A Breach in the Wall (Extract)

The recent opening of the wall in Nicosia may signal the first tentative steps in the unification of the divided island of Cyprus

06cyprus (photo credit: AP)
(photo credit: AP)
Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A Green Line separating two communities bitterly divided by language and religion. An ancient capital split along ethnic lines. Fraught debates over refugees, settlers and the right of return. Cyprus doesn't have Qassam rockets and suicide bombers or targeted assassinations and military incursion, but there are striking schematic similarities between the Greek-Turkish dispute on the island and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Aside from the violence, there's another major difference: In Cyprus there is, of late, a new sense of optimism and - after nearly four decades of missed opportunities - the distinct possibility of a resolution. For Israel and the rest of the region, what happens in Cyprus may be worth watching very closely. A successful resolution there could serve as a model for resolving other seemingly intractable conflicts. And if the Cypriots fail to reunify - and soon - the fallout could destabilize the already volatile eastern Mediterranean. While the Cyprus conflict sometimes expresses itself in petty arguments such as whether baklava is a Greek or Turkish invention and whether the gooey confection known around the world as "Turkish delight" should in fact be called "Cypriot delight," the problem also has a larger geopolitical element. "I think 2008 has to be the year for a solution. It will be a mess if it doesn't happen," says Philippos Savvides, a Greek Cypriot political analyst at the Institute of Strategic and Development Studies, an Athens-based think tank. "I am worried that we are moving towards a Taiwanization of the conflict," he adds. "There will not be two independent states, but rather the north, while not recognized as a state, will nonetheless have special relations and status with other countries. I understand that the Europeans are very concerned about this." If there's one symbol of the Cyprus conflict, it's Ledra Street, a fashionable shopping strip running through the heart of the ancient walled capital city of Nicosia. In 1964, intercommunal violence led British soldiers to string barbed wire across it. When Turkey invaded the island in 1974, in response to a Greek coup attempt, the Ledra Street checkpoint became part of the "Green Line," a buffer zone between the Greek and Turkish parts of the island. The U.N. peacekeeping force put up a solid wall in Nicosia that completely separated the two communities, with only U.N. personnel able to pass through the gate. The buffer zone in Nicosia became a kind of ghostly no man's land, a strip filled with abandoned, slowly crumbling buildings. In a deserted Toyota dealership showroom, a collection of 1974 model cars gathered dust. Then, on April 3, Nicosia residents woke up to find that at Ledra Street, this symbol of division was suddenly gone, the wall bulldozed in the middle of the night and the checkpoint turned into a proper border crossing, allowing Greeks and Turks to cross from one side of the divided city to the other in a matter of seconds. Now, what was once a flashpoint has a kind of anti-climactic ordinariness to it. On the Turkish side, near a newly opened ice cream shop, police officers in prefabricated booths quickly stamp visitors' passports. A short, newly paved walkway decorated with a row of potted plants down the middle leads to the Greek side, where a bored official barely glances at the passport being shown to him. (Passports are not stamped on the Greek side, since the Cypriot government doesn't want to grant de facto recognition to the Turkish regime occupying the other side of the island.) The only reminder of the fighting that originally led to Ledra Street's closing are the military-green sandbags lining the windows of the abandoned buildings overlooking the crossing. One sunny day in early June, there is brisk traffic between the two sides. Bargain-seeking Greek Cypriots cross over to buy cheap, knockoff Armani and Dolce & Gabbana jeans brought over from the Turkish mainland, and well-heeled Turkish Cypriots cross over to buy the real thing in Greek boutiques. A young Turkish woman zips over to the McDonald's on the Greek side, quickly returning home with a takeout bag filled with burgers and fries. Nikos, a 28-year-old clerk in a sleek Nike shop at the start of Ledra Street on the Greek side says he's surprised to see how many of the Turkish Cypriots coming across spoke some Greek. "I still think we should reunite," he says. "We share the same culture. It's a small island - why should it be divided? The Turks did a lot of bad things to Greeks, but I know we also did some bad things to them." Says Monica, a 40-year-old Greek office worker on her way to her job near Ledra Street: "The opening of the Ledra checkpoint was very positive. I think people could live together. The problem," she adds, "is with the politicians, not the people." It's hard to argue with that. Much of the progress that has recently taken place in Cyprus comes in the wake of the dislodging of hard-line, old-guard politicians on both sides of the island. Turkish Cypriots were the first to make a move, electing as president in 2005 the pro-solution Mehmet Ali Talat, leader of the left-leaning Republican Turkish Party (CTP). The pragmatic Talat's predecessor was Rauf Denktas, a wily and combative veteran of Cypriot politics, a kind of Turkish Ariel Sharon, before Arik's defection to the peace camp. After the 1974 Turkish invasion left the Turkish side with 38 percent of the island, but less than 20 percent of its population of about 750,000, Denktas brought in some 30,000 settlers from the Turkish mainland to repopulate areas that had been vacated by Greek refugees. This past February, meanwhile, Greek Cypriots elected as president Demetris Christofias, leader of the communist party, AKEL. He replaced Tassos Papadopoulos, another titan of Cypriot politics who, in 2004, urged Greeks to vote against a U.N.-backed reunification plan in an island-wide referendum. While 65 percent of Turks voted for the agreement, known as the Annan Plan after then-U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, 76 percent of Greeks voted against it. Despite the rejection, Cyprus's Greek-speaking South was soon after made a member of the European Union. The republic in the Turkish North, meanwhile, remains a country recognized by no one but Turkey. The departure of Denktas and Papadopoulos - referred to by some as "Mr. No" and "Mr. Never" - brought a fresh breeze of possibility to the island. Talat and Christofias, old friends through Cyprus's leftist politics, have already met to reaffirm their commitment to reuniting the island and are expected to resume direct negotiations sometime this summer. "There is an optimism now," Talat tells The Report during an interview in his office near the city walls on Nicosia's Turkish side, known as Lefkosa. "It's the first time in history that on both sides you have a leader who has campaigned for a solution." But the Turkish Cypriot president's optimism is leavened with caution. "My relations with Christofias are quite good, but there is a big gap on both sides in terms of the need for a solution," he says. "The Greek Cypriots are quite comfortable. They are a member of the family of nations. We are isolated. We are under pressure. It is critical for us to get the problem resolved." Lefteris Adilinis, diplomatic editor for the Greek Cypriot Politis newspaper, says the change has been especially profound on the Greek side. "I think the main difference here is the completely different approach from the Greek Cypriot side towards the Turkish Cypriots. Before it was very reluctant. Of course there are problems and disagreements, but Christofias is focusing on where there is common ground," he says, speaking in his office in the Politis newsroom, located on a small street that dead ends at a tall wall that forms part of the buffer zone. "No political leadership up until now talked frankly about where we are heading and what a solution might look like," says Adilnis. "They just told the public what they wanted to hear." Cyprus's experience as an independent country has been short, troubled and occasionally violent. The strategically located island has seen wave after wave of conquerors wash over it through the centuries, from Assyrians to Persians and Venetians. The Ottomans came to the island in 1571, ruling for the next three centuries and introducing a new demographic to Cyprus's mostly Greek-speaking population. When the British took control of Cyprus in 1871, Turkish speakers made up a sizable minority in the island's northern part and in parts of its south. Facing increasing hostility, particularly from the Greek side, the British granted Cyprus independence in 1960, creating a constitution that was intended to safeguard the island's bi-communal nature and made Greece, Turkey and Britain guarantors of its integrity. By 1963, that constitution was meaningless, with inter-communal violence leading to the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers and the start of the island's de facto partition. That partition became a bitter fact in 1974, after Turkey invaded in the wake of a Greek-led coup that sought to unify the island with Greece. The fighting led to some 3,500 deaths, as well as the displacement of some 162,000 Greek Cypriots (one third of the community) and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots (40 percent of the community). In 1983, the Turkish-occupied area declared itself the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a mini-state of 264,000. Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.