Coronavirus, tensions with Turkey and the election of a hardliner have dampened prospects for reunification.
For Cypriots dreaming of reunification, this year has been tough.
First, the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Greek Cypriot government to close off crossing points between the two sides of the divided island for the first time in 17 years.
Over the summer, tensions surged in the Eastern Mediterranean as Turkey — whose 1974 invasion split Cyprus in two — stepped up its energy search efforts in waters around the island. Then, the Turkish Cypriot government triggered an outcry among Greek Cypriots when it partially reopened the ghost town of Varosha, a painful symbol of the invasion and enduring division.
And finally, last month came what many fear might be the final blow to reunification: Turkish Cypriots narrowly elected Ankara-backed hardliner Ersin Tatar as their new president.
Tatar, who has spoken in favor of a two-state solution, replaces reunification supporter Mustafa Akıncı at the helm of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is dependent on and recognized only by Ankara. Akıncı lost Turkey’s favor earlier this year after publicly expressing horror at the idea of a permanent partition of Cyprus.
For Deniz Birinci, who was born and raised in the north, the election result came as a shock. “My disappointment lasted for, like, 12 hours,” she said.
Birinci, 39, returned from studying in the United States in 2002, a time when then-United Nations chief Kofi Annan’s Cyprus peace plan — later rejected by Greek Cypriots in a 2004 referendum — was raising hopes for ending the divide. Following the failure of the Annan Plan, she threw herself into pro-reunification activism, even working as a communications and international relations adviser for Akıncı’s government until 2016.
Twice a day, she queues up to cross the U.N.-patrolled buffer zone to send her daughter to a Greek Cypriot kindergarten. “I want her to know both cultures and both languages. I want her to celebrate both Orthodox Easter and Bayram. This is what reunification means to me,” she said. “Cyprus is too small to be divided.”
Numerous peace talks have faltered since Turkey’s 1974 invasion, which came in response to a Greece-backed coup on the island. Ankara does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member country, and Turkey’s rhetoric toward Cyprus has sharpened this year. In his first meeting with Tatar last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared talks for a federal solution to be “a waste of time.”
But reunification activists on both sides also see the Republic of Cyprus at fault and say the government of Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades — who is set to meet Tatar for the first time on Tuesday — could have done more to stop Turkish Cypriots from drifting closer to Ankara. Many Turkish Cypriots have grown increasingly frustrated over the lack of progress in peace talks.
“Where was Nicos Anastasiades for the last three years?” said Birinci. “He was the first to call Tatar to congratulate him, but why didn’t he pick up the phone for the last years to call Mustafa Akıncı?”
In the southern part of the island, Katie Economidou echoed Birinci’s bitterness.
“All those years, I never really believed that we were close to a solution. The obstacles are insurmountable but the main [problem] is our corrupt political leadership, which built careers on the Cyprus issue,” she said.
Economidou, 61, has devoted her life to reunification. Now a pensioner, she has worked for the national tourist association and as a tourist guide, but spent most of her free time fighting for a united Cyprus — from organizing lectures on dispute resolution and mediation to taking part in charity events.
Cyprus’ coronavirus response showed how remote prospects for reunification really are, she said. “During the coronavirus people got really scared. I thought that this would make us finally get closer to the Turkish Cypriots. Yet our first act was to close the checkpoints.”
She added: “I was expecting Tatar would be elected … Akıncı was there for five years, willing to discuss, and we did nothing.”
Race against time
For the generations born after the division, a unified Cyprus is often difficult to imagine.
“In Cyprus you are born and raised within the problem, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that people are interested,” said Andromachi Sophocleous. “The moment you mention the Cyprus problem, people switch off. The younger generation is used to living apart and there is nothing to make them think this is problematic, that this pseudo-stability is bound to change.”
Sophocleous, a 32-year-old Greek Cypriot, is one of the founding members of Unite Cyprus Now (UCN). The bi-communal pro-unification group was founded in 2017, as peace talks were underway in Switzerland’s Crans-Montana.
She was there when, in summer that year, the talks collapsed and remembers crying at the airport on her journey back to Cyprus, with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ final remarks — “I wish the next generation good luck on this” — ringing in her ears.
“Sadly, up to this day, Cypriots and especially Greek Cypriots failed to understand what a historic opportunity was missed in Crans-Montana,” Sophocleous said. “We are literally now endangered with the possibility of having a hard border with Turkey in the middle of Nicosia.”
Turkish Cypriot activist Kemal Baykallı, one of her fellow UCN founders, echoed her concerns that the island was running out of time.
“The more time we lose, Turkey is economically, demographically, socially, politically gaining an upper hand in the northern part of the island,” said Baykallı, 45, who was born in Famagusta, just next to the ghost city of Varosha.
He added that this might be a difficult period for activists on the island, but that work on bringing the island’s two communities closer together had to continue no matter the political situation.
“Our mission is to connect the Cypriots. We want to continue investing in the youth, make sure they understand the history and heal the wounds of the past,” Baykallı said. “Had others started it before us, the island would have been a better place.”