Cyprus Mail
Guest Columnist Opinion

Reconsidering the ‘bi’ in bizonal, bicommunal federation

The Maronites, one of several communities which has had their ethnic, religious and linguistic identities denied them

By George Iordanou

During the crafting of the 1960s constitution the non-dominant minorities of the island – Maronites, Armenians and Latins – had their ethnic, religious and linguistic identities denied them when they became part of the Greek Cypriot culture. This is what I describe as the process of misrecognition, where the initial classification of a cultural group conditions the demands that the group is entitled to make.

Such acts of misrecognition have been legitimised with the 1960 bicommunally organised constitution, and perpetuated in all the subsequent solution plans. Thus, the constitutional model negotiated since then, called the Bizonal Bicommunal Federation (BBF), is open to challenge on the grounds that it suppresses cultural diversity through misrecognition and cultural assimilation.

Bizonality is one of the more controversial aspects of the negotiated constitutional model, because it grants each culture specific rights over land. The geographical area of Cyprus, both north and south, will be divided into two parts of different sizes, where each ethnic group will preside over. The opponents of bizonality, like EDEK, claim that the concept of bizonality is original to Cyprus, since it has no precedence of application in any other country. Nevertheless, bizonality is another form of territorial rights, similar to those found in Australia, where certain indigenous populations retain rights over specific pieces of land.

The arguments against bizonality are often defended on anti-prejudice grounds: that it is prejudiced to restrict the right of movement of people, but they rest on false premises because they misunderstand the nature of the territorial rights in question. Freedom of movement is not curtailed, people will still be able to move and live in the zones controlled by the other ethnic group, the only difference is that local governance will be up to the other national group.

The rejection of bizonality is often intertwined with a rejection of federalism altogether. To reject a federal solution to the Cyprus problem is not often part of the public discourse in Cyprus. It is something only featured among the supporters of the far-right. Supporters of the mainstream political parties, who are critical of a federal solution, often displace their discontent of federalism through the rejection of bizonality, although in essence they reject the latter. The most popular criticism that they level against it, again in the name of anti-prejudice, is that it is discriminatory to violate the premise of “one (hu)man one vote.” Nevertheless, balanced voting is a defining feature of many federal constitutions, used to protect the interests of minority cultures. The most popular example of this can be seen in the United States, where the weight of individual votes depends on the size of that state.

Irrespective of the popular discourse around the type of the negotiated constitution, certain aspects of BBF cannot be dispersed. The Turkish Cypriots would hardly concede to a solution that lacked the following three attributes: self-governmental rights in a federal state, territorial rights in that state, and Turkey as a guarantor of the security of that state.

It is important to understand that the Turkish Cypriots, in almost an identical way to the Greek Cypriots, have experienced the construction of their national identity in opposition to “the other” – through nation building and competing historiographies. At the same, the non-dominant minority cultures were assimilated through misrecognition and forced membership to one of the two constitutionally exceptional cultural groups.

The challenge that a multiculturally organised constitution needs to tackle is how to find the balance between the security-related concerns of the two main groups, whilst compensating the non-dominant minorities for the costs imposed upon them through their historical constitutional misrecognition.

To resolve these challenges the role of the intergovernmental institutions involved in the process of finding a comprehensive solution to the Cyprus problem needs to be reconsidered, as well as the currently negotiated constitutional model, the bizonal, bicommunal federation.

Starting with the latter, the reasons why a federal solution is the only type of constitution likely to be accepted by all the national groups of the island, requires little discussion – it is the only model likely to be accepted by both sides and for both represents a compromise.

What must be reconsidered is not the federal basis of the negotiated constitution, but rather its binary character. This view is one that is almost never articulated in the discourse of the Cyprus problem, even though it is clearly the source of much conflict. The emphasis is usually placed on whether the future state should be federal or not, and whether the minority Turkish Cypriot culture should have territorial rights in the form of political control over a zone. Instead, the emphasis should shift towards the binary application of those two constitutional provisions, which exclude the rest of the national cultures of the island.

In revising the ‘Bi’ in ‘Bizonal, Bicommunal, Federation’, one must consider what rights must be extended to the members of the non-dominant minorities of the island, in order to compensate them for their historically unjust treatment. This view has the implication that Armenians, Latins, Maronites and Roma as citizens of the Republic of Cyprus, can rightfully advance claims for self-governmental and territorial rights, in the same way as the Turkish Cypriots do.

An argument against this implication is the impracticability objection: that it would be politically messy in terms of government and costly in terms of application, to provide self-governmental and territorial rights to all the national minorities on the island. Yet, the devolution of powers to, for example, the local councils of Maronites is not something that would be either terribly costly or grossly impractical. It is not the academic (or the politician for that matter) who must decide what rights must be granted to minorities. It is the minorities themselves that are burdened with the task of articulating their demands. Thus, until a process is established where minorities, under full knowledge of their options, can securely articulate their demands, one cannot know what those might be.

To this end, a process of internationally facilitated recognition of minority cultures can be particularly conducive to the process of the communication of the demands of minority cultures, necessary for the creation of a new negotiating framework for the constitution of Cyprus. A new constitution, one that is based on multicultural rather than bicommunal constitutionalism must be established; one that includes all cultures in the debate, and guarantees their equal standing within it.

To this day, the members of non-dominant minority cultures are considered part of the Greek Cypriot civic group, and thus denied part of their cultural identity. In order to overcome this political and cultural deadlock, an external arbitration arrangement is needed to facilitate the process of their recognition – one that must underpin any future deliberation between members of majority and minority cultures.


Dr George Iordanou writes at and tweets @iordanou

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