Following the economic crisis and with a new agreement on the table, there is unprecedented impetus for unifying Cyprus—but the two sides must overcome their violent historyby Charlie Askew / March 19, 2014 / Leave a comment
The UN buffer zone between northern and southern Cyprus ©Jpatokal/WMCommons
As deep-seated tensions and divisions elsewhere in Europe reach breaking point, away from the headlines the small island of Cyprus has taken another faltering step towards a long overdue unification. This outpost of Europe, adrift in the turbulent seas of the Middle East, has been split for the last 40 years between a Greek south and Turkish north. In the last few weeks, however, progress towards unification has been made.
After months of painstaking negotiation, a joint agreement has been signed between the two leaders, Nicos Anastasiades and Dervis Eroglu, paving the way for UN-backed unification talks—suspended for the past 18 months—to restart. Since then, negotiators from both sides have paid a visit to each other’s powerful backers, Athens and Ankara, a move unprecedented in its positivity. But at the same time, the Cypriot government has been rocked by the departure of the junior coalition partner DIKO from power, its leader claiming that the joint declaration had given the Turkish Cypriots too much. How optimistic should we be about the success of these talks?
The history of Cyprus’s division is a tortuous one of false starts and misplaced hope. In this split island, each side feels it has as much to lose as to win: the Greeks that their political and economic power may be watered down by a minority; the Turks that their religious and cultural heritage will be subsumed by their southern neighbours. The joint agreement is a fudge, promising a single sovereignty externally and a dual citizenship internally—with citizens being simply “Cypriots” internationally but Turkish or Greek Cypriots domestically—in an effort to allay the fears of the Greeks and Turks respectively. It sounds impractical, but in this hyper-political context, it could work. The key issue is not the wording, but the vision for the future: can the two halves overcome their bloody history to envisage a joint Cyprus?
On the island, the division sometimes feels anachronistic. The borders are open and the causes of the division feel distant—the threats of a Greek military coup and responding Turkish invasion of 1974, after years of conflict that followed independence from Britain. In those turbulent years, when Turks still lived alongside Greeks, violence flared continually, often around issues of power-sharing, taxation and joint municipalities. The military junta in Greece began to push a union between Greece and Cyprus, culminating in a coup d’etat against the resistant President Makarios in July 1974. Turkey responded by invading, ostensibly to protect Turkish Cypriots from Greek military domination. A second invasion in August eventually annexed 40 per cent of the island. The legality of that invasion has long been disavowed by the international community, who have never recognised the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. And, so, Cyprus is where it is today: a divided island, its northern half recognised only by its sponsor in Ankara.
The division is seemingly absent to tourists who cross the border for a day’s sightseeing, but still very much alive to citizens on either side. Observers easily forget that this is a division in the sinews of these tiny communities—between Greeks and Turks, Christians and Muslims, west and east—embedded in history and now expressed through religion, politics and culture. Nowhere is that clearer than in Nicosia. This neat, compact city is split in two by a UN-guarded Green Zone that marks the limits of the Turkish invasion. The rotting buildings and fractured asphalt of the Green Zone are a monument to the painful rupture in this country, the border marking a generation of conflict and death, of property stolen and communities split, with its huge signs proclaiming “TRNC [Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus] FOREVER” and “Welcome to Greek Cyprus.”
The signing of the joint agreement is the most positive sign in the recent history of the division. Ten long years after the last serious attempts at unification, the two sides have made it back to the table. That both sides are suffering economically has helped provide motivation, forcing them to reconsider the benefits of unification, but the political will seems to be high independently of that. Reunification would provide a huge boost to the north, where wages are cripplingly low and economic growth is stultified. The Greeks, too, stand to benefit, allowing full exploitation of the hydrocarbon reserves found off shore, and the renewal of once-popular tourist grounds. Critically, there is unprecedented support on both sides. The Turkish and Greek youth have long been supportive, but the two main parties and major commerce organisations on either side have now signed up too. There is, at last, economic and political impetus.
Even so, Cyprus has been here before. The closest previous attempt, the 2004 Annan Plan, garnered heavyweight UN backing but foundered on vitriolic propaganda from both sides, with politicians and media playing on old stereotypes of the land-grabbing Turk and obtuse, arrogant Greek. The same could easily happen again, despite the personal involvement of John Kerry in this round of talks—his attention much divided at the moment, this is one of his less high-profile negotiations; the Turkish Cypriot Foreign Minister Ozdil Nami visited Washington last week but was reportedly unable to meet the Secretary of State personally. Minority political parties have already begun to attack the agreement and the press have been trading accusations of land grabs and dirty tricks—alongside more hopeful editorials—reflecting the ever-present fear of the other. If these tensions are handled poorly, as in 2004, the “no” campaign will gather momentum.
History counts here: it is something that must be overcome for any success to occur. The fudge in the joint agreement will come under serious pressure over the next few months as the two sides negotiate over it and tear it apart. The fear is that the years of division and conflict make it impossible for both sides to recognise a shared past or a joint future. In the past, each has viewed talks as an existential struggle to ensure that their version of Cyprus stays alive. That is why the stumbling block has so frequently been over Greek conceptions of “single sovereignty” and Turkish claims of “joint sovereignty”; what has been at stake is which Cyprus prevails. If Anastasiades and Eroglu revert to this past, there will be no unification; they must overcome it to find a shared vision of Cyprus.