A small news item caught my eye a few days ago. It came from Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, and reported there had been yet another setback in moves toward re-unification of the divided Mediterranean island.It was what you might call a groundhog moment; one that seems doomed to be repeated over and over again.
For almost as long as I can recall, politicians on either side of the so-called Green Line that divides Cyprus have periodically inched cautiously toward reconciliation, only to rear back when agreement seemed to be within reach. It’s like a strange, elaborate dance in which the partners occasionally hover tantalisingly close to each other but never quite touch, still less embrace.This time the government of the “official” Cyprus in the south of the island blamed the breakdown on Turkey, which effectively controls the internationally ostracised Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, for wanting to search for oil and gas off the coast.
“Arrogant and provocative”, a spokesman for the Cyprus government said of Turkey.Yeah, yeah, it’s all been heard before. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Disputes between the Greeks and Turks on Cyprus seem to be one of the few constants in an otherwise uncertain world.
It’s like Palestine and Israel: you suspect one side or the other will always find an excuse to pull back if negotiations are going too well. Ultimately, it seems, neither side wants to give anything away.It’s all terribly sad. Cyprus is a beautiful island, rich in history, but its occupants seem determined not to get along.
It’s a reminder of how fortunate we are in remote New Zealand not to be cursed with ethnic and religious feuds like those that plague parts of the Old World. One of the greatest benefits of emigration is that it enables people to put age-old conflicts behind them and start afresh.Most immigrants in countries such as New Zealand realise, fortunately, that life is much more pleasant when unencumbered by ancient enmities. (It’s a tragedy that the same can’t be said for all Muslim migrants in Europe, but that’s another story.)
Before I go any further, a brief history lesson. A former British colony, Cyprus was granted independence in 1960 but was invaded by Turkey in 1974 and has been divided ever since.The stated reason for the invasion was that the Turkish minority on the island was at risk following a coup which deposed the elected government and replaced it with Greek nationalists agitating for union with Greece.
Certainly there had been conflict between the two ethnic groups and an element of what we now call ethnic cleansing. Both sides suffered, but the vulnerable Turkish minority had more reason to be fearful.The Turks ended up with the northern part of the island while Greeks occupy the lower half, with United Nations troops patrolling the no-man’s-land – the Green Line – in between.
I probably wouldn’t take much interest in Cyprus had I not spent several days there nearly 15 years ago. It was like a Mediterranean Cuba, stuck in a time warp because of isolation imposed by international sanctions. The streets of Girne, the main town, were full of Vauxhall Vivas, Hillman Minxes and Austin Cambridges – hangovers from the days of British rule.Of course such a fleeting visit doesn’t qualify me as an authority, and even less so given that I was there as a guest of the government of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Turkey.
But it did enable me to observe things on the ground, and I came away saddened that neighbours could be so divided on the basis of ethnicity (although there’s a religious factor too, the Turks being Muslim and the Greeks being Orthodox Christians – not that religion’s any excuse).The experience reinforced for me the ugliness of ardent nationalism, once aptly characterised as a cock crowing on its own dunghill.
Regrettably, it seems to be the fate of people in some parts of the world to be at each other’s throats. Nationalists tend to have very long memories. History always seems close. Wars fought and humiliations suffered centuries ago still weigh heavily on people’s minds. Old grudges refuse to die.We saw that in the Balkans, especially. For as long as the communist strongman Marshal Tito ruled Yugoslavia after World War II, he kept a lid on rivalries between Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and others. But after Tito’s death in 1980 the lid came off, and the result was a bloodbath.
To its enduring shame, the world stood by and dithered while appalling atrocities were perpetrated. Would innocent lives have been shed in Cyprus too, without Turkish intervention? No one can say it wouldn’t have happened.The lesson from the Balkans was that it’s too late to step in and hold people accountable once the killing is over. That conflict was brought to a close only when Nato aircraft started dropping bombs – but by then more than 100,000 people had died, most of them innocent of anything other than the accident of having been born into the wrong ethnic group.
Now the world has another moral crisis on its hands with the fanatics of Boko Haram and the Islamic State, and once again the international community seems ambivalent about intervening. It’s all too chillingly familiar.