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Cyprus’s recession intensified in 2012 as the country’s debt crisis led to bailout negotiations with the European Union. Faced with these financial troubles, Cyprus continued to aggressively exploit natural gas reserves in its territorial waters, a move that further increased tensions with Turkey and Northern Cyprus.
Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960 after a five-year guerrilla campaign by partisans demanding union with Greece. In July 1974, Greek Cypriot National Guard members, backed by Greece’s military junta, staged an unsuccessful coup aimed at such unification. Five days later, Turkey invaded from the north, seizing control of 37 percent of the island. Since then, a buffer zone known as the Green Line has divided Cyprus; the Greek and Turkish communities remain almost completely separated in the south and north, respectively. In 1983, Turkish-controlled Cyprus declared its independence, a move recognized only by Turkey. UN resolutions stipulate that Cyprus is a single country of which the northern third is illegally occupied.
In 2004, both parts of the island voted simultaneously on a unification plan prepared by then UN secretary general Kofi Annan. 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 European Union as scheduled in May 2004.
In the 2008 presidential election, Demetris Christofias of the Progressive Party of the Working Republic (AKEL), a communist party, won 53 percent of a runoff vote, making him the only communist head of state in Europe. His cabinet included ministers from the Democratic Party (DIKO), as well as the Movement for Social Democrats. Christofias had voiced a commitment toward unification but has made only symbolic progress. Tripartite talks in January, March, and July 2011 between UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and representatives of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus failed to bring the two sides substantially closer to unification.
In parliamentary elections held in May 2011, the Democratic Rally (DISY) party took 20 seats, AKEL won 19 seats, and DIKO took 9 seats; 3 small parties captured the remaining 8 seats. In July, a massive explosion of confiscated weaponry occurred on a naval base, killing 13 and causing billions in economic damage. Following the incident, DIKO withdrew from the coalition government.
The weakening of Christofias’s coalition, which was amenable to unification, negatively affected negotiations with Northern Cyprus. In September 2012, DIKO voted to support DISY’s Nicos Anastasiadis for president in parliamentary elections scheduled for February 2013. Anastasiadis has promised to repudiate the Christofias administration’s concessions to Northern Cyprus.
A recession that had begun in 2011 intensified in 2012. Cyprus’s bond rating was downgraded, and the banking sector, heavily invested in Greek bonds, required a bailout following the 53.5 percent write-down on Greek debt that occurred in February 2012. Cyprus received a €2.5 billion ($3.34 billion) loan from Russia in late 2011 to cover shortfalls and is currently negotiating with both Russia and its European partners for additional funds and debt modifications. The country hopes to avoid the type of austerity program that has crippled other countries in the region.
Tensions continued to escalate over natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Due to its economic problems, Cyprus is moving aggressively with its Israeli and American partners to exploit natural gas reserves in its territorial waters. The Northern Cypriots have designated this activity illegal and have called on energy companies to halt activities in the region. Turkey too has voiced its disapproval and threatened to deploy its navy. The emerging contest over resources threatens to delay a return to serious unification negotiations.
Cyprus is an electoral democracy. The president is elected by popular vote to serve a five-year term. The unicameral House of Representatives has 80 seats filled through proportional representation for five-year terms; 24 seats are reserved for the Turkish Cypriot community, but they have not been occupied since Turkish Cypriot representatives withdrew from the chamber in 1964.
Following a 2004 ruling against Cyprus by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a law was passed allowing Turkish Cypriots living in the south to vote and run for office in Greek Cypriot elections. Turkish Cypriots cannot run for president, as the constitution states that a Greek Cypriot should hold that post and a Turkish Cypriot should be vice president. The Maronites (Levantine Catholics), Armenians, and Latins (Roman Catholics) elect special nonvoting representatives.
Corruption is not a major problem in Cyprus. Laws passed in 2008 aimed to prevent conflicts of interest for government officials and criminalized the withholding of information on bribery in defense procurement. Parliamentary hearings on freedom of information in May 2009 indicated that many legal requests for information are not fulfilled, mostly due to lack of resources. Cyprus was ranked 29 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and generally respected. A vibrant independent press frequently criticizes the authorities, and several private television and radio stations compete effectively with public stations. Although Turkish Cypriot journalists can enter the south, Turkish journalists based in the north have reported difficulties crossing the border. Access to the internet is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and protected in practice. Nearly all inhabitants of the south are Orthodox Christians, and some discrimination against other religions has been alleged. State schools use textbooks containing negative language about Turkish Cypriots and Turkey.
Freedoms of association and assembly are generally respected, though Cyprus received international criticism in 2011 for putting Doros Polycarpou, director of the local human rights group KISA, on trial for illegal assembly. Polycarpou had organized a multicultural unity festival in December 2010 that was attacked by members of the far-right nationalist group ELAM. Polycarpou was acquitted of all charges in June 2012. Nongovernmental organizations generally operate without government interference. Workers have the right to strike and to form trade unions without employer authorization.
The independent judiciary operates according to the British tradition, upholding due process rights. However, the ECHR ruled against Cyprus in 2009 for failure to provide a timely trial in a case that lasted nearly six years. The problem of indefinite detentions of asylum seekers has improved somewhat since the country’s ombudsperson filed complaints on the matter in 2008, but long-term detention of migrants continues. The Council of Europe and other groups have noted cases of police brutality, including targeted beatings of minorities. Prison overcrowding has decreased but remains a problem.
A 1975 agreement between the two sides of the island governs treatment of minorities. Turkish Cypriots are now entitled to Republic of Cyprus passports, and thousands have obtained them. However, Turkish Cypriots in the south have reported difficulty obtaining identity cards and other documents, as well as harassment and discrimination. Asylum seekers face regular discrimination, especially in employment, and KISA has warned of racially motivated attacks.
Since 2004, all citizens have been able to move freely throughout the island using a growing number of border crossings. While the Greek Cypriots have thwarted attempts to lift international trade and travel bans on the north, trade has increased between the two sides.
The status of property abandoned by those moving across the Green Line after the 1974 invasion is a point of contention in reunification talks. A 1991 law states that property left by Turkish Cypriots belongs to the state. Under the law in the north, Greek Cypriots can appeal to the Immovable Property Commission, which in March 2010 was recognized by the ECHR as an adequate local authority for the resolution of property disputes. As of December 2012, a total of 4,224 applications have been lodged with the commission and 295 have been settled, and approximately $133 million has been dispersed.
Gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, and violence against women are problems in Cyprus. Women are underrepresented in government, with only four women in the cabinet and six in the parliament. While the government has made genuine progress in preventing human trafficking and launched a new antitrafficking plan in 2010, Cyprus remains a transit and destination country, and prosecution is weak.
The numerical ratings and status listed here do not reflect conditions in Northern Cyprus, which is examined in a separate report.