Thursday, 15 March 2018

Will Cyprus stay in perpetual division?

With EU-Turkey relations at an all-time low, the reunification of Cyprus seems like a distant prospect. This week I saw an island where the frozen conflict has become largely normalized. Unlike in Berlin, this wall doesn't look like its falling any time soon.


Sometimes, old wounds just won't heal. So it is with the island of Cyprus, where a 180 kilometer scar runs from shore to shore, and has been festering for four decades.

I visited the island for the first time this week, and those wounds were on display right from the start. As my plane flew across Greek Cyprus, over the capital Nicosia, I could see the giant Turkish flag painted on the mountains to the north, taunting the Greeks. It reminded me of the Alexanderplatz TV Tower in Berlin, built to be unavoidably visible everywhere in West Berlin during the Cold War.

The trip was, admittedly, somewhat of a box-checking exercise. Of the 32 European Union and EFTA countries, there are three left that I haven't visited - Cyprus, Slovenia and Romania. I'm heading to Slovenia next month for a conference, and have resolved to do a weekend in Bucharest before the year is done. Then - I win?

But I had another reason to visit. I have a relative living in North Cyprus who I wanted to visit. So the trip was mostly based in the central Mesaoria plain, zig-zagging from one side of the border to the other. I visited Famagusta, Kyrenia, Nicosia and Larnaca.

The current division of Cyprus between the Greek Republic in the 'south' (southwest really) and the Turkish-occupied 'north' (northeast really) dates from the 1974 invasion of the island by Turkey, after an attempted coup and annexation of the island by the military junta in Greece. 

The island had been independent since 1960. Before that it had been part of the British Empire (more on that later). Cyprus was a multiethnic state roughly 4/5 Greek and 1/5 Turkish. After the division, all Turks moved to the North and all Greeks moved to the South.

Since that invasion, there has been a UN-administered buffer zone stretching across the island and dividing its capital, Nicosia, in two. It varies from 20 meters to seven kilometers in length. After the invasion the North declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). But only Turkey recognizes that country's existence. The rest of the world views the entire island as de jure administered by the (Greek) Republic, even though the north is 100% de facto administered by the TRNC.

Cyprus is a member state of the European Union, and the EU views the entire island as part of the bloc. However application of EU law in the north is "suspended" pending a resolution to the conflict.

Before 2004, travel between the north and the south was essentially impossible. If you wanted to go to the north, you had to fly into tiny Ercan airport - which only has flights to and from Turkey. But in 2004 the two sides agreed to open the border and now it's relatively easy to pass between the two. It's as if the Berlin Wall opening had only gotten to the first stage, allowing passage between the two Germanies but without the wall actually coming down. More on the Nicosia/Berlin comparisons later.

Not quite normal

As I mentioned, passage between north and south is now relatively straightforward, but with some important caveats. The south still does not recognize the existence of the north, and that includes private businesses as well. 

So when I arrived at Larnaca Airport, on the Greek side, I had to be careful not to say I was visiting my relative in the North. I had heard a story about an American flying all the way to Larnaca and at immigration, when asked where he was staying, he said North Cyprus. They turned him around and made him fly all the way home. The rules around this are still very opaque. 

I entered on my Italian passport, and as an EU citizen they actually can't ask me where I'm staying, and certainly couldn't turn me away. But just in case, I had my alternative story ready.

The complications got more severe when I went to rent my car. The car rental companies in the south don't forbid you from driving to the north, but your insurance isn't valid up there at all because they don't recognize the existence of where you are. They make you sign a form acknowledging that you know this, and that if you get in an accident or have any car trouble, the car rental company cannot help you at all.

The solution to this is that you buy separate car insurance at the border from the TRNC authorities. But this only covers damage to other vehicles in the north, not to your own car. So I spent the entirely of my time driving in the north absolutely terrified of having an accident. Even if I had had car trouble, the car rental company would not have come to help me. I would have had to find a private tow truck to bring my car just to the other side of the border.

Things got weird on my phone also. Apple doesn't recognize the existence of North Cyprus, and so the territory there is just a blank canvas on Apple Maps. My iPhone wouldn't even tell me the temperature. And even though I was technically in EU territory, and thus should have no roaming charges under EU law, the only mobile networks in the North are from Turkey - and therefor count as non-EU. 

I even got one of those welcome texts from my Belgian mobile provider when I crossed the border saying "welcome to Turkey!"

Scorched earth, dotted with mosques


I first went to Famagusta, one of the most important medieval cities in the Mediterranean with some amazingly preserved Venetian walls. It was mostly Greek before the invasion, after which the Greek population fled or was expelled and Turks moved in.

The city was one of the most popular tourist spots in the Mediterranean in the 1960s, and the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot could be seen lounging on its beautiful sandy beaches. But after the war the entire tourist area, called Varosha, was fenced off by Turkey as a no-go zone.

It's an incredible sight today, with all of the old fancy hotels and high-rise apartments fenced off. Only the Turkish military is allowed to enter, but you can see it form the beach. Nature has taken over and trees grow within the cement slabs of the formerly grand hotels. It was originally being held as a bargaining chip by Turkey. Now it has been so neglected that it would be impossible to resettle it without massive reconstruction.

Many of the Turks who settled in the evacuated homes of Famagusta were not actually from Cyprus. Settlers were imported in from central Anatolia in Turkey, to reinforce the territorial claims of Ankara. To govern is to populate, after all.

These Anatolian settler families are now in their second or even third generation, but there is still huge animosity between them and Turkish Cypriots, who consider themselves more worldly and sophisticated than the settlers who came from very poor villages. They have completely different accents (some Turkish Cypriots maintain that they have a different dialect). 

The Turkish Cypriots, who mostly favor reunification with the south, also blame the settlers (and by extension, the Turkish government) for being an obstacle to peace. Part of the peace would be finding a way for Greeks and Turks to reclaim the property they left before the war. But the settlers make that resolution much more difficult. And each day that goes by under occupation, more and more settlers come, making a resolution more and more difficult.

You wouldn't know it from the giant Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk that are omnipresent in the north, but many of the Turkish Cypriots I met said they hated Turkey and Turkish settlers. 

There was one particularly poignant moment where I was standing above the unexcavated ruins of the ancient Greek city of Salamis at sunset, with an incredible view of the port of Famagusta and the entirety of the Mesaoria Plain. 

Famagusta has the deepest harbor on the island and was once a major trading port. But since the occupation all countries except Turkey are forbidden from trading with the TRNC, leaving the port fairly empty.

The fields before us were once the source of a giant agriculture export economy, with Cyprus known as the 'bread basket of Egypt'. 

"Today it's a wasteland," my friend pointed out. The north cannot export crops, so it doesn't bother growing them any more. And Turkey hasn't helped develop those fields. Instead they are building dozens of mosques across the plain. As I stood and looked out over the brown fields I could see them, dotting the landscape, with giant cranes overhead building their massive turrets. "That's how Turkey invests in Cyprus," my friend said.

This is where the animosity comes from. The TRNC is entirely dependent on Turkey, not just militarily but also economically, since it is the only country it can trade with. And Turkey, which has historically always viewed Cyprus as a backwater even under the Ottomans (more on that later), has not made investments on the island other than flooding it with poor Anatolian settlers, giant murals of Ataturk and mosques. 

They are, as two different Turkish Cypriots put it to me, prisoners of Ankara.

The Berlin Wall it 'aint

If this is all sounding a bit reminiscent of the Eastern Bloc's relationship with Moscow, that's because it is. A legitimate fight for self-determination by Turkish Cypriots has been coopted by a powerful neighbor, and they have now become pawns in a geopolitical war between Ankara and Athens. 

In the mean time, their occupier keeps them in a state of dependence, cutting off their access to the outside world.

You might think, then, that the wall dividing Nicosia would be reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. This is certainly what I was expecting. In some ways it is - crossing between the two sides, at least with a car, felt very intimidating and must be somewhat like what crossing from East to West Berlin felt like. And the wall divides the city straight in two just like in Berlin, forming an even more dramatic partition because of the perfect circle of the city's still-intact Venetian walls.

But that's where the similarity ends. I was struck by the flimsiness of the wall. In some sections it's just a bunch of barrels stacked on top of each other. There are very few guards and they aren't really paying attention to anything. The no-mans-land in between is a wasteland of abandoned buildings that have never been cleared out. Some buildings have back doors that open to the other side, as was the case in Berlin before 1962. 

As far as I could tell, you could easily run from one side to the other. But nobody is trying to - and that's the key difference with the Berlin Wall. Although the wall dividing Germany was billed as an "anti-fascist protection rampart" by the East Germans (ie, a protective wall against an invasion by the West), everyone knew that it was really a prison wall, designed to stop the hemorrhaging of East German citizens emigrating to the West.

Cyprus is not the same situation. The Turks are in the north, the Greeks are in the south. People aren't trying to cross to the other side. It is what the Berlin Wall was pretending to be - a first line against invasion. 

The only people who might be trying to cross the wall are third-country immigrants who have been granted entry to the TRNC but want to go to the south. 

But even the appeal of that is limited because Cyprus is not in the EU's passport-free Schengen Area, for precisely this reason. Unlike in Greece, if you get to Greek Cyprus you cannot travel to the rest of the EU without encountering a border guard. The border was deemed too insecure to allow Cyprus to join Schengen.

Of course, in terms of the cultural divide it is very reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. The two Nicosia's are two different cities. The Greek side looks likely a relatively modern Mediterranean city - although is it not wealthy by any means. The common refrain is that as soon as you cross the border into the TRNC, it feels like you've gone back in time 20 years.

(Weirdly, this was the time reference I kept hearing over and over - in my guide book and from Greek Cypriots. Why 20?)

Turkish Nicosia is much quieter, and feels like a small provincial town - even though it is the capital of the TRNC. Because much of the city was abandoned after the invasion, many of the inhabitants are Turkish settlers from Anatolia - especially in the areas just next to the wall. In the north everyone is speaking Turkish and in the south everyone is speaking Greek. There is little interaction between them, even though they have been able to cross into each others' sides for over a decade now. 

One imagines that if reunification ever happened, this would continue to be two different cities. Unlike in Berlin, where a common language helped quickly erase the noticeable divisions between East and West (at least in the center), there will likely be two different Nicosias for the rest of our lifetimes, irrespective of what happens in the peace process.

Perpetual occupation

During the visit I also stopped in Kyrenia, a harbor town in the north just 100km from the Turkish coast. It's famous for its giant fortress next to the harbor -  a castle built by the Byzantines and subsequently invaded and occupied (along with the rest of the island) by the English, the Lusignan French, the Venetians, the Ottomans, the British, and finally the Turkish.

One of the exhibits inside the castle was mannequins of soldiers wearing the uniforms of each of these occupying powers. 

It was a poignant reminder of Cyprus's position at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, and in particular as a military and cultural battleground between Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam. It had a central role in the crusades and was a Latin Catholic crusader kingdom itself, despite most of its inhabitants being Orthodox Christians. Later, after the Ottomans took control of the island, they converted the Latin cathedrals into Muslim mosques, the most striking examples being found in Famagusta and Nicosia (pictured). 

In effect, all the Ottomans did was add a minaret to the cathedrals and clear out the decorations inside.

Later, in the waning years of the empire, the British took control of the island from the Turks in exchange for protecting the Ottoman Empire from Russia. As was the case in much of the empire, the British tended to stoke ethnic divisions rather than heal them, in a divide-and-rule strategy.

As in the rest of the empire, following World War II there were demands for independence from the island. But the situation was complicated by its multiethnic character. The Turks left over from the 300-year period of Ottoman rule, 1/5 of the population, were worried about living as a minority in a majority Greek state. They were particularly worried about the island being annexed to Greece - a demand of many Greek Cypriots since Greece achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830.

And so when Cyprus became independent in 1960, a delicate balance had to be reached in which the minority Turkish population were given special rights in the parliament to guarantee representation in greater proportion than their population. Britain, Greece and Turkey became the three 'guarantors' of the independence of the new state - and Britain retained sovereignty over three percent of the island for its military bases, territory that is still British today.

And so, when the right-wing junta in Greece tried to forcibly annex Cyprus in 1974 by orchestrating a coup, Turkey invaded in order to protect Turks on the island. That invasion was legal under the terms of the independence treaty, which gave Ankara the right to intervene. The world was on the side of Turkey and against Greece, and shortly afterwards, the Greek junta was overthrown.

It's what happened next that caused the lasting problem. Before the Greek junta was overthrown, Turkey had only occupied Kyrenia and a narrow strip of land leading to Nicosia. Then, both the Greek and Cypriot governments were overthrown and the previous government of Cyprus was restored, renouncing any claim to unification with Greece.

Despite this, Turkey pushed forward with a second invasion, taking land up to the current border. This second invasion was condemned as illegal by the world, and by a UN vote. There was effectively no justification for it at that point, since the threat to Cyprus's sovereignty had receded.

What next?

And that takes us to where we are today. The Greek army is still occupying southern Cyprus, and the Turkish army is still occupying northern Cyprus. Cyprus is de jure still an independent country. But de facto, it sure doesn't look like one. One could make the argument that in all their history, the Cypriot people have only managed to rule themselves independently for 14 years.

The island came close to reunification back in 2004, which gave the European Union the confidence to welcome the country as a member, assuming reunification was imminent. Athens also insisted that Cyprus be let into the union in exchange for Greece allowing the entry of eight new entrants from Eastern Europe.

But in a subsequent referendum on that reunification agreement, the Greek Cypriots rejected the deal by 76%. Turkish Cypriots voted to approve the reunification plan, by 65%. And so, it never came to pass. It left many in Brussels annoyed with Athens, feeling like they were the victim of a bait-and-switch.

No politician in any country outside the TRNC seems to be willing to stick their neck out and say the island should be permanently partitioned - not even in Turkey. In 2016, during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reaffirmed Turkey's nominal support for reunification.

But on the ground, opinions are quite different. Having seen reunification rejected by their Greek counterparts in 2004, Turkish Cypriots now see international recognition as the faster and more likely way to end the dependence on Ankara and allow the North to start trading with the world again.

In the South, too, there is an emerging feeling that acceptance of the status quo, in the form of recognition of the North, is perhaps the best option.

In 2009 an opinion poll conducted for the CyBC showed that the majority of Greek Cypriots supported partition. Mainstream newspapers are starting to echo this sentiment.


The idea is still anathema to Greek Cypriot politicians. But in my observation, unless this attitude changes the island is going to be stuck in this frozen conflict for the foreseeable future, continuing to cut the north off from the rest of the world. 

1 comment:

Christos Y said...

"The Greek army is still occupying southern Cyprus"

Terrible choice of word, Sir! The Hellenic Force in Cyprus was formed and operates in accordance with the Zurich & London Agreements and the Constitution of the Republic of Cyprus.