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Reunification of Cyprus?

It was not so much a straw in the wind as a cheese in the wind. It’s a chewy, salty cheese that is delicious grilled: halloumi, as they call it in the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, or hellim, as it is known in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

This week, the island’s two rival governments jointly applied to the European Union to give halloumi/hellim “Protected Designation of Origin” status, like French champagne or Greek feta, so that no other producer can use the name. It was a small miracle.

Cyrus has been divided since 1974, when a bloody coup backed by the generals’ regime in Athens, intended to unite the island with the “mother country”, was answered by a Turkish invasion to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority. Turkey ended up holding the northern third of the island, and Greek-Cypriots who lived in that part of Cyprus fled south while Turkish-Cypriots in the southern part of the island fled north.

When the dust settled, there were two Cypruses: the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, now almost exclusively Greek-speaking, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised by nobody except Turkey. Forty-one years later, Cyprus is still divided – but maybe not for much longer.

The Greek-Cypriots have done much better since the split. With a legitimate state that is now a member of the European Union, they can trade and travel freely, and per capita income on the Greek side is twice what that of the Turkish side. But it hasn’t all been roses: the Greek-Cypriot banks ran wild during the boom years, and the country is just emerging from an EU-backed bail-out that hurt a lot.

For the Turkish-Cypriots, time is running out. There are only 120,000 of them, and they are already outnumbered by the Turkish immigrants, most of them ill-educated and unskilled, who have flooded in since 1974. In the past ten years, with a conservative Islamic government in Turkey, they have also been facing the creeping Islamisation of their traditionally secular society.

So the Turkish-Cypriots have good reason to seek a deal that gives them their own state within a reunited, federal Cyprus. For Greek-Cypriots a deal is less urgent, but with 30,000 Turkish troops still on the island and neighbours whose identity is becoming more Turkish and less Cypriot their future is uncertain. The problem is that presidents come and go, and there are rarely presidents on both sides willing to make a deal at the same time.

Now there are. Mustafa Akinci was elected president of the TRNC in April, and immediately asked to start reunification talks with his opposite number, President Nicos Anastasiades – who immediately agreed. “The passage of time is not helping a solution,” said Akinci. “The more time passes, the more the division becomes consolidated.”

After three months of talks, including seven personal meetings between the presidents, the talks seem to be going well. Well enough, in fact, that they both showed up on Tuesday night, together with 700 guests from both sides of the divide, for an evening of Cypriot music performed by the bi-communal group ‘Kyprogenia’ at the Othello Tower in Famagusta.

There was a lot of symbolism in this, because Famagusta was a Greek-Cypriot city, famed for its beaches, that ended up empty and on the wrong side of the ceasefire line in 1974. It has been quietly crumbling away ever since, but the Othello Tower, a 14th-century fortress, has just been renovated by a group of Greek and Turkish Cypriots working together to restore the island’s shared heritage.

There is much optimism about these talks, because both leaders understand that there can be no going back to the good old days before 1974 (good for the Greek-Cypriots, at least, although many Turkish-Cypriots were living under siege in barricaded ghettoes). Most of the refugees of 1974 (or their descendants) will not be going “home” again. Too much has happened, and even now Turkish-Cypriots would not feel safe in a unitary state.

But a federal republic with two states, each largely but not exclusively communal, is perfectly possible. It would free Turkish-Cypriots from their long isolation, and expand economic opportunities for people in both communities. The Turkish army would go home, the barbed wire and entrenchments of the “Green Line” would vanish, and Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital, would be one city again.

It is just good sense, and Presidents Akinci and Anastasiades will probably make the deal – Akinci reckons they will be there before the end of the year. There is just one problem. A very similar reunification was negotiated in 2003-04 with the help of the European Union and the blessings of both the United Nations and the United States.

In the 2004 referendum, the Turkish Cypriots voted for it by a two-to-one majority, but the Greek-Cyriots rejected it by a crushing three-to-one majority. After all, they greatly outnumber the Turkish-Cypriots and they are far richer. Things are peaceful right now, so why should they compromise?

Because Cyprus lives in a very dangerous neighbourhood, and it’s a really bad idea to keep the old domestic hostilities going as well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“The Greek…lot”; and “After…heritage”)