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Media Watch 2003

09 May 2003
Source: Guardian
Author: Martin Woollacott
Comment: The following article appeared in the Guardian of London on 9 May 2003
Free movement may still heal the division of Cyprus


Greek and Turkish Cypriots are acting as if they already had a deal

When the American psychiatrist Varnik Volkan visited Turkish enclaves in Cyprus in 1968 he noted that people had an obsession with the health of the caged birds that many families kept. Of Turkish Cypriot background himself, he concluded that the birds represented both the sense Turkish Cypriots had of being imprisoned and the hope they had of surviving their isolation and eventually escaping from it. Thirty-five years later some of the banners raised by the many thousands of Turkish Cypriots who have demonstrated in favour of the reunification of the island read "We no longer want to be prisoners".

The Turkish invasion of the island in 1974 rescued Turkish Cypriots from their often embattled enclaves but only to concentrate them in a larger territory that was physically more secure but, because unrecognised and entirely dependent on mainland Turkey, almost as isolated. As for the Greek Cypriots, their government was recognised and their society open to the outside world, but their room for political and economic choice domestically and internationally was constrained by the dominating fact of partition. They too were prisoners of the situation which, with some assistance from outsiders, Cypriots of both faiths had created in their island. Bitter memories of displacement, massacre and rape, and the habit of mistrust on both sides, stood in the way of attempts at settlement. The attitude of Turkey represented for most of those years another insuperable obstacle. The most serious attempt at settlement of all, which engaged the close attention and the best diplomatic skills of the UN, the EU, the US, Britain, and other countries and was personally led by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, ended in failure in March at the Hague. The calculation was that the prospect of Cypriot accession to the EU, intimately connected as it is to Turkey's own European aspirations, would this time make the difference. It did not. Yet this month Greek and Turkish Cypriots, rushing across the once difficult border to visit neighbours they have not seen for a generation, are acting almost as if the settlement had come off and they were now celebrating its success.

A touching politeness has marked some of these encounters. Greek Cypriots call out greetings to Turks as they drive through southern villages. A Turkish Cypriot dentist leaves a message on the front door that if any members of the Greek family who had once lived in the house should visit during working hours they are to come to his surgery to get the key. There are people on the Greek side who cannot bring themselves to show their passports to a Turkish Cypriot official or sign a register because, as one said: "I should be free to go anywhere in my own island."

But a quarter of the island's population of 800,000 has already gone visiting since the Turkish Cypriot president, Rauf Denktash, relaxed the border controls in late April. Denktash's frequent assertion that Greek and Turkish Cypriots cannot live together, has, on the face of it, been rather swiftly disproved. The older generation feels an impulse of reconciliation. The young have satisfied their curiosity and learned, for example, that, as a Greek student put it, "it's not Pakistan on the other side".

Both Greek and Turkish Cypriots are well aware of the economic advantages of a closer relationship. The Greeks need the workers the Turks can provide. The Turks need that work, access for their goods in southern Cyprus, and, above all, access to the EU, which Greek Cyprus will join next May. The sense that they might be cut off from the dynamic economic and cultural space of the union has been and remains the biggest force for change on the Turkish side of the Green Line. The Greeks have responded to the lifting of border controls by preparing to abolish or amend the blockade of Turkish Cypriot products they have operated for years. The number of Turkish workers - a few al ready slip in via the British base area - could increase. Even without a settlement, it is possible to imagine that Turkish Cyprus could have some sort of informal arrangement with Greek Cyprus, and through it with the EU. But it would be very limited and vulnerable. So the question is whether this sudden popular upsurge suggests that the agreement that eluded negotiators at the Hague is, after all, attainable, perhaps even in the near future. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who will be visiting the island tomorrow, has said he will keep on trying, and the Annan plan, although active diplomatic work has ended, is still on the table.

The main problem is not the opposition of Denktash but the unsettled state of Turkish politics. The AKP, the Justice and Development party, which came to power late last year, has yet to convince Turkey's secular establishment in the armed forces and senior civil service that its Islamic objectives are compatible with the Kemalist tradition of a separation between religion and politics. Ironically, as they tussle over this, the party and the military have been quarrelling over objectives on which they basically agree, like maintaining the alliance with the US and taking Turkey into Europe. The party's instinct is to try to lay responsibility on the army for decisions that will be unpopular with its supporters, while the military establishment wants the party to publicly and clearly accept necessary compromises of its Islamic principles. Help for the US in the Iraq war has been one casualty of this conflict, and the Cyprus settlement and, with it, Turkey's hopes of a relatively early start to negotiations for its own entry into the EU, has been another.

This Turkish balance is not likely to be quickly or easily sorted out. Political change in Turkish Cyprus, meanwhile, clearly now a possibility given popular attitudes, must wait on parliamentary elections at the end of the year. And a somewhat weary and exasperated international community is unlikely to be rushed into a swift resumption of its diplomatic efforts.

Yet there are people in Cyprus who have dreamed almost every night for years of the village or neighbourhood they left long ago. They remember, as the anthropologist Peter Loizos has recorded, loading their furniture on carts at night "as if we were thieving from out of our own houses", or, in other cases, leaving "as if we were going out for a stroll". Now, in the shape of visits to the loved places, at last some balm has been spread on the wounds which Loizos and Volkan have described. That must surely work through in time, even if the phenomenon of popular reconciliation visible today in Cyprus does not have an immediate or dramatic effect on the prospects for a settlement."