Turkish Cypriots worried about EU isolation as Erdogan mends ties with Putin: Don Murray

The legacy of anger and suspicion runs deep in ethnically divided Cyprus, where there is now more uncertainty over reunification talks, Don Murray writes.

Greek Cypriots say Turkish troops, settlers in northern Cyprus stand in the way of reunification

A British UN soldier walks through an alley in the Green Line, a UN-controlled buffer zone, separating the Cypriot capital of Nicosia. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

An island in the Mediterranean, a prisoner of its history, of its ethnic tensions and now, of the anger and whims of the president next door, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This is Cyprus, almost 1.2 million people, still bisected, still poisoned by bloody events more than four decades ago. There are negotiations to end this, accompanied in recent months by hopeful murmurs.

But the failed army coup in July against President Erdogan in Turkey, Cyprus's closest and most powerful neighbour, may still those murmurs and stop the negotiations.

And, on the ground, skepticism is vast. "We've waited a long time, and I think it will be difficult even now."

This was Andreas Kyriakides, a winemaker and the son of a Greek Cypriot who fled from the north when a war in 1974 cut the country in half.

An abandoned building once occupied by a Greek Cypriot is in the buffer zone that runs through Nicosia, cutting the capital and the island in half. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

They call the scar the Green Line and it runs right through Nicosia, cutting the capital and the island in half. The scar is still patrolled by UN peacekeepers. For almost 30 years, almost 25,000 Canadian soldiers were part of those patrols. A Canadian officer still serves among the more than 900 international peacekeepers stationed there.

To approach the division line is to be reminded of other divided cities in recent times – Berlin, and Belfast. The first owed its wall to an ideological quarrel, the communist camp versus the capitalists; the second could, and still can, trace its barriers, the so-called peace walls, to religious divisions between Protestants and Catholics.

A British UN soldier opens a gate leading to the Green Line. In the buffer zone, all that remains are the boarded-up shells of once-upscale homes. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

The split in Cyprus is historic and ethnic. In the north live the Turkish Cypriots, in the south the Greek Cypriots. They echo the lack of love between their bigger brothers in Greece and Turkey.

Divided cities are eery, and Nicosia is no exception. Approaching from the south you pass through a prosperous glass and steel outer city of modestly tall office buildings. Nearer to the Green Line, the buildings shrink. Many are derelict and boarded up. And many still carry the marks of war.

The Green Line crossing is a mini international border, complete with police checking passports on both sides. On the south side, the Greek side, a sign over the checkpoint proclaims, somewhere between boast and lament, "the last divided capital in the world."

A Turkish Cypriot couple peer from behind a fence at the Green Line, on April 25, 2004, one day after Turkish Cypriots approved a UN plan to reunite while their Greek counterparts rejected it. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

On the Turkish side the message is defiant. A sign announces: "The Turkish Republic of Cyprus Forever."

The division goes back to 1974 when an attempted military coup turned into all-out war.

But the fighting started almost from the moment of independence from Britain in 1960. By 1964, it had become so intense that the United Nations sent in a peacekeeping contingent, including several hundred Canadian troops.

Ten years later, the Greek Cypriots, with the military help of the right-wing military government in Greece, tried to take over the whole island. That triggered a counter-invasion, by Turkish troops, and the result was a summer war.

Nicosia's Ledra Street was once barricaded, until it became the sixth crossing between the southern and northern parts of Cyprus in 2008. Police still ask for identification at a checkpoint on the major shopping thoroughfare. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

In the middle, at the Nicosia airport, were lightly armed Canadian peacekeepers.

The Turkish troops and tanks advanced on the airport. The Canadians drew a line in the dirt and said they would start firing if the Turkish troops crossed it.

The Turks stopped.

When the fighting died down at the end of the summer, two Canadian peacekeepers were dead and 30 wounded. In 30 years, 18 Canadian peacekeepers died in Cyprus.

And the island was cut in two. Thousands were uprooted, refugees in their own country. About 165,000 Greek Cypriots fled south, and 45,000 Turkish Cypriots left their homes in the south to live in the north.

The cut was deep. For 29 years, the two sides were sealed off one from the other.

Self-declared republic a poor colony

To deal with the huge outflux of Greek Cypriots from the north, Turkey began bringing in settlers from Turkey itself. Successive Turkish governments also left 40,000 Turkish troops in place in the north.

To all intents and purposes the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, an entity recognized by precisely one country, Turkey itself, became a colony, and a poor one. Much of the government budget and salaries is paid by Turkey itself.

The Ledras checkpoint leads to the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Here, security is beefed up near the checkpoint during a visit to the Cypriot capital by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on May 22, 2014. (Petros Karadjias/Associated Press)

Since the Green Line was opened again in 2003, flow has been from north to south in a ratio of two to one. The Turkish Cypriots cross over looking for day work or for goods cheaper than in the north or simply not available there.

But for the past 10 months, quiet discussions have been taking place on some form of reunification.

"We're tired of Cyprus as a problem," the Turkish ambassador to the European Union, Selim Yenel, said a couple of months ago.

The legacy of anger, suspicion and problems is deep. The Greek Cypriot side complains that the Turkish side has done nothing to find or identify the bodies of more than 1,000 Greek Cypriots who went missing during the 1974 war.

Turkey troops, settlers remain

They also point to the thousands of Turkish troops and settlers in the north.

"We're willing to come to a deal," said Andreas Kyriakides, "but the settlers, the troops. Will they ever agree to take them away?"

The Turkish Cypriots nurse their own deep grievances, notably over the referendum vote in 2004. The deal had already been done to allow Cyprus to join the European Union. In parallel, the UN had arranged a referendum on a new Cypriot Greek-Turkish federation. The Turkish side voted strongly in favour; the Greek Cypriots rejected it by a margin of 3 to 1.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish and Turkish-Cypriot flags during a demonstration on Aug. 5 in the northern part of Nicosia, in the self proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, against the failed July 15 military coup in Turkey. (Iakovos Hatzistavrou/AFP/Getty Images)

Greek Cyprus still joined the EU. They got their cake and ate it too. The Turkish Cypriots got nothing.

And now, along with the demand for the departure of Turkish troops and settlers, the Greek Cypriot side wants compensation for huge amounts of land lost in 1974.

On the Turkish side, there is willingness and a sense of fatalism. Ilhan Ates is a Turk, a settler who came more than 20 years ago. "For a long time people assumed they'd be moved, so they didn't even paint their houses. The move never happened. People settled. If there is a move now, it will be traumatic."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as his 'dear friend' during a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia on Tuesday, Erdogan's first foreign visit since last month's attempt coup in Turkey. (Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters)

He may not be moving soon. Turkish president Erdogan is once again angry with the EU as he locks up journalists and professors and threatens to reinstate the death penalty after the failed military coup against him in July.

All those measures have been criticized by EU leaders. And so Erdogan looks to renew frayed ties with Russia's Vladimir Putin. And to punish the EU.

The massive refugee deal – whereby Turkey agrees to keep 3 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees already on its soil in return for billions of EU euros – may be in jeopardy.

And talks to reunify Cyprus may run into a wall. Without Erdogan's agreement they would be doomed, collateral damage from a bigger battle.

The old wound in Cyprus would continue to fester.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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