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The thin green line. (Divided Cyprus).

For almost 40 years, Cyprus has been split by ethnic tensions and its capital Lefkosia has the dubious distinction of being the world's last divided city. But with its application for EU membership being considered this month, the island's Greek and Turkish communities have a chance for reconciliation. Martin Varley examines Cyprus's options and asks whether the country that has elicited more UN resolutions than any other can ever find peace

CHRISTMAS 1963. CYPRUS'S CAPITAL Lefkosia was ready to explode. Since the island's independence from Britain three years earlier, relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, which had historically been held in balance by a succession of colonial leaders, had degenerated to the point where they were on the verge of a Balkanesque collapse. All it needed was a trigger. Late in the evening of 21 December, it got one.

While investigating a quarrel over a prostitute in the Turkish quarter, a pair of Greek Cypriot policemen stopped two Turkish Cypriots. A hostile crowd quickly gathered. Suddenly, shots rang out from a side street. The police returned fire and the crowd scattered, leaving behind the lifeless bodies of a Turkish Cypriot couple.

Their burial the following day fed fears and roused passions. Turkish Cypriots mounted machine guns on mosques and rooftops to prevent attack, while Greek Cypriot policemen turned their guns towards the Turkish quarter. Bullets were fired and a full-scale battle raged across the city. Six days later, with Turkey poised to intervene in defence of its ethnic kin, locally based British troops commanded by General Peter Young moved in to separate the two sides.

A city divided

On 30 December, with his troops in place, General Young picked up a green marker pen and drew a line on his battle map of Lefkosia, dividing the city into Turkish and Greek zones. In doing so, he transformed makeshift barricades of bedframes, upturned cars and other domestic debris into a cartographic feature--the so-called `Green Line'. Nearly four decades later, Lefkosia is the world's last divided city and UN troops attempt to keep the peace in a militarily supercharged country that has elicited more UN resolutions than any other.

Despite its key position as a gateway to the Middle East, Cyprus bas remained largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, its problems overshadowed by more high-profile conflicts. However, all this is set to change this month when the fate of the country's application to join the EU is to be decided at a summit meeting in Copenhagen. Once again events in Cyprus threaten to spread beyond its borders. Turkey is threatening to annex northern Cyprus if Brussels allows entry to Cyprus without a resolution to the problems and Greece is threatening to block the EU's enlargement process if the country's application is rejected. To complicate matters further, a recent EU report stated that Turkey wasn't yet ready to begin membership talks of its own.

The potential ramifications of Cyprus's entry into the EU have added intensity to the current round of peace talks between the two sides. Two of the world's oldest adversaries, the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash and Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides, have been meeting regularly in the hope of thrashing out a settlement before the EU summit meeting in December. An agreement between them is one thing, but they will also have to sell any solution to two estranged populations that have only bitter memories and mutual mistrust in common.

Continuing unrest

Following the events of 1963, the polarisation of the two communities accelerated. The battle against colonial rule had been led by a call from the Greek Cypriots to unite Cyprus with Greece. The understandable reluctance of the Turkish minority to respond to this call, coinciding with the removal of British security following the island's independence, left them exposed to the more extreme elements of Greek nationalism. In response, Turkish Cypriots, seeking safety in numbers, concentrated themselves into enclaves. Over the next decade, a state within a state--with its own government, budget, postal service, police and army--began to evolve, with Greek Cypriots controlling the remainder of the country and dictating the terms of trade and travel.

In July 1974, an Athens-sponsored coup deposed the Greek Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios III. This event was the last straw for Turkey and in a matter of weeks, wave after wave of Turkish jet fighters and soldiers swept across northern Cyprus. When they had captured what was considered to be a sufficient amount of territory--about 40 per cent of the island--a ceasefire was agreed, and Turkish and Greek Cypriots separated themselves out on either side of the extended Green Line, which now stretched the width of the island. In 1983, the captured territory was proclaimed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, although up to the present day the republic remains recognised only by Turkey.

The events of the 1960s and 70s are firmly imprinted on the Turkish Cypriot psyche. Walk the streets of the coastal resort of Kyrenia or Lefkosia and it won't be long before you hear people describe the events of that time using terms such as genocide and ethnic cleansing. Many believe that, were it not for the Turkish Army, there would be no Turkish Cypriots on Cyprus. To these people, what NATO did to protect the Kosovars in 1999 is exactly the same as what the Turkish Army did in 1974.

Human rights violated

But not everyone agrees. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Turkey had violated the European Human Rights Convention on 14 separate counts when it intervened in Cyprus. The assault may have liberated the Turkish Cypriots, but its sweep south exposed innocent Greek Cypriots to the by-products of war. Rumours of the rape and murder of their kinsmen were sufficient to convince about 165,000 Greek Cypriot refugees to flee for their lives, blighting a new generation with hatred and bitter memories. Similar behaviour by the Greek Cypriots in the south against the Turkish Cypriot remnant precipitated a symmetrical exodus, rapidly completing the segregation process that had begun in Lefkosia a decade before.

Opinions about the future are as divided as the interpretations of the past. Many Turkish Cypriots remain sceptical about the proposed settlement and blame is quickly shifted to the Greek side. "Turkish Cypriots are peaceable people," I am told time and time again. "We want to forgive and forget, but the Greeks are different. They will never agree to a settlement. Why should they, what do they have to gain?"

It's a good question, Despite the external pressure cm the Greek Cypriots to reach a settlement, it isn't their economy that bas been crippled by 30 years of international isolation, Northern Cyprus bas the most to gain from a return to the world stage--currently it can only trade with Turkey, which is capable of producing everything Northern Cyprus tan and at a fraction of the price. This imbalance means that its only effective industry is tourism, but here it is hampered. Its `national' airline has only eight aircraft, which fly to a handful of destinations. Incoming jets are prohibited from using Greek airspace and every flight bas to land in Turkey before continuing to the island.

However, it is perhaps in tourism that the future of Northern Cyprus lies. The Green Line may have severed Northern Cyprus from the rest of the world, but it has also saved it from the ravages of mass tourism. The decades of isolation have left the region largely undeveloped, free of the excesses of resorts such as Agia Napa in the south. Limited trade has also forced the region and its tourism industry towards self-sufficiency. These factors have provided ideal conditions for the development of a highly specialised and sustainable form of tourism in the region. As a destination, Northern Cyprus may appeal to fewer people, but those who are prepared to venture there are likely to be willing to pay more for their holiday experience.

All this could be under threat if a peace settlement opens the floodgates to mass tourism. Peter Cant-Salkowsky, one of the 500 British residents still living in Northern Cyprus, runs an environmental management consultancy that encourages local people to develop sustainable tourism. He is quick to highlight the dangers of Northern Cyprus choosing the mass tourism route. "The south bas already shown us how horribly wrong it tan all go, and we need to learn from their mistakes," he says. "Local people seldom benefit economically from sand and-seaside tourism, where the profits mostly go abroad. Holiday accommodation is often built without regard for the local architecture and then, if a travel agent that controls the incoming tourism decides to pull the plug, what tan you do about it? You are left high and dry, with a set of ugly, incongruous buildings that nobody wants. Here, if we are careful, we tan offer something different, something that will protect our environment and sustain our economy."

Erasing the Green Line

The present system of low-intensity, relatively expensive tourism also has benefits for the tourist. Tom Berny, whose London-based company Interest and Activity Holidays runs specialist trips to Northern Cyprus, believes that the region's isolation is one of its main attractions. "Holidays should be something unusual and special," he says, "not something that we take three times a year and put local culture and tradition at risk by expecting chips with every meal. If there is a peace settlement I am fearful about what it might do to the country. Now I can leave a camera in the back of an unlocked car overnight in Kyrenia and know it will still be there in the morning. Will I still be able to do that next year if a settlement allows the less attractive elements of mass tourism to creep slowly north?"

Cyprus stands at a crossroads. At the moment, the Green Line acts as a highly effective barrier, separating ideas, policies and pennies. Delicate political engineering and diplomacy will be required if that barrier is to be removed and the tricky process of mixing potentially volatile populations safely overcome.
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Author:Varley, Martin
Geographic Code:4EXCY
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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