THE CYPRUS question has been hanging fire for three decades now, posing an intriguing dilemma for the international community. At the centre of the tug-of-war is the picturesque Nicosia which has the dubious distinction of being the world’s only divided capital.

The country has been divided since Turkish troops invaded it in 1974 in response to a coup by Greek Cypriot militants seeking union with Greece. Ever since, the northern part has been governed by the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is recognised as an independent entity only by Turkey.

Of late, however, there has been a growing clamour for a “re-unification of the island”, especially after the induction of Cyprus into the European Union (EU). This longing, interestingly, is growing despite rejection by the Greek Cypriots (in a UN referendum) of the inclusion of the Turkish Cypriot side into the EU.

This longing for unification follows the opening of some crossing points in 2003, following which nearly 8,000 Turkish Cypriots cross over to the southern part each day, legally, to work and return as the day draws to a close. For these workers, the earnings have multiplied at least three-fold in the last three years since the borders softened. It also poses a unique situation where, technically, the Turkish Cypriot side is a part of the EU, but sans the benefits of the Union, courtesy the presence of Turkish troops on the island.

There is also a feeling that the barbed problem of Cyprus (the wall was demolished recently, but the division remains), could be a major snag for Europe, as well as its the big challenge. And for the Turkish government, on the other hand, the choice is between refusing to make further compromises on Cyprus and keeping its EU talks on track. Cyprus, meanwhile, continues to be flooded by armies – the Turkish army, the British army (it retains some of its bases since the time Cyprus was under its rule), the Turkish Cypriot army, the Cypriot Republic army and the United Nations peacekeeping troops who monitor the “no-man’s” land.

In a candid interview with Khaleej Times’ Senior Chief Sub Editor Mehre Alam in Nicosia, Cypriot Foreign Minister Georgios Lillikas talked on a wide range of issues concerning his country, the EU, and the Middle East. Excerpts of the interview (Filed on May 8, 2007):

Q: The British Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon has been quoted as saying that the media is not writing much about the Cyprus issue these days. Would you agree with the view that Cyprus may have become “a forgotten island” today?

A: Like any other media around the world, the British media, too, tends to focus on the issues that relate to fighting, bloodshed or about people getting killed. In the conflicts where there is a kind of status-quo although there is a violation of international law and the problem is not solved, the media does not evince as much interest, except in cases where there are new developments, and which can hog their attention. I think this is how the media functions these days.

To quote another British politician, the late Robin Cook, it would have been much better if Cyprus were to have joined the European Union (EU) as a unified island, instead of a divided one…

Cook was a very good friend of Cyprus. He sincerely advocated the cause of the unification of Cyprus. He also was one of the ardent supporters of the induction of Cyprus to the EU. All parties would agree to the view that the problem of the island nation should have been sorted out before its induction to the EU. And of all these people, those who were most eager for this to happen were the Cypriots themselves. Nobody has been craving for a solution to the island nation as much as the Cypriots do. You should not forget that it’s our territory that has been under the military occupation of Turkey. It’s in our territory wherein Turkey keeps bringing in more and more settlers. And it’s our island that has so many refugees who are unable to return to what were once their homes. Almost 35 per cent of the Greek Cypriots are refugees.

Therefore, we are all the more interested in having a solution as soon as possible. But for a solution to emerge, what is required is goodwill from both the sides. It would also invariably mean that Turkey would have to arrive at a solution: a compromise. All sides will have to make some compromises. It cannot be a compromise from just one of the sides. Moreover, is it correct to expect the “victim” to make the biggest compromises?

Greek Cypriots recently demolished a wall that symbolised the decades-old division of the island. What kind of symbolic significance does this act have vis-a-vis the psychological longing for re-unification?

You are right. The wall in Ledra Street (in Nicosia) indeed was a kind of symbol reminding everybody that this is a divided island and that Nicosia is still the only divided capital in the world. The demolition of the wall did mean a lot to the Greek Cypriots. It symbolised the will of the common man as well as the government to move forward on the path of re-unification.

Unfortunately, the Turkish troops refuse to leave this place. The will of the citizens will prevail only if they leave Cyprus. But with all the interest exhibited by the international community – the UN, the European countries etc., we hope that Turkey will ultimately agree to withdraw its troops from the crossing point (the line of division). In fact, we had suggested the opening of eight crossing points across the line of division in order to facilitate exchange of contact and trade between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities. At the moment, we only have four crossing points open. Let’s hope that after the Turkish elections, we will have some good news on this issue.

How soon can the international community hope to see a unified Cyprus? Could it be the end of 2007? Or early 2008, possibly?

Unfortunately, nobody can predict this. For the unification to come about, you need to have the political will on the part of not only the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, but also Turkey. In the recent months, we have received an aggressive message from Turkey. After many years, we have again received threats from Turkey that they could use force, especially after the agreement we signed with Egypt and Lebanon for the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Some countries believe that Turkey’s aggressive and negative attitude is because of the looming elections. I am not sure about that, I think that’s true. Let’s see what happens after the elections in Turkey. Let’s see what happens after the current political crisis in Turkey blows over. And we do hope that this crisis blows away quickly. If it is true -and I hope it is true- we could have new developments in 2008.

But then it’s important for us not to waste this year, 2007 (as a year for breakthrough). That’s why we have insisted on the implementation of the agreement of the 8th of July. The reason is that this was the idea of the United Nations. The idea germinated with the initiative of (Cyprus) President Tassos Papadopoulos, and the meeting he had with the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Paris in February 2006. Annan and the Security Council were of the view that we should organise working groups to prepare the ground for discussions on the crucial issues of the Cyprus problem with the aim of bringing closer the positions of the two communities. In parallel, the idea was also to have the technical committees working at the technical level to sort out the day-to-day problems affecting the lives of people in Cyprus.

I think that is the only procedure we have in front of us. The leaders of the two communities had signed the agreement. However, unfortunately, Mr. Talat (Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat) later rejected the agreement by sending a missive to the UN secretary-general. I hope that after the involvement of the international community, at least this agreement will be implemented in 2007 and we do not have to wait any further. By 2008, we may be in a position to move forward in the direction of full-fledged negotiations.

How difficult it is to foster trust and reconciliation between the two communities (Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots) and to provide conditions for the ultimate re-unification of this island nation?

There is no problem between the two communities. There have been more than 10 million crossings of people and nearly three million crossings of vehicles across the ceasefire line since 2003. Everyday we have 8,000 Turkish Cypriots coming in, working in the Republic, and getting much higher salaries than what they were getting in the occupied area. We have never had any incident. This shows that people are ready to live together and cooperate.

The problem is at the political level. There is lack of goodwill and political will on part of the Turkish government to move forward. We have made a lot of proposals. The Cypriot Government has taken many a measure to support and help the Turkish Cypriots to earn higher per capita income and have a better quality of life. With the measures taken by our government and the EU, I think we have already had some good results to show. The per capita income of the Turkish Cypriots has gone up almost three-fold in the last three years. At the same time, the Government is also encouraging the Turkish Cypriots to engage in trade with the Greek Cypriots. The Green Line Regulation adopted by the EU allows this trade to happen. Last year, we had a volume of trade of worth nearly 3mn Euros. This clearly indicates how trade between the two sides can leapfrog in a very short span of time.

Unfortunately, the Turkish Cypriot leadership doesn’t allow trade from the south to the north (from the Greek Cypriot side to the Turkish Cypriot side). When the Turkish Cypriots buy goods from the Greek Cypriots, they have to pay income tax on it. The tax is imposed by the Turkish Cypriot authorities to make the products expensive as well as to assert that they are a separate country.

We have submitted numerous proposals to the EU with regard to preparing conditions to foster more common areas of cooperation and interest between the two communities. The only way re-unification could be achieved is by creating common interests. If the people have common interests, they will join hands to defend their common interests. On the other hand, if we continue to reinforce the ideas of separate economy, separate trade and separate interests, it will only reinforce the division.

From our side, we’ll continue to take unilateral measures to create the necessary conditions for the unification. I hope we’ll have positive response from Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot leaders as well.

The Archbishop of the Cypriot Orthodox Church and the top Muslim cleric of the Turkish community had a landmark meeting some time back where they discussed, for the first time, the re-unification of island. One of the thorny issues between the two sides is the crumbling churches on the Turkish Cypriot side and the upkeep of mosques on your side. Does this issue remain a stumbling block?

The meeting between the two religious leaders was a very positive one. I must say that we have never had any religious problem in Cyprus. Never! We never had a conflict of a religious character. The Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots have lived together for centuries.

As for the restoration of the religious monuments, the Government of Cyprus has already restored all the mosques in the free area. There is not a single mosque left, which has not been restored. In addition to that, we have three of these mosques that are functioning – where prayers are being held. The Turkish Cypriots as well Muslims from other nationalities who are living here or are visiting here perform their prayers in these mosques. And we are happy to see that. Cyprus was always a melting pot of cultures of three different continents – Europe, Asia and Africa. If our culture is so rich it’s because of this variety between religions and civilizations. We are proud of this eclectic history of ours.

If and when the unification does happen, do you think it will rubbish the theory of the Clash of Civilisations? And, therefore, will it show the way to the world, where some quarters are taking this theory rather seriously?

I fully agree with you. We had, in fact, organised an inter-faith dialogue last year in Larnaca (in Cyprus). It was a very successful meeting. A large number of religious leaders and figures from the Christian and Muslim communities, including from Malaysia, participated in the dialogue. We plan to continue holding such dialogues. We are even considering setting up some research centers for the purpose.

If and when the unification of Cyprus does take place, we will have such large communities of Muslims and Christians living together in a European country. It will indeed be a good model of their peaceful co-existence inside the EU, especially if you consider that Islam is at the centre of discussions in Europe today.

Coming back to the previous question, I must add that unfortunately a large number of our churches and other icons of great heritage value have been destroyed in the occupied areas. We have not been allowed to restore some of our churches there. Some of the rare artefacts were stolen and sold abroad. Some of the churches have been transformed into restaurants today. At the moment we do not have the willingness of the other side to restore these churches.

Can the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in general, or the UAE, in particular, play the role of facilitators in the dialogue for the ultimate re-unification of Cyprus?

I think they do have a role to play. The GCC countries have been playing a big role in seeking a solution to the Palestinian problem. They also played an important role in the stabilising of Lebanon after the recent imbroglio (attack by Israel).

The GCC countries can put to good use their weight and voice in the Arab and Islamic worlds to contribute to the efforts towards the unification of Cyprus. This is one of the issues that I am discussing with some of my colleagues in the GCC.

Unfortunately, Turkey has been using the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) forum to promote the division of the island. Recently, it has been calling upon the Islamic countries to recognise the so-called Turkish Cypriot Republic of Cyprus (TRCC) as a state. Cyprus, on the other hand, has never had a problem with the Islamic countries or the OIC.

On the contrary, I think the Islamic world has always had excellent relations with Cyprus. Many a time in the past, we have played the role of facilitators for peace when some Muslim countries faced crises with some other countries.

Now, with the induction of Cyprus to the EU, we want to continue to become the bridge between the Islamic world and the EU. We believe that we are in a better position to do so, thanks to our traditionally excellent relationship with the Arab world. We understand better the sensitivities of the Islamic world.

I hope that the Islamic countries will not allow Turkey any more to take advantage of and exploit the OIC for their own political objectives.

(This article first appeared in the Khaleej Times newspaper on May 8, 2007. Below please find the web link of the article)

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