Off the Map: Cyprus – a dividing issue

From time to time in this column, I find it useful to highlight a specific geopolitical issue that can act as an ideal backdrop for illustrating a number of complex cultural, historical and political interrelationships. While the idea is to discuss the issue itself in some detail, the real goal is to help draw out important principles of content design and distribution for any type of product development.

For this purpose, I’d like to focus on the country of Cyprus, an island nation located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, just south of Turkey and west of Lebanon and Syria. Many people tend to know Cyprus as being one of the choice resort locations in the Mediterranean region, and it certainly is that, but the country has experienced a good deal of conflict and cultural friction, particularly over the past several decades.

The culture of Cyprus has ancient origins, having been occupied by the Hittites, Greeks, Assyrians, Persians and Romans. Later, it came under the control of the Byzantines and the Republic of Venice before it was finally annexed into the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. This set the stage for its eventual administration by the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. The Cypriot population had a strong Greek influence, and the complex interplay among Britain, Greece and Turkey required delicate diplomacy. Greece strongly lobbied the British government to allow Cyprus to be incorporated into its country, but Turkey just as strongly objected. By a tenuous three-way agreement, the end result in 1960 was the independent country of Cyprus.

This set the stage for its current geopolitical situation. After some incidents of Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot violence following independence, the militarized Greek government made a move to annex Cyprus in 1974, which was quickly answered with an invasion by Turkey. By the end of that year, a cease-fire was called, and Turkey controlled the northern 36% of the island’s territory, while the United Nations (UN) established an extensive buffer zone between Cyprus and the occupied north. By 1983, this northern portion declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which has only been recognized by Turkey to this day. Despite this conflict, Cyprus was admitted to the European Union in 2004, while the two sides of the island have had to learn to live together.

As recently as early 2012, the UN was still striving to achieve a treaty between the two governments, but the road to peace has been challenging. Part of the reason is that Turkey is keen to extend its influence and emphasize its regional importance. But as with many disputes around the world, probably the most critical aspect is that Turkey is surely interested in the extensive natural gas deposits that are in close proximity to Cyprus’ coast. With such a resource at stake, it’s highly unlikely that Turkey would easily concede to either Cypriot or UN demands.

Such geopolitical events have created a complicated market for the distribution of content. This single sovereign nation is now divided into two distinct cultures — and actually into three if you include the UK sovereign base territories that remain in place from the colonial era. First and foremost among these content considerations is the language issue. Despite Cyprus having been a primarily Greek-speaking nation, the country’s constitution clearly declares both Greek and Turkish as official languages, to ensure the inclusion of the Turkish-Cypriot population. The constitution goes a long way in clarifying the equal status of the languages, to the point that both are used for government documents and judicial proceedings as well as on coins, currency notes and stamps.

The bilingual affirmation is great to see, but unfortunately it’s only really applicable in the southern portion of Cyprus. The TRNC maintains only Turkish as its official language and is somewhat intolerant of allowing Greek with equal status. For content developers, this usually would require different distribution strategies, providing bilingual Greek/Turkish versions in the south and then Turkish-only versions in the north. The bigger burden then lies in creating the content for Cyprus proper, ensuring that any content is thoroughly translated into Greek and Turkish.

Language strategy is always a necessary consideration for markets in complex geopolitical and cultural regions. For example, providing both Simplified Chinese and Traditional Chinese in greater China should be handled carefully among China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao. And as I’ve learned firsthand from past experience, when releasing products in the Middle East, it’s wise to ensure that Hebrew and Arabic versions are shipped simultaneously to avoid the perception of local favoritism or exclusion.

Another content issue that goes along with Cyprus is that of how to handle the map of the country. As one might expect, the perception of the country’s boundaries will differ depending upon which side of the UN buffer zone you happen to live, both in the languages used and the depiction of the boundaries. On the former point, the place names on maps produced by either Cyprus or the TRNC are in line with the aforementioned linguistic policies. Maps originating from the government of Cyprus use the original place names of (mostly) Greek origin, but as per constitutional policy, a Turkish-only map is also available for Turkish-Cypriots. The maps produced by the TRNC show Turkish place names across the entire island without any indication of Greek alternatives.

As for the boundaries, the maps produced by Cyprus are unequivocal in their opinion; they show the entire island as the country of Cyprus. While they obviously can’t completely ignore the territorial dispute, it is downplayed in their cartography to a degree. The UN buffer zone is relegated to an innocuous gray line across the island while the northern area has a banner across reading “Area Under Turkish Occupation Since 1974” (Figure 1). By contrast, maps from the TRNC strongly emphasize the distinct northern region and use symbology to cast the occupied region as a legitimate country in a type of cartographic propaganda (Figure 2).

For companies wanting to develop or distribute content for Cyprus as a whole, it’s prudent to take a more diplomatic course of action. Most foreign governments as well as corporations tend to approach the Cyprus issue by effectively ignoring the TRNC and treating Cyprus as the whole of the island. The issue then of working out the conflict with the TRNC is perceived as something of an internal affair. Because of the lack of international recognition of the TRNC and its close affinity with Turkey, the strategy for dealing with this dispute is made somewhat simple: create content for Turkey (culturally and linguistically) and you can expect it will be suitable for consumption in the TRNC. Of course, this assumes that one’s local government doesn’t maintain any restrictions against distribution to the TRNC, out of support for Cyprus.

In the end, disputed issues such as this are always helpful in challenging our assumptions about standard practices when it comes to content development, localization and culturalization. It’s not always an easy task to deviate from a set procedure, and sometimes it may require rethinking the entire strategy for a particular market. However, it may be motivating to keep in mind that even something as subtle as the equitable treatment of distinct languages and cultures in something as common as a digital product can help to locally reinforce the notion of peaceful coexistence.