Located in the middle of the Eastern Mediterranean, but historically dominated by foreign powers, Cypriots are making a last-ditch attempt to reunite their divided, sun-drenched island.
Under the aegis of the United Nations, the leaders of the two country’s two communities have begun an initial round of talks in Geneva, in order to create a unified federal state. Now it is time for the UK, Greece, and Turkey to join the table to help secure a peace deal.
The island has been divided into two parts since 1974 when Turkish troops invaded the northern territories in response to an Athens-inspired coup attempt aimed at annexing Cyprus to Greece.
Since then, the Greek Cypriot community has run he southern part of Cyprus, as the only internationally recognized representative of the island, whereas it was not until 1983 that Turkish Cypriots established their own political entity, the appropriately-named Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
The self-proclaimed TRNC receives full political and financial support from Ankara, which stills keeps troops on Cypriot soil, and over the years has encouraged Turkish settlement of the northern half of the island. The UN patrols a buffer zone, a no man’s land that separates the two communities.
“It would be very simplistic keeping the Cypriot issue to a bi-communal problem,” explains Georgios, a young Greek Cypriot who offered to give me a tour around the streets of Nicosia. Like many of his generation, he lives and works in the UK. “If you look at the geopolitics of the area, you can see how important Cyprus is and how its reunification could reshape the balances of the region,” he tells me.
Situated only 40 miles away from the coast of Turkey, 60 from Syria and 250 miles from Egypt, Cyprus is Europe’s outpost in the Middle East. For this reason, the Brits, like other civilizations, that have ruled the island in the past, decided to leave their mark. It’s not just the left-hand driving habit, but rather the two military bases used by the Royal Armed Forces for operations in Iraq and Syria.
The discovery in 2011 of large gas fields off the coast of Cyprus, to which Turkish Cypriots and Turkey claim rights, makes the Cyprus issue even more important to solve.
“During the peace talks, the gas is the only thing we can use to negotiate if we want to obtain a good deal,” Georgios thinks. “We are a small country. We don’t have much negotiating power. We have to be careful to use this asset properly if we want to have a bargaining chip. Otherwise, we will succumb to the interests of foreign governments”.
Foreign interference in the island’s affairs seems to be the aspect that worries Cypriots the most. Talking to both sides, the feeling that one can get is that the Cyprus issue is a political matter, rather than an inter-ethnic problem. Unlike the tensions that characterized the conflicts in the Balkans, here Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots seem to both want a solution that allows for peaceful coexistence in the same territory.
“The Turkish Cypriots are like us, they are our friends,” says Chris, a sixty-ish year old man who runs a traditional art gallery in Nicosia. He tells me that some Turkish Cypriots buy his Orthodox holy icons. “The Cypriot issue is not a matter of religion. It is a matter of belonging to somewhere, and Greek and Turkish Cypriots are both victims of the current situation.”
He says he has many good Turkish friends, as his father and his grandfather did. “I fear for them. I remember that when I was a child, my father used to have a very good Turkish Cypriot friend,” Chris tells me. “He specialized in producing ‘zurna’, a Turkish bagpipe similar to the one played by the Scots. For a certain period of time, I hosted concerts by a very famous local musician in my gallery. One day the artist asked me to bring him to the Turkish side of the city to buy a zurna, as he wanted to start learning this instrument.”
Chris continued: “We crossed the wall and we started looking for my father’s old friend, who I hadn’t seen for 36 years. I finally found him: he was running a small shop where he was selling flutes. I told him that if he recognised who I was I would buy all his flutes. He replied straight away ‘I know who you are, you are the son of my friend Michalis’. I bought all his flutes. Then he invited us for a coffee in the municipal market, where he confessed to me that he felt uncomfortable with the presence of occupying military forces in the northern part of island. He also told me to visit him every week after business hours, so that he could talk to me more openly and tell me other stories about it.”
By strolling the streets of the southern half of Nicosia, it is easy to chat with small groups of friends sipping Tsipuros or having a talk with shopkeepers. Georgia is one of them. Together with her husband, she owns a jewellery store downtown. Like many other Cypriots, she is also a refugee. Originally from Famagusta, Georgia and her family were forced to leave the city after the arrival of Turkish troops. Her house was occupied by Turkish Cypriots who settled in the area. I ask her if she still feels angry for having lost her home. “Of course it hurts when I think about it – she admits – but I’m not mad at anyone. A few years later, when they opened the gates, I went back to see my old house. I met the family who lives there now, they are nice people. I’m not angry with them; I do not blame them for what happened.”
Like the rest of the island, the capital Nicosia is divided in two by a wall that separates the Turkish part from the Greek portion. The checkpoints that are located on both sides are now easy to cross and the comings and goings of tourists and Cypriots are frequent.
After crossing through passport control, I feel like I am all of the sudden in Turkey: Lokum are for sale in every bakery, apple tea is available in all the cafes and shops sell Turkish crafts. The two minarets of the Selimiye mosque stand out from the old town alleys. This impressive building served originally as the Cathedral of St. Sophia, but was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule.
Since antiquity, Cyprus has been dominated by foreign powers, most recently the British Empire, from which it gained independence in 1960. At that time, Greek Cypriots represented 78% of the population and Turkish Cypriots 18%, with other ethnic minorities filling the remaining 4%. The constitution of the new independent Cyprus mandated a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president, both having veto rights on decisive matters. It also guaranteed that the UK, Greece and Turkey would prevent any attempt at ‘Enosis’ (union with Greece) and ‘Taksim’ (the division of the island into Turkish and Greek sectors).
But after a short period, tensions boiled over, and there was a breakdown in relations between communities. Some historians believe that the division of Greek and Turkish voters into separate electoral blocs institutionalised ethnic separatism and prevented cross-community government. Three years after independence, fighting broke out in Nicosia, leading to UN intervention, followed by the coup d’état in 1974, leading to the formal division of the island into Greek and Turkish zones.
Sameth is a blue eyed Turkish Cypriot with a good-tempered look. He shows me some bedspreads handmade by his cousin with cotton from Turkey. Sameth represents the third generation that runs this fabric shop in the northern half of Nicosia. His grandfather, who died at the ripe old age of 103, was born in Larnaca, a seaside town in the south of Cyprus. He too had to flee as a consequence of the conflict in 1974 and eventually moved into the Turkish part of Nicosia, where he later started this business.
Sameth says that among his clients there are also Greek Cypriots who come to do their shopping. “That’s why I am learning Greek now,” he says. Sameth shows me his Greek grammar notebook. “My grandfather spoke Greek fluently – he proudly explains – and me too, I want to learn Greek.” When I ask him about reunification, he comments, “It would be nice to have a unified country, I have no problem with Greek Cypriots at all. I don’t know what will happen; it is the government that decides for us.”
Since 1974, many peace plans have been proposed to find a suitable political solution to the peculiar situation in Cyprus. Presented by foreign governments, the United Nations, and the leaders of Cyprus’ two communities, these plans have so far failed to help secure an agreement on power-sharing and territorial adjustments.
“Only God knows how it will end.” Michael, the owner of a well-known restaurant in Paphos, is pessimistic. He was 11 years old when, in July 1974, Turkish planes bombed the harbour of this fishing village that now turned into a popular holiday destination for British and Russian tourists. “For me a federal-state solution is acceptable, but the real problem is the presence of the Turkish military, which still occupies Cyprus. Who can guarantee that there won’t be another invasion? The United Kingdom is only interested in keeping its bases, while Greece is too busy solving its internal problems. I think there will never be a solution.”
Amanda Paul, a policy analyst at the Centre for European Studies in Brussels, believes that reaching an agreement to create a unified federal state would represent a win-win solution for all involved parties. Reunification would give stability to the country and a stronger economy, thanks to the exploitation of offshore gas deposits. Internal and external commercial exchanges would improve, as well as EU relations with Turkey.
Nevertheless, maintaining the status quo would fit the nationalist parties narrative and preserve the interests of some tour operators. But according to Paul there are some elements that suggest a positive outcome of the negotiations. The fact that this time the drive for a settlement is wholly Cypriot-driven, with the UN acting solely as a facilitator, suggests a genuine intention to find a solution. Furthermore, for the first time the two Cypriot leaders – President Nicos Anastasiades – and his Turkish counterpart – Mustafa Akıncı – exchanged maps to find a common agreement on territorial divisions.
“It is normal that Cypriots are discouraged and sceptical,” she admits. But it is also true that Cypriots have an outstanding ability to adapt. Over the years, indeed centuries, they have been able to adapt themselves to the political and economic upheavals that they suffered due to foreign domination.
But they went ahead, they have recovered in any situation. And I think in this case, if an agreement is reached, the Cypriots will adapt to the new political asset. On the other hand, Anastasiadis has to present his citizens a good deal because what is at stakes this time is very important. We are at a crucial point: if for the second time the Greek Cypriots reject the proposal for an agreement with a referendum, then we could say that the option for a reunification would be definitively over.”
Other political analysts agree that further failure would be a sign to the international community that Cypriots are giving up in finding a solution. In this case, the idea of a possible annexation of Northern Cyprus to Turkey would become a realistic scenario.
What is clear is that in times in which Europe is facing intense crisis, with the rise of populist movements calling for secession and many member states building walls on their borders to prevent migration, the reunification of Cyprus would represent a healthy countertendency.
Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.