By Hugh S. Galford
In the US media's portrayal, the world is a cauldron of conflict and uncertainty: the US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, the SARS epidemic in China and its spread worldwide, the newly proffered 'Road Map' for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In this atmosphere pessimism could be forgiven, but one glimmer of hope was the great non-story in the US: the opening of the 'Green Line' in Cyprus and the bi-directional flood of Cypriots to lands not visited in 30 years. While this development was covered extensively in Europe by both print and broadcast journalists, here at home Cyprus received scant attention.
Cyprus, the small island nation in the eastern Mediterranean divided since the 1974 Turkish invasion, may seem an unlikely candidate as hope-giver. The justification for the continuing division over the past 30 years has been that Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots could never live together in peace, wanted nothing to do with one another, and would destroy themselves if ever the twain met. The last two weeks have proven the groundlessness of this view.
Discussing these recent developments, Cypriot Ambassador Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis was hopeful that at last the island could be reunited. She noted that in the first six days after the restrictions on movement were eased on April 23, 2003 over 100,000 Cypriots from both sides—well over one-tenth the island's population—had crossed. Ambassador Marcoullis further noted that “15,000 Greek Cypriots had crossed to the northern part on April 27, to celebrate Orthodox Easter in their former villages.”
The ambassador said that the rapprochement was a proof of the fact that Turkish and Greek Cypriots are so similar—hospitable, warm and proud of their common homeland. She told of the Greek Cypriot family who returned to their house and of how they were welcomed by the current residents, a Turkish Cypriot family—and how the latter returned old photos they had found in the house when they moved in. Another Greek Cypriot visited his village, and ended up in the midst of a large social gathering in the town centre to welcome him and other Greek Cypriot friends. Knowing that Turkish Cypriots were not as affluent as the Greeks, he offered to pay for the celebration and was solidly forbidden from doing so. News broadcasts from the BBC showed Cypriots from both sides of the divide embracing, swapping stories, and promising that this was just the beginning of change on the island. The primary concern for the Greek Cypriots, she said, is to ensure that no incidents take place.
Asked what brought about the change of heart of the Turkish Cypriot leader, Mr. Rauf Denktash, the ambassador said that no one was sure what the motives were. Journalists in Turkey, she said, were writing that Turkey had to show a good face to the world, suggesting that the move was not the Turkish Cypriot leader's initiative. (This view has been confirmed in a May 2, 2003 Financial Times article.) 'We must keep in mind that Turkey wants to become a member of the European Union,' Ambassador Marcoullis says. 'This is probably part of an exercise showing that the new government in Turkey is pro-Europe.'
Indeed, who controls the future of the movement is unclear. While it was Denktash who announced the easing of the restrictions on the movement, and Cypriots who have embraced it, Turkey remains a key player and the EU perhaps the main catalyst. Cyprus signed the EU Accession Treaty on April 16. While the entire island becomes a member on May 1, 2004, only the recognized Cyprus government controlled south gains full EU rights; the EU’s common law, the acquis communautaire, will be suspended in the northern Turkish controlled area, pending an end to the island’s division.
Denktash’s opposition to the talks on Cyprus during the EU summit in Copenhagen last December spurred a backlash among his own people. 'At least five opposition parties are now openly opposing Denktash,' the ambassador says. 'Seventy thousand Turkish Cypriots demonstrated several weeks ago. Their symbols were the EU flag and olive branches of peace. This was the beginning of this revolution. The Turkish Cypriots sent a strong message to their leadership and to Turkey that they want a solution.' Rauf Denktash’s son, Serdar, is widely credited with having encouraged his father to open the crossing, especially after the elder Denktash vetoed a concerted UN effort to solve the Cyprus issue at The Hague in April.
Solution to the 'Cyprus problem' would give Turkish Cypriots numerous immediate advantages: increased investment, job opportunities, access for their produce to the EU market, and a huge boost to tourism. 'At the moment, tourism in the north is limited almost entirely to visiting Turks,' the ambassador says. With the north open to tourism in a reunited Cyprus, 'in about two years’ time, the economy could be balanced' between the two communities. Two main draws for the north are its beaches and the many archaeological and other sites. The Venetians built two magnificent castles on the northern mountain range, the Pentadaktylos range, the ambassador says. 'From the top of one castle you can see picturesque Kyrenia and almost the entirety of the island.'
Given its history, Cyprus is a natural destination for tourists. The island bears traces of the Romans, Greeks, Ottomans, French and Venetians. Of particular interest are the 'painted churches,' about a dozen small, wooden churches in the mountains dating from the sixth and seventh centuries, with interior walls completely covered in paintings of icons. The island has over 1000 churches. It also has a holy Moslem shrine built on the burial site of Prophet Muhammad’s aunt, who died on the island during a visit. Archaeologists and art historians from both sides of the island have been involved in a quiet, inter-communal effort to restore and preserve such heritage. Beyond the 10,000 year old history and culture, Cyprus has its natural beauty, wine and food to offer the visitor.
The euphoria of the past several weeks continues, but with an added touch of sobriety. Most Cypriots welcome the personal interaction, but question what will come next—and how. To date, the movement has been unstructured, and there is a delicate balance between the peoples’ desires and what the leaderships might offer. Denktash says the easing of the restrictions was an attempt at 'confidence building' between the two communities. On April 30, the government of Cyprus announced a wide-ranging set of measures to more fully integrate Turkish Cypriots into the legal structure of the island. The policy reads, in part, 'the main concern of the Government … is to give Turkish Cypriots who live mainly in [the north], to the extent possible, the rights and benefits that the Republic of Cyprus offers its citizens.'
From the start, Turkish Cypriots have been crossing to the government controlled area to obtain Cypriot passports, a move long forbidden by the Turkish authorities but welcomed by the Greeks. The April 30th government initiative also makes it easier for Turkish Cypriots to enjoy the same rights in employment and travel (among other fields) as their Greek counterparts, while initiating cross-community language instruction to help foster closer ties and understanding between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
Ambassador Marcoullis’ main hope is that the current movement 'will get us back to an earlier period of peace and coexistence. The Ottoman Turks came in 1571. Read the histories of both sides—from 1571 to the start of inter-communal violence in the 1950s, there was peaceful coexistence.' The ambassador notes that 'even at the start of the current situation, the decision was made that we would not solve this through war—a solution depends on the political will of the leadership but also on pressure from the people.'
Now that the people have taken the lead, everyone hopes the leadership on both sides will follow with a comprehensive solution that would not only bring all Cypriots together, but serve as a model to the world, a model of peaceful coexistence between Christianity and Islam.