The Cyprus Problem: too many flags

by George Hatjoullis

The flag is a potent symbol of national identity. In some countries it is the symbol. It is thus somewhat revealing that in Cyprus there is a plethora of flags. The Republic of Cyprus is an independent state and member of the European Union and the eurozone. It has a foreign minister and an army, the National Guard. It is a national entity with a national symbol, the flag of the Republic. Yet if one were to drive arbitrarily around the non-occupied part of the Island one would struggle to see this flag. In contrast, the flag of Greece is everywhere. In part this is because it features outside of all Greek Orthodox churches along with the double-headed eagle which is the flag of the church. There are lots of Greek Orthodox churches so the Greek flag is ubiquitous. However, this does not really explain why the Greek flag flies alongside the Republic of Cyprus flag and the EU flag outside of government buildings. Why does the flag of Greece, a separate state flag, fly so prominently in the Republic?

The striking thing is that no Greek Cypriot that I have spoken to regards this display of the Greek flag as in any way odd. Indeed, to ask, as I am now doing, is to invite accusations of treason and invite hostility and even violence. In 1973 I asked the very same question whilst visiting Cyprus and it very nearly got me shot. In 1974, again on holiday in Cyprus, I knew enough not to ask. Patriotism in Cyprus, for much of the population constitutes loyalty to Greece, another state altogether.

A little further north in the Turkish occupied part of the Island the flag of Turkey dominates. The flag of the unrecognised and illegal state of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is a derivative of the Turkish flag. You cannot miss it if you are driving along the motorway into Nicosia. It takes up half the Kyrenia mountain range. I have never spoken to a Turkish Cypriot, which is odd as I am Londoner, so I am not sure how they feel about this. There is some evidence that some are not overly happy about the dominance of Turkey and its symbols.. However even if they were happy to fly the flag of the Republic, Turkey would not allow this. Moreover, flying a flag of Cyprus would mean little if most Greek Cypriots prefer the flag of Greece. Understandably Turkish Cypriots do not wish to live under the flag of Greece any more than Greek Cypriots wish to live under the flag of Turkey or variant thereof. Not a great basis for reunification talks I would say.

Just to complicate matters further, in two areas of the Island, the Union Jack is flown. These are the so-called ‘sovereign bases’, which the UK awarded itself after granting independence to the former British colony and saddling it with an unworkable constitution and Treaty of Guarantee. Today, October 1, is independence day in Cyprus. Some now talk of the heroes of EOKA that won independence from the British. This is revisionism of the worst sort. EOKA did not want independence. They wanted union with Greece. The graffiti that was evident when I first visited the Island in 1970 was quite explicit: enosis or union was the demand. Independence was, for EOKA, an unfortunate by-product of the struggle. This is why the organisation resurrected itself and in 1974, with the help of the Greek military junta, precipitated the disastrous coup and consequent Turkish invasion. The prominence of the flag of Greece in Cyprus relative to the flag of the Republic might be interpreted by some as the frustration felt by many Greek Cypriots at the failure to achieve union with Greece. It might also be interpreted as a continuing desire for union. It would not be unreasonable for Turkish Cypriots to make such an interpretation would it?

In the context of the present talks to reunite the Island the presence of many flags is thus perhaps unhelpful. Indeed it may constitute the main obstacle to reunification. If many Greek Cypriots still hanker after union with Greece and many Turkish Cypriots would rather be Turks then what kind of reunification is possible.?A stable reunification looks very improbable. If Cypriots do not want ‘double union’ then why do the flags of other states figure so prominently?

The occupied north of the Island cannot adopt the flag of the Republic (or some other common flag) until a reunification agreement is in place. The Republic can, however, adopt its own flag and desist from using the Greek flag. The church can also introduce the flag of the Republic to its locations. The Archbishop is after all the Archbishop of Cyprus. Such gestures may go a long way to creating some goodwill and conviction that the Republic is serious about the reunification process. It may also remind the populations that a successful reunification requires that they both accept the national identity of Cypriot, much like German, French and Italian speaking citizens of Switzerland accept the national identity of Swiss. I know of no Swiss national that hanker after being German, French or Italian!