Peace moves in Cyprus

Print edition : February 16, 2002

Economic interests and a desire for European Union membership force the ethnic Greeks and Turks in Cyprus to start negotiations for a peaceful future together.

"I was born in 1955. I was eight when the violence started and my brother went missing. I remember those events clearly, with a child's eye for detail. My mother was wearing a red scarf and a flowing skirt. Not only did my mother lose her elder son, but I, a child of eight, lost my mother because she withdrew into herself. We have not had any news of him since. My mother refuses to talk about him. She is now 78 and very frail. My father died last year. But our wounds are as fresh as ever."

NESSIM METIN, a Turkish Cypriot, is a senior mechanic with the car-maker Fiat in Paris. He is married, with two teenage sons. Life is good, but he complains of a void, one that cannot be filled until his family receives answers about the disappearance of his brother in clashes between Turkish and Greek Cypriots in 1963.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Greek Cypriot President Glafcos Clerides during their first formal meeting in four years in Nicosia on January 16.-REUTERS

Metin said: "The question of missing persons is at the heart of the Cypriot problem today. What happened to my brother? Was he detained? Was he tortured? Killed? He was not amongst the people released soon after the violence ended. My brother was lost in the first wave of violence in 1963. Many others died or went missing in the attempted coup backed by the Greek military junta, in 1974. Unless the relatives of missing persons on both sides are given details - because there were many Greeks who are missing too - and unless bodies are exhumed, this question can never be settled, these wounds will never heal."

For 27 years, since the Greek-backed coup against the President, Archbishop Makarios in 1974, the people of this Mediterranean island, the Turks in the north and the Greeks in the south, have lived separate, divided lives. The United Nations has established a buffer zone to keep the two communities apart. Nicosia is perhaps the world's last divided capital.

Although talks resumed in mid-January between Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders on how to map a peaceful future, the unknown fate of some 2,300 people who disappeared in successive waves of violence is at the heart of the differences separating them.

Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Cyprus President Glafcos Clerides met for the first time in four years on January 11. The two aging men are old friends, despite their political disagreements, and have resolved to solve the problems by June. They agreed to formulate separate proposals on what steps could be taken to shed light on the fate of the missing people. The proposals were exchanged in the last week of January through the good offices of U.N envoy Alvaro de Soto and talks, with twice-weekly meetings, will begin on February 16.

"What can one say about the Cyprus problem except that once again it was created by the British and is a legacy of colonialism? In 1878, Britain gained sovereignty of the island from the Ottoman Empire. When the Empire finally crumbled in 1914, the British annexed Cyprus, which became a crown colony. The anti-British, pro-independence movement was launched in 1955 and in 1960 the British gave Cyprus independence with a Constitution that stipulated power-sharing between Turkish and Greek Cypriots. It was an uneasy situation and it would have been better if there had been two republics right from the start," says Turkish journalist Sarah Erden.

TROUBLE broke out in 1963 when President Makarios proposed changes to the Constitution that would abrogate the power-sharing arrangements with the Turks. Cyprus saw its first serious inter-communal clashes with Turkish Cypriots fleeing to zones controlled by their own militia.

A year later, the U.N. sent in peacekeepers. However, this fragile peace was disrupted when the colonels seized power in a military coup in Greece in 1967. In 1974, the Greek military junta backed a coup against Makarios. He escaped assassination attempts by those backing union with Greece. In response, Turkey quickly landed troops in northern Cyprus creating the stalemate that still prevails. Several thousand Turkish troops are on the island today. An estimated 160,000 Greek Cypriots fled to the southern part of the island during the Turkish invasion. About 50,000 Turks fled in the opposite direction. In 1983, Rauf Denktash declared a breakaway republic, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which only Turkey recognises.

Now, with Cyprus starting membership negotiations with the European Union (E.U.), there is renewed pressure on both sides to resolve their differences amicably. Turkey and Greece have both threatened to take action if a divided Cyprus is allowed to join the E.U. The scheduled date for Cyprus' entry into the E.U. is 2004. The island, the economy of which is booming (Cyprus is a tax haven for off-shore companies), fulfils all of E.U.'s membership requirements, although there are questions about money-laundering and other dubious financial activities.

The southern part of the island, which benefits from its close association with Greece and the E.U., is thriving. In summer its beaches and towns are besieged by European tourists. By contrast, the Turkish-controlled northern part is poor and isolated. Turkish Cypriots desperately want to join the E.U. and end their poverty and isolation.

Turkey says that if Cyprus is allowed to join the E.U. in its present state, it will annex northern Cyprus. Greece has said that it will block the entire E.U. expansion process unless an acceptable solution is found to end the stalemate.

For the first time since they broke off their last round of U.N.-sponsored talks four years ago, Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders now show signs of a genuine desire for peace. Rauf Denktash says he is looking for a new partnership, but that his people's genuine security concerns must be addressed. "Security for us, liberty, non-domination, Turkey's backing - the guarantee that saved us from utter destruction - is of paramount interest for us. These concerns have to be satisfied before Cyprus can be united," he said in a recent interview. He said that he was prepared to engage in give-and-take with his Greek counterparts but on condition that the security concerns of his people were met.

These claims have not, as in the past, been discounted by Greek Cypriot leaders. "I think both sides have to be prepared to address the concerns of the other side. For instance, we acknowledge that the Turkish Cypriots have a very increased sensitivity on issues of security. We can address those. But they too must address our main concern, which is that no settlement can contain elements that could lead to the legal partitioning of the country," said Cyprus Foreign Minister Ioannis Cassoulides.

MEMORIES of violence and clashes persist and most Turkish Cypriots are of the opinion that a settlement could be possible on condition that the North retains a certain degree of autonomy. "The two communities can no longer mix, can no longer live together the way they once did," says Nessim Metin. After his brother's disappearance his family left the island to make a new life for itself in France. But his uncles and cousins continue to live in Cyprus. "We know that without the presence of Turkish troops we would have been overrun a long time ago. So any settlement must ensure that the Turkish Cypriot minority does not lose its rights, and that there is no attempt to dominate us."

This feeling of fear, of being dominated by the southern Greek majority, is very real. "In any future solution, we should live side by side, not together. We need time, both to forgive and to forget," says Mystafa Erulgen, the northern Cypriot spokesman. "I believe the Turkish side and the Turkish Cypriot side won't show the same obstinacy they did once," Greek government spokesman Christos Protopappas said.

The Cyprus problems has proved intractable for the past 30 years. Mediators are keeping their fingers crossed, saying such a historic opportunity should not be missed. The two sides have sharply differing views on what should constitute a solution. Denktash wants a degree of sovereignty for the North in a two-state confederation. The Greek Cypriots, who enjoy recognition as the government of the whole island, reject that position and want a settlement based on a close-knit federation within a single state.

Economic interests and a desire to belong to the E.U. may now push both sides to show more flexibility.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor