Freedom in the World
Following May 2011 parliamentary elections, a massive explosion on a Cypriot naval base in July caused major political damage to the new coalition government of President Demetris Christofias. The accident imperiled prospects for unification with Northern Cyprus, as did an outbreak of tensions between Cyprus and Turkey over the exploration and exploitation of natural gas in the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
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 simultaniously 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 (EU) 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 (EDEK). Christofias had voiced a commitment toward unification, and met regularly with Northern Cypriot leaders. However, only symbolic progress was made in the years following his election, mostly in the form of UN-sponsored meetings and small border openings. Tripartite talks in January, March, and July 2011 between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and representatives of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus failed to make substantial progress toward unification.
In parliamentary elections held in May 2011, the Democratic Rally (DISY) took 20 seats, AKEL won 19 seats, and DIKO took 9 seats; three small parties captured the remaining 8 seats. In July, a massive explosion of confiscated weaponry occurred on a naval base, killing the commander of the Cyprus Navy and severely threatening Cyprus’s economy. The explosion nearly destroyed Cyprus’ largest power plant, prompting waves of blackouts that jeopardized tourism and disrupted an already beleaguered financial system. The incident, considered the result of government oversight, resulted in the mass resignation of Christofias’s cabinet, the withdrawal of DIKO from the coalition government, and widespread calls for the president’s resignation.
The dissolution of Christofias’s coalition, one of the most amenable to unification in decades, had a deleterious effect on negotiations with Northern Cyprus. Hope for unification had already been diminished by the election of a nationalist, anti-unification Northern Cypriot government in 2010. Tensions were further exacerbated in 2011 when Cyprus became embroiled in a diplomatic dispute involving Turkey, Greece, and Israel over the exploration and extraction of natural resources, particularly natural gas, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Nevertheless, the international community has made a renewed push for a unification agreement in light of Cyprus’ assumption of the EU presidency in July 2012.
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. Cyprus was ranked 30 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. 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.
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. In January 2010, Andis Hadjicostis, the owner of Cyprus’s largest media group, was shot and killed outside his home. Four people were charged in the case, including a well-known television presenter who allegedly hired assassins after being fired from one of the victim’s stations. 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. In September 2009, more than 100 Muslims from rival sects clashed at a mosque in the capital. The police controversially arrested 150 people in a subsequent sweep; 36 were found to be illegal immigrants and faced deportation, while the remainder were released. 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 multi-cultural unity festival in the city of Larnaca in December 2010, which had been attacked by members of the far-right nationalist group ELAM; a Turkish Cypropt musician was stabbed during the incident. The trial was ongoing at year’s end. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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 ombudswoman 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 continues to increase 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 Comission (IPC), which in March 2010 was recognized by the ECHR as an adequate local authority for the resolution of property disputes. As of October 2011, the IPC had processed 2,095 applications and settled 181 cases, in which more than $720 million have been dispersed.
Gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, and violence against women are problems in Cyprus. Women are underrepresented in government, with only three women in the cabinet and six in the parliament. While the government has made genuine progress in preventing human trafficking and launched a new anti-trafficking plan in 2010, Cyprus remains a transit and destination country, and prosecution is weak. In January 2010, The ECHR found Cyprus guilty of failing to protect a 20-year-old Russian woman who fell to her death while trying to escape a cabaret where she was forced to work.
The numerical ratings and status listed here do not reflect conditions in Northern Cyprus, which is examined in a separate report.