An Unhappy Anniversary for Cyprus

By: Julia Jacovides

The town of Varosha (located near Famagusta in the north of Cyprus) has been abandoned since 1974. It used to be a major tourist attraction but is now a ghost town.
The town of Varosha (located near Famagusta in the north of Cyprus) has been abandoned since 1974. It used to be a major tourist attraction but is now a ghost town.

In a tiny corner of the eastern Mediterranean lies the island of Cyprus. Beautiful, welcoming, and gloriously sunny at this time of year, it commemorates an unfortunate anniversary this week. Forty years ago, a military coup temporarily replaced the Greek Cypriot president with a man who wanted Cyprus to join Greece. In response, Turkish forces invaded the island (nominally) to protect their Turkish Cypriot brothers. They established a new region in the north that, to this day, only Turkey recognizes. Four decades and several failed peace processes later, the island remains starkly divided between a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south. For many,the division has become exhausting and the lack of a solution disheartening. In the words of Alexis Galanos – mayor-in-exile of Famagusta, a town which lies partly in the demilitarized zone – the time to find a resolution is running out.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to solve the issue. Each has failed. Arguably, none best exemplifies each side’s frustrations as clearly as the 2004 Annan Plan. The final proposal suggested the creation of a United Cyprus Republic composed of a Greek Cypriot constituent state and a Turkish Cypriot constituent state. As is common in most peace processes, Annan’s suggestions did not satisfy each side entirely. Yet, it is worth noting that two of the plan’s most controversial points existed only because the coup and invasion had occurred.

Restoration of lost property – a major Greek Cypriot demand since 1974 – and the status of the “settlers” – Turkish citizens who settled on the island after 1974 – remain serious issues today. In 2004, moreover, the EU had already accepted the island of Cyprus (but only the internationally-recognized Greek Cypriot government) as a member. Many Greek Cypriots, therefore, felt they might get a better deal as a member of the European Union. Needless to say, the Annan Plan did not pass. In a simultaneous referendum in April 2004, almost 65 percent of Turkish Cypriots supported the proposal; over 75 percent of Greek Cypriots rejected it.

The Annan Plan’s failure represents a painful reality. Ten years ago, Greek Cypriot leaders focused on obtaining the best possible deal for their side, not on achieving any measurable stable peace. This sort of stubbornness – not the Turkish state’s interference and not the occupation of the northern territories – is most at fault for the continued partition.

My view is that there can be no success at high-level negotiations if there is not first a significant grassroots coalition that opens channels of communication for Turkish and Greek Cypriot citizens. Dialogue doesn’t have to be purely political: earlier this year, Greek and Turkish Cypriots finished the restoration of a church in Kontea, a small village in the north of Cyprus. “After all this time, the people are ready to reconcile,” said a 79-year old Greek Cypriot who had to drive past Turkish Cypriot guards in order to get to the village. It is the local people, after all, who will be most affected by any sort of peace process. Britain, America, Turkey, Greece, and the United Nations have all been too intimately involved in Cypriot politics for far too long. They are not the ones who should be leading the peace talks, although some believe that outside mediation can still produce an agreement towards peace. When it comes to high-level, intergovernmental talks, this may still be true. However, there cannot be real resolution and certainly no de-escalation of the situation without first some sort of significant communal interaction.

In his recent talk at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC, Mr. Galanos seemed exhausted by the continued division of his island. His message, though, was clear and unequivocal: the current situation must change. Fifty or sixty years from now, he argued, Cypriots will be running on memories. And this is perhaps the saddest part of Cyprus’s division. As those who remember the united Cyprus start to age, new generations will emerge who do not feel the urgency of peace as strongly. In 1964, the United Nations deployed its Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP). It remains there to this day, which means that fifty year old Cypriots – Greek and Turkish alike – have never lived without foreign troops physically separating them from each other. As Mr. Galanos said: UNFICYP sends a message of division. It also, though, suggests to Cypriots that they are not capable of coexisting. Some suggest that the UN forces prevent warfare between the two groups, and that any withdrawal should follow a consensus between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on security issues. This is a cautious and pragmatic take on the issue, but it requires first an agreement between local communities. If faced with an impending UN departure, Cypriots might be spurred to action. If not – and if UNFICYP stays in place even longer –  it will only get more difficult for Greek and Turkish Cypriots to view themselves as simply Cypriot. In other words, if change does not come soon, it may never come.

In the north of Cyprus, Turkish Cypriots live in a sort of limbo. Their state is unrecognized by anyone but Turkey, and their economy relies almost entirely on trade with the Turkish mainland. Their isolation has been cultivated over generations and stretches back to nearly ten years before the 1974 invasion. Greek Cypriots in the south, meanwhile, still suffer from the family land they lost in the north as Turkish troops pushed south. Their memories, childhoods, and (in some cases) entire existence came from that land. Its loss represents more than a physical deprivation: it stands for the bitterness of forced displacement, the shock of war, and the pain of exile.

Both sides are, in their own ways, isolated. Turkish and Greek government cooperation is not the prerequisite for peace here, but it does need to happen. There is a dual path to peace: the people must first find common ground likely before the government does the same. Perhaps the recent discovery of underwater gas fields may help bring the two sides together; perhaps future collaborations such as that on the church or the start of a weekly market for both Turkish and Greek Cypriots. The fact of the matter is, though, that the barrier between north and south Cyprus is permeable; it can be overcome by local efforts on each side. But, as younger politicians take lead on negotiations, the situation is at risk for becoming less urgent. In this, the fortieth year of Cyprus’s division, politicians must recognize that their old tactics have not worked. Time, therefore, is running out.

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