President of Cyprus Dimitris Christofias (right) and leader of the Turkish minority on the island Mehmet Ali Talat met yesterday in Nicosia and agreed to set up a series of working groups to look at the issues which constitute the Cyprus problem, reporting back to the leaders in three months time, after which fully-fledged negotiations aimed at ending the Turkish occupation of the island and reuniting it as a bicommunal, bizonal federation will commence.
Since the Turkish side remains, according to recent statements, committed to partition, speaking of two states and two peoples, the maintenance of Turkish military guarantees and a permanent military presence on the island, and it is the Turkish government – and specifically the Turkish army – that shapes Cyprus policy, not the Turkish Cypriots – then it is impossible to be optimistic.
Indeed, even if the government in Ankara were prepared to end the occupation of Cyprus – in an effort, ostensibly, to boost Turkey's EU prospects – then it is hard to believe that the Turkish military and the ultranationalist secular bureaucracy it leads – at permanent loggerheads with prime minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist government – will consent to abandon Cyprus, which it regards as its fiefdom. Next week, General Yasar Buyukanit, chief of the Turkish general staff, is paying a three-day visit to the occupied areas. Why? To remind everyone – Talat and the Turkish Cypriots, Erdogan, the Greek Cypriots and the international community – that it is the Turkish army that lays down the law in occupied Cyprus and that it is the Turkish generals who will decide occupied Cyprus' future.
While accepting that it is the Turkish army that is the main obstacle to resolving the Cyprus problem, President Christofias and the communist party he's from – AKEL – have always argued that in the face of the monolith, the Greek Cypriots should attempt to detach the Turkish Cypriots from Turkey. Christofias and AKEL have pushed for rapprochement with the Turkish Cypriots not just because it appeared to them as a smart way to resist the occupation but also because it is part of Christofias and AKEL’s Marxist ideology and reading of the Cyprus problem – that it arose as a result of Greek and Turkish nationalism/chauvinism and that there exist no irreconcilable differences between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Those who object to the AKEL rapprochement thesis suggest it deflects attention from the essence of the Cyprus problem – which is the Turkish invasion and occupation – and will have no effect on reuniting the island.
But maybe Christofias' time has come. Not only does there now exist a significant section of the Turkish Cypriot community amenable to rapprochement with Greek Cypriots; but Christofias is also now speaking the language the international community – and specifically the EU – likes and understands: 'peace, friendship, reconciliation’ with the Turkish Cypriots. By talking about his vision of a multicultural Cyprus, Christofias has, in one fell swoop, managed to earn the goodwill of the European Union, which detested Tassos Papadopoulos and interpreted his humiliating defeat in elections last month as an indication that Greek Cypriots wanted a solution to the Cyprus problem, reversing the perverse perception that the Greek Cypriots were satisfied with the status quo.
Christofias’ expectation is that an EU sympathetic to Cyprus will play its part in resolving the island’s division, by doing what Cyprus cannot do, which is exert pressure on Ankara. ‘I’ll take care of Talat, if you take care of Turkey,’ Christofias is alleged to have said to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. ‘Thank you, Mr President, for allocating me the easy part,’ was Barosso’s ironic response, apparently.
* Christofias and Talat also agreed yesterday that a checkpoint at Ledra Street – Nicosia’s main commercial thoroughfare – will be opened. At the moment, every day, approximately 500 Greek Cypriots cross into the occupied areas and 5,000 Turkish Cypriots cross into the free areas through five checkpoints along the Green Line that divides the island.
In an attempt to give the occupation regime the attributes of a state, the Turks insist Greek Cypriots show passports or other identity documents to cross and, if they're using a car, take out insurance with a Turkish Cypriot insurance provider; while Turkish Cypriots to get into the free areas also have to show identification that proves they are Turkish Cypriots and not Turkish settlers – who are not allowed to enter the free areas – or other illegal immigrants.
Opening Ledra Street is expected to benefit the Turkish Cypriot economy, boost commerce and tourism in occupied Nicosia. Ironically, it was the Turkish Cypriots who first put up barricades on Ledra Street; initially in 1958 as part of the ‘from Turk to Turk’ campaign aimed at preventing Turkish Cypriots from shopping at Greek shops. The barricades were taken down in 1960, but erected by the Turkish Cypriots, in collusion with British ‘peacekeepers’, again in 1963 when Turkish Cypriots stepped up their terrorist campaign to partition the island and ethnically cleansed Greeks and, particularly, Armenians from the Turkish quarter of Nicosia.