Cyprus was one of the first countries to recognise the Armenian genocide, but the relationship that the country has with its own Armenian population is more complicated than it seems.
The centenary of the Armenian Genocide on 24 April this year comes amidst heightened speculation about a resumption of peace negotiations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The timing is coincidental and yet it is telling of how, in Cyprus, the Armenian issue (more so than others) has been mired in the Greco Turkish dispute.
Against this backdrop, the question of Cyprus’ official recognition of the events that almost exterminated the Armenian population of Anatolia in 1915 as being a genocide or not has come to matter more in terms of Cypriot relations with Turkey than with Armenians.
As of April 2015, those who deny the Armenian genocide in the Republic of Cyprus are liable for up to five years imprisonment and/or a €10,000 fine. On 9 April, the Parliament of the Republic of Cyprus passed a legal amendment that was hailed as ‘the criminalization of the denial of the Armenian genocide’.
The 45(I)/2015 Law amending the Law to combat certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of Criminal Law of 2011, contains no references to Armenians or the Armenian Genocide, and neither does the original Law of 2011, which is essentially a transposition of the EU’s 2008 relevant Framework Decision. What it does contain, however, is an addition to article 3, which defines genocide as a crime, recognised as such by an ‘irrevocable decision of an international court’, allowing for such recognition to also be accorded by ‘a unanimous decision or unanimous resolution of the [Republic’s] Parliament’.
The recognition of the Armenian Genocide has been granted by such parliamentary resolutions in Cyprus since 1975 and most recently in 1990. The visiting Armenian Speaker of the House, his local counterpart and the representative of the Armenian community in Cyprus welcomed the legal amendment of 2015 during a special parliamentary session and the opening of a photographic exhibition on the genocide. The previous parliamentary acts were hailed as indicative of the strong ties between the two peoples. The three speeches held no surprises when they connected Turkish aggression in Cyprus in 1974 to that of 1915, underscoring the solidarity of the two countries against a common enemy.
This absent enemy has, in fact, been the main link between Greek and Armenian Cypriots in modern history – but not always in the straight-forward way of befriending your enemy’s enemy.
The majority of Armenians in Cyprus today trace their descent from 1915 survivors who arrived to the island before the Ottoman formally ceded full control to the British (who had been ‘assigned to administer’ Cyprus since 1878) in 1923. Those survivors, Susan Pattie had noted in the first ethnography of the community (Pattie, 1997), spoke more Turkish than Greek, and thus settled in Turkish speaking neighbourhoods, primarily of Nicosia. They braved the scorn of the wider society as newcomers and by the next generation a success story could be told of community schooling, press, and church.
Upon independence from the British Empire, the Republic of Cyprus recognised the Armenians, alongside Maronites and Latins, as a ‘religious group’; short of a ‘community’, which was a term reserved for the two main governmental partners: Greek and Turkish Cypriots. This (mis)recognition effectively denied Armenians a substantial political representation, with three parliamentary seats conferring a non-voting, observer role to each of the religious groups. Instead, the Constitution called upon them to decide to join one of the two main communities to represent them politically. The decision was taken at leadership level and the Armenians joined the Greek Cypriot majority, as did the Maronites and the Latins.
This insertion meant that all three groups became embroiled in the inter-communal conflict through their identification as Greek Cypriots. A large number of Armenians found themselves at a disadvantage, even with their status as victims post-conflict, directly due to this identification.
As members of the Greek Cypriot community, Armenians living in the Turkish quarter of Nicosia were displaced at the start of the conflict in 1963, when borders around Turkish Cypriot autonomous enclaves were drawn. At this point, most of the casualties of inter-communal violence and the vast majority of the displaced had been Turkish Cypriots. Yet the Armenians were displaced exactly because they were not Turkish Cypriots.
When the state conferred on the Armenians the status of victim, it classified them as Turkóplikti [‘struck by the Turks’]. This legal term was used to describe those driven from their homes due to the upheaval, caused by what Greek Cypriot official history terms ‘the Turkish mutiny’ (for an analysis of implications see Demetriou, 2014).
If the Turkish state has used denialist arguments to refute the Armenian genocide, such as stating that the deaths of 1915 were the result of violence on all sides, then Greek Cypriot law has reflected similar strategies of denial, albeit in a different context and scale of human loss. The Greek denial was that of classifying victimhood only by reference to Turkish aggression in the pre-1974 period and discounting Turkish Cypriot losses.
Armenian suffering inadvertently became the legal pivot of this denial. Even though the law prevented Turkish Cypriots from seeking retribution from the state (since they could not be classified as victims of the Turkish mutiny), it also did little to support Armenians and other victims (including some Greek Cypriots) in their displacement. In 1974, when vast numbers of Greek Cypriots were displaced from the northern part of Cyprus, the laws classifying them as ‘refugees’ also granted them support that ‘Turkóplikti’ had not received. Such support was introduced to equate them with ‘refugees’ but it did little to change the fact that when help had been needed, mostly at the point of displacement, it had not been available.
Even today, when the main vehicle of refugee support is housing support for the children of refugees, the law distinguishes between the two categories. This is done in such a way that refugee children (notably of refugee fathers, until gender equality concerns led to an amendment in 2011) can receive such support, but not those descendants of Turkóplikti. This historic differentiation has not only an economic impact; it also underscored the minority status of Armenians by etching in social memory their losses from the conflict as somehow less than the losses of the Greek Cypriot refugees of 1974.
This reproduces a governmental understanding of ‘minority’ that marks indelibly the Greek Cypriot discourse in Cyprus. Widely acknowledged as the groups that comprise Cypriot pluralism, “Armenians, Maronites, and Latins” are referenced in all public rhetoric on co-existence, especially where this refers to a future co-existence in a power sharing agreement with Turkish Cypriots. Elsewhere, however, they are hardly visible: socially, culturally or politically. The other groups are even more ignored than Armenians, as a 2011 documentary suggests.
It is as if the Armenian rhetorical appearance serves to place them on a par with those other ‘compatriots’, as Turkish Cypriots are often referred to, whose claims to political equality are de-legitimised on the basis that they are, after all, merely a minority. This is the problematic crux of Greek/Armenian Cypriot relations today: relations hinge on an understanding of ‘minority’ that is ultimately focused on Turkish Cypriots and their absence, even when it claims to celebrate Armenian presence.
 Pattie, Susan. 1997. Faith in History: Armenians Rebuilding Community. Michigan: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- This text was first published at Open Democracy 23 April 2015.