Cyprus: One more wall to go

Rolling out the wrong sort of barrel. Road blocked off along the "Green Line", Nicosia, Cyprus. (Image: Fiore S. Barbato)
Rolling out the wrong sort of barrel. Road blocked off along the "Green Line", Nicosia, Cyprus. (Image: Fiore S. Barbato)
10 November 2009 – Le Monde (Paris)

Berlin has been reunited for 20 years, but there is another wall in Europe which is still standing. While we celebrate the anniversary of the end of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, one small corner of the European Union remains separated by a conflict that erupted 35 years ago: the Republic of Cyprus, which was been split in two since the Turkish invasion of 1974.

It may be recognized by the international community, but since the occupation of the north of the island by the Turkish army began in 1974, "The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" proclaimed by the Turkish Cypriot community has depended on Ankara for its continued existence.

In Nicosia, everything seems so peaceful. In the southern part of the Cypriot capital, shoppers to and fro in the busy pedestrian precincts of Ledra Street. The economic crisis has yet to have any visible effect on the Republic of Cyprus, or its population of 900,000 Greek Cypriots, which entered the EU in 2004 and the euro zone in 2008. In fact, the small state appears to be doing quite nicely with a growth rate that has remained positive at 0.2%, and unemployment that has remained low at 6%. The per capita GDP in this part of the island is three times what it is in "Northern Cyprus," which is also, at least in theory, part of the EU, but fails to benefit from EU grants, and where business is conducted in Turkish lira. However, on both sides of the Green Line, people drive on the left, which is the most tangible legacy of more than 80 years of British colonial rule.

Barrels, barbed wire and breeze blocks

Traveling northward along Ledra Street with its McDonald's and plush cafés, you then come to the checkpoint where you enter its Turkish continuation, which is now known as Siret Bahçeli. Until April 2008, it was impossible to cross the border here. Now there is a narrow passage through no man's land, which someone has attempted to brighten with a few withered potted plants, where visitors, with the exception of Turkish colonists who are not welcomed by the Cypriot authorities, can show their passports to travel from one side to the other.

Thereafter you enter into another world: Turkish music crackles on the radios in the shops, and there are hardly any neon signs. In the distance, a minaret stands out over the rooftops, and there is a noticeable drop in the number of passersby. McDonald's has not bothered to open a restaurant on this side of the crossing, where the crescent flags of Turkey and Northern Cyprus are visible everywhere — and the women that meet in the street are wearing head scarves.

Further on, in the buffer zone guarded by UN forces (UNFICYP), you can see the remains of the former French embassy, a neo-gothic building now overrun by weeds, which was pillaged after the Turkish invasion of 1974. The northern part of the island is still occupied by 40,000 Turkish troops, whose nominal mission is to protect the 200,000 Turkish Cypriots and colonists from mainland Turkey. The latter have been encouraged to move to the island by Ankara, which is attempting to artificially boost the Turkish Cypriot population with a view to future political gains.

The Green Line, which cuts across the island of Cyprus from East to West and slices through the capital, Nicosia, does not have the violence of the Berlin Wall. There are no watchtowers to protect a concrete wall surmounted by barbed wire. Here and the there the Cypriot version of the wall is marked by makeshift constructions of barrels, tangles of barbed wire, and breeze block barriers, on which trees have now grown. Only the Turkish Cypriots build and monitor the border, which is not recognized by Greek Cypriots. Since 2002, they have ceded to a popular campaign to open a number of crossing points: three in the capital, and two others elsewhere on the island. However, most Greek Cypriots prefer not to travel to the other side, which involves the humiliation of having to show a passport to travel in their "own country."

Turkish membership of the EU will end the conflict

Cyprus is the story of two communities separated by fear. Since 1963, the conflict has caused 5,000 deaths. The Greek Cypriots are afraid of the Turkish army, which invaded the northern part of the island and thereafter conducted a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The Turkish Cypriots are afraid that if the Turkish army withdraws, they will be once again be subject to the violence and victimization they endured before the troops arrived.

Since 1964, four years after the island obtained its independence from Britain, the United Nations has maintained a peacekeeping force on the island . In 1974, a coup d'Etat backed by the Greek Colonels, which aimed to bring the island under Greek rule, was the pretext for the Turkish intervention. In 2004, the European Council imprudently authorized the entry of the Republic of Cyprus into the EU, without insisting on the reunification of the island. The Greek Cypriots took advantage of the accession deal, but thereafter refused to accept a reunification plan proposed by Kofi Annan. Now the laborious process of negotiation is slowly starting to move forward again, buoyed by the goodwill of Cypriot President, Demetris Christofias, and his Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat. Both men are supporting Turkish accession to the EU, in the hope that Brussels will be able to put an end to the tragic anachronism of conflict and occupation within the borders of modern Europe.

In the meantime, Brussels will also have to address some of the other small scale conflicts in Europe, which have yet to be resolved. What is to be done about the sovereignty of Gibraltar, a British possession whose government is not recognized by Spain, or the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, which Greece refuses to acknowledge, because it already has an eponymous province within its borders? And what about Croatian accession to the EU, which is still blocked by a border dispute with Slovenia? The European Union has the potential to act as a force for peace, but it is potential that has yet to be fully realized.

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