Praying for partition
For the majority of people in the politically-isolated Turkish North, however, the South is a lifeline. They can travel the world and attract foreign tourists more easily with a multitude of scheduled and charter direct flights into Larnaca and Paphos Airports, and sell to lucrative European markets.
Since the South’s financial crash of 2012-2013 that saw national wealth fall by over a fifth, the once reluctant Greek Cypriots have ventured across the border in greater numbers in search of cheaper petrol and groceries. Propaganda by the Orthodox Church and hardline politicians urging them not to spend a penny in the “occupied North” rang hollow to those brought to the brink of bankruptcy.
“If officials fail to uphold the EU’s own directive, the bloc ... will be accepting the existence of two states in Cyprus”
In recent years, although the South’s economy has improved, the numbers crossing the border for shopping and leisure has continued to steadily rise, incentivised further by the fall of the Turkish lira in 2018.Data published by the South’s police authorities show that from January to May 2019, there was a total of 800,608 crossings by Greek Cypriots, compared with 514,654 by Turkish Cypriots. From April to the end of May 2019, the UN reported that the “number of Greek Cypriot crossings was three times as high as during the same period last year.” This state of affairs came to a sudden halt earlier this year.
At the start of March, the Greek Cypriot authorities used the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic to close most of the checkpoints. There were objections to this unilateral move from across the divide, and skirmishes with police at the Ledra Street crossing on 7 March as hundreds of Cypriots descended determined to re-open the checkpoint, but it was not to be.
Ten days later, the Turkish Cypriot side followed suit as the threat of the virus loomed large and with limited health facilities, the TRNC government knew its best bet of surviving the crisis was to close itself off to the rest of the world. A ban on air space followed the closure of land borders.
Foreign nationals stuck in North Cyprus, aided by their local diplomatic missions, were able to cross the Green Line for repatriation flights from Larnaca and Paphos Airports. Everyone else went in to lockdown, and the issue of border crossings disappeared for a few months.
With lockdown restrictions easing on and off the island, the demand to travel to and across Cyprus grew. Instead confusion has reigned, as both sides implement different criteria for entering their part of the island, not only for foreigners, but also for Cypriots.
For the past few weeks, there has been ample social media posts reporting difficulties of individual foreigners prevented from crossing in either direction by Greek Cypriot police. The ban was finally confirmed by rules published by authorities in the South that stated only Cypriots and foreigners with a Cypriot spouse can cross the Green Line. It runs counter to the European Union’s Green Line Regulation, which requires the free passage of goods and people across the island.
Worse still, not all checkpoints are open even for Cypriots. The South insists, for example, on keeping the popular Ledra Street closed, much to the annoyance of local shopkeepers who rely on passing trade to survive.
The situation has incensed Turkish Cypriots, who know full well this move is designed to harm their economy, especially the tourism sector. On Monday, in a rare show of unity, all political leaders in the TRNC Parliament signed a joint declaration criticising the unilateral ban and calling on EU officials “to immediately take the initiative to restore the situation to how it was before the pandemic.”
President Akıncı has raised the matter with the UN’s Special Envoy, Elizabeth Spehar, who has also received a letter of protest from the internationally recognised Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce (KTTO), which is responsible for implementing the trade part of the Green Line Regulation.By the time you read this, the Chamber will have held a big protest at the Metehan crossing in Lefkoşa.
Will the EU press the Greek Cypriots to rescind their border ban? It’s hard to see it happening. As Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu remarked to Europe’s top diplomat Josep Borrell when he was in Ankara for talks last week, the EU is being “held hostage” by its two Greek members.
The EU has lost its bite. It’s completely ineffective against the increasingly autocratic governments of Hungary and Poland, which refuse to adhere to EU rules on democracy and more, so we should not be surprised if there is not action on Cyprus.
Yet if officials fail to uphold the EU’s own directive, the bloc in essence will be accepting the existence of two states in Cyprus and that the Green Line forms the EU’s Eastern Mediterranean border.
The UN will also struggle to find Turkish Cypriots supporting a new round of talks– after all if the international community can’t broker an end to the border ban, what hope for the far more complicated comprehensive solution?
The Greek Cypriot authorities too are miscalculating the mood in the North – and our resilience. They foolishly still regard us as powerless, and believe by obstructing the TRNC economy, we will capitulate to their demands. Wrong! We’ve been here before and survived far worse, especially during the decade-long assault in 1964-1974.
If the South’s malicious actions continue, permanent partition becomes the impending reality. A block on access to airports in South Cyprus simply strengthens the case for direct flights to Ercan and ultimately for full TRNC recognition. This, of course, is not the outcome Greek Cypriot nationalists desire, but their judgment has never been much good. It is, however, exactly what the North’s nationalists have been praying for.