification because Turkey's own chances of European Union (EU) membership have been linked to a resolution of the island's division. This, combined with significant pressure from the EU and the United States as well as UN intervention, has moved the two sides closer to settlement.
The latest and as yet most promising round of reunification negotiations began after the parliamentary elections in northern Cyprus in December 2003. These elections brought to power a new coalition led by Talat, the new prime minister. Talat's party, the Republican Turkish Party (CTP), partnered with its former rival, the Democratic Party - led by Serdar Denktash, son of the president - to form a pro-unification government. This represented the greatest upset ever for the largest party supporting President Rauf Denktash, the National Unity Party (UBP). With the sidelining of President Denktash, the way was cleared for the UN's Annan to propose a new path toward a settlement.
Annan led a series of negotiations that included the leaders of the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities, followed by the inclusion of Greece and Turkey. When no consensus was reached, Annan himself proposed a plan that was put to a vote in simultaneous, separate referendums in northern and southern Cyprus on April 24. Prior to the Turkish Cypriot parliamentary elections, the international community had taken it for granted that the Turkish side would always oppose a settlement. However, with the Turkish Cypriot government fully on board, the Greek Cypriots began to express severe reservations about the plan. Ultimately, 76 percent of Greek Cypriots voted against the plan, while 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots voted in favor. With the island still divided, only Greek Cyprus joined the EU as planned on May 1.
However, the overwhelming approval of the Turkish Cypriots for reunification sparked profound efforts on the part of the international community to reward them by ending their isolation. Donors have pledged significant aid, including 259 million euros from the EU. There were also efforts to end trade and travel bans and to increase movement across the Green Line. Nevertheless, the southern Cypriots have worked against most direct contact between the North and the rest of the world, including picking over the specifics of the EU aid package, arguing that certain measures are equivalent to international recognition of the North. In addition, Talat has stated that the international community is not doing enough to move the South toward reconciliation with the North. Meanwhile, trade has increased between the two sides, and Greek Cypriots are no longer required to show a passport to cross into the North.
In October, Talal resigned as prime minister. In April, 3 representatives had left his coalition, leaving it with a minority of seats. When no party succeeded in forming a new government, legislators agreed to hold new elections in 2005.
Living standards in the North, which has an economy that depends heavily on the government of Turkey, are only about a third of those in the South. The public sector provides most jobs, although many Turkish Cypriots now cross the border to work on the Greek side. The suffering economy contributed substantially to support for reunification and the public turn against President Denktash. However, the economy showed signs of picking up toward the end of 2004.
Turkish Cypriots can change the government of the TRNC democratically. The president and 50-seat legislature are elected to terms of not longer than five years. President Denktash's current term is set to expire by April 2005, and he has said that he will not run for reelection. The powers of the president are largely ceremonial, but Denktash has wielded influence through his status as the traditional leader of the Turkish Cypriot community. However, his role has diminished in favor of the prime minister since the election of pro-unification parties in 2003 and the yes vote in the unification referendum in 2004.
Some irregularities did occur in the December 2003 legislative elections. A group of independent election observers cited suspicions of inflated vote counts (presumably with Turkish settlers), pressure on voters to support specific parties, and biased reporting by the government television station. The observers said that electoral procedures were inadequate to ensure fair voting. During the subsequent referendum, some pro-reunification citizens were the target of vandalism and even violence; in Northern Nicosia, five Turkish Cypriot men were hospitalized after an attack by Turkey's extreme nationalist Grey Wolves. However, the incidents appeared to be isolated.
The 1,000-odd Greek and Maronite Christian residents of the North are disenfranchised, but many vote in elections in the Republic of Cyprus. Turkish Cypriots were allowed to cross the Green Line in order to vote in the European Parliament elections in June. However, only 97 Turkish Cypriots cast votes.
Corruption is not a severe problem in northern Cyprus. However, in 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the First Merchant Bank of the TRNC as a financial institution of "primary money laundering concern."
The criminal code allows the government to jail journalists for what they write, and the government has been hostile to the independent press. The editor of the outspoken daily newspaper Afrika, Sener Levent, has faced hundreds of court summonses for his paper's criticism of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, including many in 2004. Five journalists and the secretary of the Kibris Media Group received court summonses in 2004 for their articles on an anti-government demonstration in Elia the previous year. The daily Kibris newspaper, which was in favor of reunification, was the target of death threats leading up to the referendum and three small homemade bombs exploded outside its office just afterwards. In contrast, President Denktash refused the UN's request for a news blackout during the reunification talks.
An agreement with Greek-Cypriot authorities dating from 1975 provides for freedom of worship for both communities in both parts of the island. On September 1, the first church service since 1974 was held at Agia Mama church in Morphou, one of the most important places of worship for the Greek Orthodox faithful in Cyprus.
The government does not restrict academic freedom. In 2004, Turkish Cypriot schools began teaching a less partisan account of Cypriot history in favor of multiple perspectives, in accordance with Council of Europe recommendations.
There is freedom of assembly and association, although in July the government prevented peace activists from laying wreaths at the graves of Turkish Cypriots killed in the fighting in 1974 for fear that the action might spark confrontations. Civic groups and nongovernmental organizations generally operate without restrictions. Workers may form independent unions, bargain collectively, and strike. Charges against 30 members of the Turkish Cypriot Teachers Union for their 2001 criticism of the government were dropped in May.
The judiciary is independent, and trials generally meet international standards of fairness. Turkish Cypriot police, under the control of the Turkish military, sometimes abuse due process rights, and civilians are sometimes tried in military courts.
After the referendum on unification, the EU attempted to initiate direct trade and flights between northern Cyprus and the rest of the world, but it was unable to circumvent international regulations that control the ports and airports of the unrecognized state. However, trade between the two parts of the island did increase after restrictions were loosened. In addition, all EU citizens, including Greek Cypriots, can now travel to the North by presenting identity cards instead of passports. Conversely, Turkish Cypriot prime minister Mehmet Ali Talat rejected a Greek Cypriot proposal to open 11 new crossing points across the Green Line. Turkish Cypriots still have difficulty traveling because most governments do not recognize their travel documents.
Women are underrepresented in government. There are legal provisions for equal pay for equal work, but these are often disregarded.