Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cyprus blues

I have been meaning to post a few thoughts on the results of the parliamentary elections in Northern Cyprus since the eve of the vote (just as I was hoping to do in the case of the Turkish local elections) but, as this is a volatile time, events seem to be overtaking any attempt to keep track of developments in Southeastern Europe.

The outcome of the North Cyprus elections confirms the fears of people like me, who had supported - with some reservations - the yes vote on the Annan Plan back in 2004 that a Greek-Cypriot 'no' vote might make a rapprochement between the two communities very difficult. 2004 had presented a unique opportunity for an agreement - however imperfect that might have been. I have always maintained that provisions that sanctioned ethnic segregation were unworkable as they did not take into account the dynamics of closer contact: how can you classify mixed families, children of mixed backgrounds through a constitution that is blind to these complexities of real life, how can you give ethnic colour to property and enterprise? The Annan plan, I was arguing, could open the way for a formal, limited partnership but, precisely because of its shortsightedness and imperfections, it had the potential of facilitating closer integration once, and if, the Cypriots themselves were ready for it.

Let us not be fooling ourselves; at the danger of oversimplication, a large part of the 75% of the Greek-Cypriots who said 'no' were not so much protesting against an unfair plan but were expressing their doubts as to whether they were ready or prepared to live together with the Turkish-Cypriots. On the other side of the dividing line, the overwhelming 'yes' vote also constituted a ver
y complex gesture. It was largely addressed to the European Union - not their compatriots in the South, expressing a hope that accession might outweigh the possible shortcomings of a new partnership with the Greek-Cypriots. It certainly constituted an expression of protest against the close, almost suffocating embrace of the 'Motherland'. And, yes, for some, just as in the South, it constituted a leap of faith, a brave attempt to forge a common future for all Cypriots.

The 2009 Northern Cyprus election took place in a new setting. The promised rewards that were to follow a 'yes' vote were meagre and unimpressive - the
Cumhuriyetçi Türk Partisi did not manage to translate its pro-unification stance into recognition and, more importantly improvement of living standards. Mehmet Ali Talat has not been bold enough in extending his hand to President Hristofias in the South and providing his electorate with a vision of the future. True, he had to confront the inertia of decades of intransigence and had a hard time dismantling aspects of the nationalist establishment's hold over education, the civil service and public discourse over the past few years. His term in office has not been revolutionary; the nationalist idiom in all aspects of social life is still dominant but has also been tempered and its inner core somehow challenged. The Turkish military still has an effective power of veto on most government decisions and negotiations with the Greek-Cypriots have been moving very slowly. And, the outcome of the vote has reinforced hardliners such as Derviş Eroğlu who have now formed a government that is not enthusiastic about the negotiations with the Greek-Cypriots. But even Eroğlu seems to have been affected by the positive climate of the past few years. Although he has been critical of Talat's overtures towards the South, he has declared his commitment to the negotiations, stressing of course that he will seek to safeguard and promote the interests of the Turkish-Cypriots and the 'Motherland'. The cost of pulling out of the sluggish negotiation process will be very high even for someone with Eroğlu's intransigent past ... What is more, the constitutional arrangements in the North are such that his Ulusal Birlik Partisi will need to forge alliances to maintain a workable majority in the Turkish-Cypriot assembly, just as Eroğlu will need to build bridges with other political forces if he is to contest the presidential election some time next year.

And those in the South who think that a UBP government in the North gives them time to work for more concessions or hope that it would stall the Hristofias-Talat negotiations should realize the urgency of a solution that will effectively kickstart a long and tortuous process of bringing Cypriots together. Because one thing is certain: no settlement will achieve a restoration of the status quo ante and no Greek-Cypriot politician can frankly suggest to their electorate that this is even a remote possibility. A solution will have to take into account the human rights, fears and aspirations of both sides. It will have to be a compromise that balances the restoration of property and return rights and the right to live without fear of persecution or minoritization that Turkish Cypriots are particularly sensitive to. The solution, unavoidably, although regrettably in my opinion, will reflect the geopolitical balance of power and therefore recognize aspects of the Turkish presence on the island. In some ways the Turkish flag painted on the slopes of Pentadaktylos/Beşparmak overlooking Nicosia, regardless of whether it reads as a kitcsh, offensive or reassuring gesture, is truly symbolic of the fact that over the past thirty five years, the influence and presence of Turkey has become engraved in the landscape of Northern Cyprus and embedded into the habitus of Turkish Cypriots. The weight of this presence should not necessarily be translated into a military presence after an agreement but would almost certainly take the form of a stronger voice for Turkish Cypriots and a greater degree of autonomy of their federal state.

But I would stress once more, after the ink on any deal dries, it will be up to the Cypriots themselves to get to know each other, to work and to live together, to shape their common homeland in the way they want.

But time is trully running out and those who believe that Cyprus is and should be a common homeland for all Cypriots should not miss any more opportunities hoping that the political landscape in the North will change for the better any time soon.

photos from the Green Line/buffer zone by Spyros Sofos (2008)

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