All his life, Mustafa Akinci has worked towards peace. There has been his language: a lexicon of feel-good words infused with the precision of a conflict-resolution professor. And there has been his belief that small things can lead to big things in his splintered country.
Now, at 68, ensconced beneath the arches in the white, colonial-era office that has been the headquarters of every Turkish Cypriot leader since independence, Akinci has his chance to act.
“We have had enough of suffering,” he told the Guardian in an interview conducted, in part, under a pergola in his garden. “Yes, it is important to admit that suffering took place, that it was mutual, that mistakes were made,” he said of the inter-communal strife that has long estranged Greeks and Turks on Cyprus. “But it is also high time that we look to the future.”
For Turkish Cypriots, living in what officials politely describe as a state of limbo, the future would mean cohabitation with their Greek compatriots in an island reunited as a federal state.
It has taken Akinci, a three-time mayor of Turkish-controlled Nicosia, Europe’s last divided capital, more than 40 years to get here. And he comes with impeccable credentials. When bi-communal contacts were publicly eschewed, the leftwing moderate was going in the opposite direction, working with his Greek counterpart to establish what to this day remains among the most durable exemplars of reconciliation: a common sewage system that spans both sides of Nicosia’s UN-patrolled “dead zone”.
Almost 41 summers have elapsed since Turkish troops – responding to a coup aimed at enosis, or union, with Greece– invaded the island in what Ankara has long viewed as its greatest military victory since the sack of Smyrna in 1922.
With the army’s seizure of the island’s northern third, about 200,000 Greek Cypriots were forced to flee south as about 40,000 Turkish Cypriots ran the other way. In their separate spheres, the exchange of populations cemented decades of bloodshed and division with the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus unilaterally proclaiming independence in 1983.
Ever since, one of the world’s most intractable ethnic disputes has defied mediation. Cyprus has come to represent a graveyard for high-level diplomats courting failure. But the election of Akinci may be the game-changer so desperately needed to break the deadlock.
In his four weeks in power, the soft-spoken peacenik has wasted little time. First came a decision to dispense with the visa requirement for his self-declared state; then a highly symbolic stroll, arm in arm, across the island’s buffer zone with Greek Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades; and last week, an array of confidence-building measures ranging from increasing the crossing points connecting the two communities to linking mobile telephone and electricity grids – widely seen as the most positive signs yet that inter-ethnic relations are on the mend.
In Anastasiades, who heads Cyprus’ internationally recognised south, Akinci has found a willing partner. At talks held this month – the first since they were stalled last October – both leaders agreed to personally participate in the process and meet regularly.
For both men – contemporaries who hail from the southern town of Limassol – the resumption of negotiations has never been more pressing. Time, they both agree, is the great adversary.
“The passage of time is not helping a solution,” sighed Akinci, mourning the loss of common memories of co-existence. “The more time passes, the more the division becomes consolidated. This is a fact that everyone should understand.”
Few, it seems, understand this more than Akinci’s own constituency. Beyond the confines of the “presidential palace” lies a place at odds with the rest of the world.
Under international sanction, cut off from global institutions and recognised only by Turkey, the enclave has been forced for more than 30 years to endure in a diplomatic twilight zone where nothing is quite as it appears.
“On every level, economically, socially, politically, it’s as if we don’t exist,” Ozdil Nami, the Turkish Cypriot negotiator in talks, said. “We live in a country where regular contact with the rest of the world is severely jeopardised.”
Seated in his pristine office, also overlooking the manicured lawns of Akinci’s quarters, the straight-talking 48-year-old lists the litany of abnormalities afflicting the pariah republic.
There’s the issue of direct flights, which are banned, and exports that can’t take place and absence from any political platform that might confer recognition. Young Turkish Cypriots are unable to participate in international sporting events. And when the Olympic torch arrived in Cyprus before the London Games in 2012, they were denied the pleasure of seeing it because no insurance company would cover its passage through an area perceived to be governed by an illegal regime.
“Even cultural contacts are restrained,” Nami lamented. “Take the recent European song contest. It was impossible to nominate someone. Even if we had applied, no one would reply!”
While tourism is booming and per capita income has reached $11,500 (£7,500) – compared with $26,000 in the south – Turkish Cypriots, more than ever, are yearning for normality in a state that not only functions but does so independently out of the shadow of an increasingly authoritarian Turkey.
“I feel I live in a very abnormal country,” said Fikri Toros, who heads the Turkish Cypriot chamber of commerce. “It contradicts EU fundamentals enshrining freedom of movement,” added the British-educated businessman. “Our phone operators, for example, are linked with every other country except one another; that deprives Cypriots of communication and technology which is bloody difficult to accept in 2015.”
The quest to solve Europe’s longest running dispute has, until now, always crashed on the two communities’ inability to give way on the thorny issues of governance, territory and security.
“What we shouldn’t have is yet another disappointment,” asserted Akinci whose election, unusually, has been positively received by Greek Cypriots. “We have to be careful in our messages. We have to have empathy. When we look at them, and they look at us, it is important that it is not enemies but future partners that we see.”
With reunification, would come international law and order. “The younger generation has a very blurred picture of the future. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
Growing numbers have, in fact, voted with their feet – either emigrating or moving two steps ahead of politicians.
Since 2003 when checkpoints were first opened, ever more Turkish Cypriots have availed themselves of services in the south – seeking healthcare there, dining in its finer restaurants and, in the case of those who can afford it, sending their children to English-language schools.
Among them is Esra Aygin, a journalist, who thinks nothing of crossing the UN-patrolled “green line”.
“At 7am you’ll see lots of cars at the checkpoints with kids strapped in the backseat being taken to school,” she enthused, driving her daughter back across the buffer zone from ballet class. “It is becoming increasingly normal for Turkish Cypriots to also come over for the clubs and bars and the beach. They love Ayia Napa.”
Open-minded and astute, Aygin is typical of the younger generation who want to savour their Cypriot heritage in a reunited Cyprus.
At 35, she has no recollection of life before the invasion or any of its intra-ethnic woes. What she does know is that Cyprus is too small to be divided. “Turkish Cypriots see no future in this setup. The state that was established with the argument that it would be recognised hasn’t happened and will never happen,” she said. “It’s obvious that we will never be able to stand on our feet, or have a say in how this country is run, unless we have a solution.”
The Islamification – in the form of enforced religious classes and mosque construction – of a Muslim society that is perhaps one of the most secular in the world has exacerbated the sense that time is running out.
So, too, has the arrival of thousands of settlers from dirt-poor Anatolia: migrant workers who now exceed the 120,000 strong Turkish Cypriot population, who also turned out in droves to support Akinci.
“After not being Turkish enough, we are told we are imperfect in another way by not being religious enough,” said Aygin. “There is a feeling that [in 1974] Turkey came and helped us but, ever since, has wanted us to pay. What we want is our dignity back.”
Akinci says the message from Ankara is one of peace. “They want a solution and they want it sooner rather than later,” insisted the leader who was given a red-carpet welcome when he had his first official meeting with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, in May.
“It is our fate as Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots to live together on this island. The Cyprus problem has been negotiated exhaustively. All that is needed, now, is determination, political will and a shared wisdom and vision.”
Source: The Guardian