The Persistence of the 'Cyprus Problem'

Why the presidential election in the island's Greek half probably won't mean an end to its forty years of division.

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A view of the ghost town of Famagusta from northern Cyprus on May 2, 2003. Cyprus has been ethnically separated since Turkey invaded on July 20, 1974, and seized the northern third of territory, five days after a Greek Cypriot coup aimed at union with Greece.(Andreas Manolis/Reuters)

NICOSIA, CYRPUS - Leaving plates on tables and books open on desks, residents of the western coastal town of Famagusta fled quickly as thousands of Turkish troops advanced on their homes almost four decades ago.

The year was 1974, and Turkish troops had invaded the island driving thousands of Greek Cypriots from their homes in the northern towns, following a military coup that aimed to unite the island with Greece. "My parents got into their car and the only things they took with them, believe it or not, were two pillows, two blankets and the television," said Peter Karayiannis, whose parents then moved to Limassol in the south. "People were frightened... They thought they were going to return home after the fight was over but this never happened."

The island's dire economy has overtaken the north-south dispute, and side-lined negotiations for a permanent solution.

Since then, Cyprus has been divided by a U.N.-controlled zone known as the "Green Line," a border that was completely sealed off until a decade ago. Even though it has partially opened, those who lost their homes in the north during the brief conflict that year still long to permanently return. But a negotiated settlement to the conflict has remained elusive since the invasion, even as the partition has been the top issue on the island for decades.

Now, as Cypriots go to the polls to elect a new president this Sunday, some say the island's dire economy has overtaken the north-south dispute and side-lined negotiations for a permanent solution.

"The elections are crucial [to the reunification attempt]," said Okan Dagli, a member of the Famagusta Initiative think-tank. "But for the first time since 1974, the people in the south are much more involved with the economy than the Cyprus problem."

Last year, Cyprus became the fifth eurozone member to ask for a bailout. The country needs a rescue package of 17 billion euros, a figure that is close to its annual gross domestic product. European Commission officials refuse to confirm the specific bailout amount because negotiations are still on-going - the euro zone's finance ministers have so far failed to reach an agreement. Until this moves forward, the 'Cyprus problem' is on the backburner.

"[Now] it's all about the financial collapse of the Cypriot economy," said Hugh Pope, a project director for Turkey and Cyprus at the International Crisis Group. "It means the Cyprus negotiations are not going to be the first thing to happen."

There had been hopes that the current President Demetris Christofias would be successful in negotiating reunification of the country. But besides the economic crisis, difficulties with the Turkish-Cypriot president, Dervish Eroglu, who opposes a bicommunal federation, have stalled progress.

"He [Eroglu] is more interested in a confederal set up," said Erol Kaymak, a political scientist at Eastern Mediterranean University in northern Cyprus and an adviser to Eroglu. "The problem with that is that the international community is not interested in a two-state solution or a confederal set up."

With Christofias not seeking re-election, the negotiations will pass to the next president. Although Nicos Anastasiades of the center-right Democratic Rally party did not win enough votes to win outright in the first round of elections Feb. 17, he is strongly tipped to win in the runoff elections on Sunday.

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 Louise Osborne is a Berlin-based journalist working with Associated Reporters Abroad

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