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Thursday, May 01, 2003

Our Opinion


“People are like rivers,” the Turkish Cypriot who had passed over the Green Line into the Greek side of the island told The New York Times, “you can’t stop them.” Truly, the sudden opening of the barriers that have divided — and menaced — Cyprus for almost 30 years, and the subsequent flooding of Greek and Turkish Cypriots across them and into each other’s side of the island, is, by far, the most significant development in the country since the Greek-inspired coup and subsequent Turkish invasion in 1974 that led to the Green Line’s original establishment and the island’s ensuing division. It is, of course, early days; nevertheless, it’s already become clear that this is the beginning of a process that seems headed inevitably to a comprehensive — and final — resolution of the Cypriot tragedy.

It was Rauf Denktash who unexpectedly lifted the restrictions across the divided island. One can argue that he was under great pressure by the vast majority of Turkish Cypriots to make some kind of meaningful gesture after rejecting the Annan proposal for reuniting the country (see “Winds of Change in Cyprus” by Caesar V. Mavratsas in this issue) — which, in addition to being an intolerably intractable position, simply led to the accession of only the Greek Cypriot side to the European Union. One can also accuse Mr. Denktash of a much more cynical stratagem: namely, eliminating with one stroke all further UN involvement in brokering a deal between the two communities, and thus maintaining the status quo by means of a “virtual” resolution based exclusively on more “open” commercial activity between the two sides and a relatively unrestricted — albeit essentially meaningless — movement back and forth within the island’s two parts, which, however, will remain discrete and fundamentally divided and segregated.

Frankly, we have no idea what went through Mr. Denktash’s mind — or that of his privy councilor, his son, Serdar — but we think it’s irrelevant at this point. A week after the sluices were open, the overwhelming reaction of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to the effective abolition of the Green Line suggests that Mr. Denktash’s initiative has developed a momentum of its own and has now moved very fast, very far, in a direction very different and considerably more complex from whatever might have been the Turkish Cypriot leader’s initial intentions. Indeed, that’s the issue now. The collapse of the barriers that kept Turkish and Greek Cypriots separated now demands a solution profoundly more radical than just free trade and traveling to and fro — especially because this collapse was the result of the more or less spontaneous action of tens of thousands of people who, within a matter of days, voted with their feet on the future of their country.

While the people of Cyprus, ethnic Turks and Greeks alike, have manifestly complicated the myth that the two communities do not want to coexist, it would be a critical mistake to assume that everybody’s now ready to pledge allegiance to a common flag. The only thing that’s obvious at the moment is that many Turkish and Greek Cypriots have been displaced for nearly three decades. And that basic issue cannot be addressed either by Mr. Denktash’s grand gesture, or by his subsequent decision to allow Turkish Cypriots to visit the other side for up to three days, or, finally, by the Cypriot government’s further offer of economic support to Turkish Cypriots. The ultimate test will be the willingness of the two communities, which have been ethnically homogeneous — which is to say effectively segregated — since 1974, to accept the presence among them of a different ethnic group. The road from day-trips to restitution of property and, possibly, even payment of reparations is a long one indeed, and cannot be predicted at this stage.

In the event, what we’ve actually witnessed during the last week is the spectacular expression of a desire, which will require the proper political and institutional response to become a reality. This is why only a comprehensive political solution will vindicate this week’s floodtide of popular sentiment. The Cypriot government is clearly the principal factor in the emerging situation. The economic initiatives offered to Turkish Cypriots are much more comprehensive than anything offered by the Turkish Cypriot side so far. Turkish Cypriots, however, will eventually need to have their own political leadership in place to negotiate, and agree to, a vision of Cyprus that looks far beyond an artificial border-crossing. Mr. Denktash has initiated a process that now requires political commitments that, for whatever reason, he might ultimately be unwilling to make. In any case, both sides must now finally make significant, difficult, and definitive decisions toward authentic reunification.

In the genuine excitement of the last week, it has been easy to forget one very important fact: the wisdom of the Greek government’s insistence that the republic of Cyprus join the European Union even without a final resolution to the island’s division. All current and future developments are and will be a result of that decision and approach, which were carefully considered and formulated although they drew much criticism at home. The Greek government has understood for a long time that membership in the European Union has transformative powers on a country such as Cyprus — or Turkey — just as it did on a country such as Greece. It is this understanding, in fact, that has guided Greece’s support of Turkish accession to the European Union. We’re amazed that this policy is still resisted so stubbornly by many in Greece. Perhaps now, the extraordinary developments in Cyprus will finally persuade most Greeks that supporting Turkish membership of the EU is to everyone’s interest — not that it really matters in the end, as the world will turn in any event. Like the man said, “People are like rivers, you can’t stop them.”

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