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Monday, June 28, 2004


The Persistence of Memory

Something from Cyprus as I may divine:
It is a business of some heat:
— Cassio, Othello

For anyone familiar with the imposing, concrete uniformity of the Berlin Wall in its heyday, the Green Line that bisects Cyprus’s capital city, Nicosia, will come as a bit of a disappointment. Where Berlin’s wall grew into a structure that often seemed more solid than the city it divided, the UN-patrolled partition has remained a decidedly haphazard affair: an alternating series of abandoned, bricked-up buildings and narrow streets blockaded by oil drums and barbed wire. With the restrictions on border-crossing eased a year ago, even some guard-towers have been abandoned. The whole business looks more dingy than dangerous, like a wall that time forgot. As has become clear from the results of the referenda held on April 24, however, getting rid of it might be harder than anyone anticipated. After years of negotiations that ran aground on the obdurate refusal of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash to give an inch, the Greek Cypriots have suddenly discovered that they may be just as unwilling to leave their safe harbor. In retrospect, the partition’s flimsiness suggests a reason for its permanence: the Green Line wasn’t reinforced because it didn’t need to be. Whereas the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of separate histories for east and west Germany, the Green Line traced a preexisting division, underscoring the linguistic, religious, and cultural fault lines that first caused the nation to buckle under ethnic fighting in 1963, and to rupture entirely in 1974. At nearly 30 years and counting, the east-west partition that cuts a jagged line through Cyprus shows an apparent staying power the Berlin Wall could not match.

While there are innumerable explanations for the Annan plan’s rejection by Greek Cypriots — ranging from perceived irredeemable faults in the plan itself to tactical errors by its supporters — the psychic persistence of the partition was best explained to me by Turkish Cypriot poet Neshe Yashin, a woman whose difficult migrations back and forth across the Green Line have made her something like the poet laureate of the reunification struggle. In an offhand comment a month before the referenda, Yashin drew unexpectedly on contemporary game theory to frame the Cyprus problem. Cypriots, she explained, were facing what is known as the prisoner’s dilemma.

In its usual formulation, the prisoner’s dilemma goes as follows: Two suspected criminals are held in separate cells and offered the same deal by police. If either turns in his accomplice, the informer will be set free, while the accomplice will serve a long sentence. This relatively straightforward proposition, however, is complicated by two conditions. First, if both turn in the other, then both will be sent to jail, albeit for only a moderate length of time. Second, if neither turns in the other, then both will be set free after only minimal jail-time.

The prisoner’s dilemma is a classic example of what is known as a non-zero-sum game: a situation in which you win not by competing against the other person, but by cooperating with him. Clearly, the best thing for both prisoners is for each to trust the other, but this requires a high degree of honor among thieves, since the corresponding worst-case scenario is to trust the other and be betrayed.

The point here is not to posit the Greek and Turkish Cypriots as co-conspirators in crime, nor to portray Kofi Annan and Alvaro de Soto as running a good-cop/bad-cop routine on the island’s inhabitants (although there might be some truth in both cases). Rather, it’s to stress that, for all its thousands of pages of complex legal provisions, the fifth version of the Annan plan inevitably left many crucial issues open. What faced Cypriots on April 24, according to Yashin’s model, was the question of how much each side could trust the other to operate in good faith to resolve these issues. As was clear from the negotiations leading up to the referenda, both Cypriot president Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash were playing by zero-sum rules, in which a win by one side necessitates a loss by the other — witness the lists both sides kept of how many of their demands (versus the other’s demands) were met. In fact, one sometimes suspected both leaders of far more complex strategies. Papadopoulos’s stolid participation suggested that he actually wanted to win as little as possible, thereby giving him the greatest number of reasons to come out against the plan, while the wily Denktash’s primary goal seemed less to achieve any specific demands than to simply maximize the distrust level on the Greek Cypriot side, virtually ensuring it would vote down the plan. Yet even here, both were operating according to a zero-sum scenario that assumed nothing could be gained through cooperation.

What’s most telling in Yashin’s choice of the prisoner’s-dilemma scenario, however, is not the ethical quandary of the choice between mutual trust and naked self-interest, but the very ground rules of the game: it imagines, after all, that the suspects are held in separate rooms, with no chance of dialogue as they face their decisions. For all that Cyprus’s population is smaller than that of a mid-sized American city, this is to a large extent an accurate metaphor for the situation: for 30 years, there has been little significant contact between the two sides. The power struggles and violence during the Sixties, followed by the Greek nationalist coup and Turkish invasion in the Seventies, sowed the seeds of mistrust, and three decades of division have given them plenty of time to bloom.

Of course, for Yashin even to use game theory to explicate the Cyprus problem suggests there are new models of thinking abroad, and this is particularly true given her own biography, which seems tailor-made for zero-sum thinking. She was born in the south in 1959, in the mixed Turkish-Greek village of Peristerôna (Dovecote), which her family was forced to flee for the armed enclave of northern Nicosia in the ethnic fighting of 1963. As Yashin herself admits, she grew up hating and fearing Greeks, but what changed her mind was the invasion of 1974. What many Turkish Cypriots considered a rescue operation was, for Yashin, a revelation. “I saw,” she says, “the victimization of Greek Cypriots, and that the Turkish could be victimizers, too.” Raised on poetry (her father, Oskar Yashin, is considered the national poet of Turkish Cyprus), she went on to write the simple but moving “Which Half”:

They say that people should love their homeland
That’s what my father often says
My homeland has been divided in two
Which of the two halves should I love?

Without her knowledge, the poem was translated into Greek and then set to music by Greek Cypriot composer Mario Tokas [see ]]. Yet the separation between the island’s two communities was so rigorous that Yashin only became aware of the song in 1991 — 12 years after it was composed.

Still refusing to accept the dichotomies offered her by the political situation, she made it a point to cross the border as often as possible, sometimes legally as part of delegations, sometimes illegally with smugglers. Yashin corresponded with Greek Cypriot writers (often through third parties in foreign countries, since both North and South disapproved of correspondence between the two) and gave poetry readings with them. She flew through Istanbul and Athens to Nicosia to give readings in schools, where she realized she was the only Turkish Cypriot that Greek Cypriot children had met. Eventually, in the mid-Nineties, she moved south permanently, announcing it publicly as a form of protest. Throughout this period, Yashin was fired from jobs, accused of being a traitor, and, at one point, even arrested (a campaign by Amnesty International freed her within 18 hours). Yashin’s story would merely be one of those stirring cases of heroic individualism if she hadn’t been part of a much larger movement. Although attempts at communication across the ethnic divide had been going on since at least the mid-Sixties, they coalesced seriously in the early Nineties with the participation of Louise Diamond from the Washington, DC-based Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy. Working independently at first, then funded by the Cyprus Fulbright Commission, Diamond began conflict-resolution training with groups on both sides of the partition. When political circumstances permitted, the groups met in neutral locations in Cyprus and other countries; when this was impossible, Diamond still met with them individually, carrying on a sort of shuttle diplomacy. Her primary focus was to establish a framework in which the competing histories of the two communities could be dealt with and steps taken toward a common understanding that gave justice to both sides’ claims.

Eventually, thousands of Cypriots passed through these groups and went on to form other groups, such as the Bicommunal Choir, Hands Across the Divide (a women’s organization), and Youth Encounters for Peace, among others. With the opening of the border last year, this trend flowered into a wide range of bicommunal events: art shows, poetry readings, high-school trips to the Troodos mountains, a bicommunal rap CD, and even one philately exchange. Before anti-Annan sentiment overwhelmed it, the movement to establish bicommunal connections was on a steady ascent.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to assess the effect of these groups. Clearly, they failed to influence the majority of citizens in the south, although many of the strong supporters of the Annan plan — both in the communist AKEL (Anorthôtiko Komma Ergatikou Laou, or Renovative Party of the Working People) and conservative DISY (Dêmokratikos Synagermos, or Democratic Rally) in the south, and in Mehmet Ali Talat’s party in the north — had passed through them. Perhaps their influence is best gauged negatively. In the republic of Cyprus, the vote — broken down by region and age — revealed that those in the south and west were more likely to vote “no” than voters in Nicosia, and that younger voters were more negative than older voters. In other words, the greater the chance that you actually knew a real, existing Turkish Cypriot, the greater the chance that you voted for the plan. If one extends the metaphor of the prisoner’s dilemma, these bicommunal groups might have succeeded in at least chiseling a few small holes in the “wall in the head” — the Mauer im Kopf, as the Germans put it — that continues to separate the two communities.

Any discussion between Greek and Turkish Cypriots eventually bumps up against the fact that they have developed two separate histories, at times parallel, at other times mirroring each other. While the Green Line has successfully prevented these two versions of reality from colliding violently, it’s also made it difficult for them to merge. Yet even the Annan plan didn’t picture eradicating the line. Rather, the plan was based on the hope that, if the two communities were linked, even loosely, the resulting communication would gradually erode it. This was, in any case, a frequent argument by the plan’s supporters in the south, and whether you voted for or against it seemed to depend to a large extent on the degree of faith you had in its premise. Ultimately, the prisoner’s dilemma is not about altruism versus self-interest, but about enlightened versus shortsighted self-interest. That the cautious optimism of these few groups about the future wasn’t able to overcome the deeply rooted pessimism of many others about the past doesn’t speak ill of anyone. It merely suggests that the wall that divides the two communities metaphorically still remains thicker than the partition that separates them physically.

Edward Batchelder is a writer who lives and teaches in Cyprus.
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