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Cypriot reunification still seems a distant prospect

8 July 2017

11:51 AM

8 July 2017

11:51 AM

In the early hours of this morning, the tired-looking Secretary General of the UN took to the stage in Switzerland to announce the first major failure of his tenure.

“I’m very sorry to inform you that despite the very strong commitment and engagement of all the delegations and different parties, the conference on Cyprus was closed without an agreement being reached,” said Antonio Gutteres.

The week-long talks in the mountain resort of Crans-Montana were the culmination of two years of negotiations to try to stick Cyprus back together. It is a daunting task: although tiny, with an area less than half the size of Wales and a total population of 1.2 million, the island is deeply divided. Ten years of violence between the Greek and Turkish speaking communities and political brinkmanship between Athens and Ankara eventually led to a Greek coup in 1974, followed by a Turkish invasion in the north. Since then, a UN-controlled buffer zone has split the Greek-speaking republic in the south from the Turkish-speaking breakaway, recognised only by Ankara, in the north.

Ruth Keshishian’s shop is an anachronism in an anomaly – a thriving antiquarian bookstore in Europe’s last divided capital. Tucked away on a side street in Nicosia, the Greek-speaking part of the city, it is the go-to place for anyone who wants to learn about the history of both sides of this divided island. Yet Ruth herself rarely goes to the north of the island, where most of the historical treasures and unspoilt beaches can be found.


“It’s too painful, too many memories,” she says. “When I was at university in London in the 60s, we used to laugh at all those Caribbean islands that had civil wars. And then look what happened to us.”

She is not unusual. Despite the weekly protests in Nicosia’s buffer zone, where Cypriots from both sides call for an end to the division, few often travel over to the other side. The once-mixed population curdled post-1974, and the Turks with roots in the south, like the Greeks with roots in the north, lost the houses and land they had owned for generations. Worse, more than 2,000 were murdered and dumped in unmarked graves during the violence – almost every Cypriot has a story of a relative who is missing. One woman, the proprietor of a chi-chi deli, told me that whenever she has nightmare, Turkish soldiers always appear in them.

Crossing from one side to the other is a jarring experience, despite all the liberalisations that have stripped the border procedures back so far that it can take less than a minute. In the south, there is mass tourism, British military bases, Greek tavernas and EU membership. In the north, the economy is propped up by a morass of private universities and subsidies from Ankara. That support comes at a cost; Turkey has moved waves of settlers from the mainland since 1974 in a bid to shift the demography (as much to the chagrin of the Turkish-speaking Cypriots as the Greek-speakers in the south), and President Erdogan’s mosque-building spree has spread here too.

Pain runs deep here, but what really stands in the way of reunification is the nationalist posturing of the politicians. The talks initially broke down in May, when the parliament of the Greek-speaking republic voted to introduce an ‘Enosis Day’ in schools (enosis is the Greek word for annexation, and the day will mark the 1950 vote to annex the island to Greece – the start of all the troubles). Now, the Greek side blames the Turkish government for refusing to agree to the withdrawal of its 40,000 troops in the north of the island as part of a peace deal.

The UN says future negotiations will be possible, but this round is closed. Meanwhile, Cyprus is soaking in a heatwave and a bumper tourism season and a fresh sense of inevitability that the conflict will drag on for another generation.

“I have Greek-Cypriot friends, but even when I got married they would not come to my wedding in the north,” says Mentes Zorba. “I’m not very optimistic.”


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