Nicosia: Hope for the future of this divided city – Our Europe

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Nicosia: Hope for the future of this divided city

Crossing national borders within the EU has been an unremarkable experience in our journey so far.

The road signs may be a different colour, or the motorway speed limits 10 kph higher – or lower, but the substantial differences in wealth or culture that undoubtedly exist among the member states usually take a while to emerge. They are rarely obvious the moment you step (or drive) from one country to another.

Not so on the divided island of Cyprus.

Two weeks ago we ventured in our hire car from the southern coastal town of Paphos to the island’s capital, Nicosia.

I’m no expert on Cypriot history and politics, so I won’t claim to draw any great lessons from the few hours we spent there.

But it certainly did take me aback when we came out of our city centre car park to be faced by an 8-foot high wall of sandbags just a few yards in front of us.

This was the ‘Green Line’, the buffer zone patrolled by United Nations troops that currently divides the island in two.

On one side of the Green Line in Ledras Street, Nicosia – the world’s only divided capital – we spotted familiar stores and coffee shops like Tiger and Starbucks

And driving into the city we had passed big department stores like Debenhams, and several imposing bank HQs that have clearly survived the country’s big banking crash of 2011.

Nicosia seems like a city in any other in the better-off parts of western Europe.

But on the other side of the Green Line lies a different, and clearly less prosperous, place.

The moment you pass through the two sets of passport checks you enter a different world.

On the Turkish side of Ledras Street, there are no stores with familiar names.

Instead, we saw typically Turkish streets filled with local stores, their goods priced in Turkish lira as well as euros.

Though many shops were pretty nondescript, we were seduced by the market stalls selling Turkish delight, clothes and trinkets in Bandabuliya, the beautifully restored old market.

And we were awed by the Selemiye Mosque, a 13thcentury former cathedral that towers above its surroundings.

We walked down streets right next to the Green Line that had clearly not been touched by repair or new investment since 1974. A recent BBC report suggests this is typical of the entire border zone that separates the northern part of the island from the rest.

It seems, in many ways, to be an economy frozen in time, excluded from the growth experienced by western market economies over the past 40 years.

Figures are hard to come by, but it appears that the Turkish Cypriots are perhaps only half as rich as Cypriots on the other side of the line.

The history of how this sad situation came about is, as in so many parts of Europe, a long and complex one.

Cyprus has a key strategic place in the eastern Mediterranean, and has been the subject of countless invasions over the centuries.

In more recent times, the Ottomans (Turks) governed for three centuries, until Cyprus came under British rule in 1914. This left an island with a majority of its people who identified with Greece, but a sizeable minority who still looked to Turkey.

After independence from Britain in 1960, tensions came to a head in 1974 when the military dictators in Athens staged a coup in Cyprus to unite the island with Greece. Turkey sent tens of thousands of troops to the island in opposition.

Though the fighting was brief, it resulted in the partition of the island, which stands to this day.

The northern third of the island has been proclaimed as the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus’, but Turkey is the only country in the world to officially recognise this division.

The remainder is home to the Greek Cypriot majority, give or take the two sizeable British military bases that remain UK territory.

While there has been a substantial easing of border formalities and inter-community tensions since the 1970s, all efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement have failed so far.

But, more positively, a new set of negotiations began in 2015, and led to a high level series of meetings earlier this month in Geneva.

The talks went well, and while some issues remain unsolved, the parties seem closer to agreement than ever.

That said, any final settlement will need the support of the two sections of the island in separate referendums, and the talks look set to continue over the coming weeks and months.

While the Turkish half of Nicosia may seem quaint and charming to the casual visitor, its residents – and those in the rest of northern Cyprus – surely deserve the same chances to improve their living standards and to move freely round the EU as their Greek Cypriot neighbours.

The next time we return to Cyprus – and we will, for it has a formidable beauty and astonishing history – I hope it will be to an island that has agreed to reduce the divisions between its two main communities.

A country where all children have the same opportunities, regardless of which part of the community they come from.

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