Two images of Cyprus never leave the mind once glimpsed. One is the enormous Turkish flag, made of painted red and white stones, and set in a mountainside overlooking the capital, Nicosia. Legend has it that the stones are re-painted, kept fresh, by Turkish Cypriot women whose loved ones are dead or missing. The other is the sadness on the leathered faces, shrouded in black, of the ladies who sit at the Nicosia border crossing. They install themselves every Sunday morning, in what must be the longest-running protest in the world. They are Greek Cypriot women whose loved ones are dead or missing.
Greek and Turk, dead and missing, two sides separated in futility across the last divided capital in the world. In between them stands a no man’s land, a minefield, a snaking barbed wire fence — and a U.N. golf course. The course mostly plays over brown and desiccated grass where it plays over grass at all; golfers have to send their drives sailing over the tarmac runways of the disused Nicosia airport. The course was made by U.N. peacekeepers and, like the stone flag and protesting women, is a symbol of their powerlessness. Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, when Turkish troops invaded the island and occupied the northern third in little more than five days of fighting. The U.N. peacekeepers could not and did not stop them, despite having a bit of a head start. The Turkish army arrived on July 20; the peacekeepers had got there a decade before.
Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary General, is coming to Cyprus on Wednesday to carry out the latest in the long unhappy series of interventions on the island. He will give the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders a peace proposal and a very simple message: that they have 48 hours to sign it. I am ignorant of the appropriate Turkish word but in Greek this is called hubris. Annan has set a Friday deadline for a half-century problem, and he will fail. The failure will come as no surprise. The shock is that he is engaging in — and taking time away from the Iraq crisis for — a project so dishonest and unworkable in its essentials. At a time when the U.N.’s credibility is strained, to put it gently, Annan is trying to hard sell a load of diplomatic snake oil.
The miracle cure he’s peddling is the European Union. The following is just the barest outline of the complex problem he is supposedly trying to solve. Turkey desperately wants to join the EU and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of the new ruling party in Ankara, has hinted he is ready to undercut the Turkish Cypriots to get it. Never mind that EU members last year rejected Turkey’s application to start the application process; they also voted to let Cyprus begin it. The prospect of a divided nation joining the already fractious grouping in Brussels jangles the nerves of the Eurocrats. A peace deal would calm them immensely. Currently the Greek Cypriot territory alone has international acceptance; the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Ankara. The U.N. proposal would create a Switzerland-style federation with a joint government in Nicosia.
That’s the complicated part; now comes the absurd part.
First of all, most of the plan doesn’t actually exist. The Annan proposal fudges — when it does not skip over — the nitty-gritty details which have made the “Cyprus problem” so intractable. Among these is a provision for some 50,000 Turkish Cypriots to clear out and allow the Greek Cypriots back onto land and property they lost at partition.
Two, Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash has already rejected the fundamentals of this proposal many times over. He has spent the last quarter century working to avoid something like this. The Turkish army came in 1974 to stop the island from being forcibly joined to Greece after a coup. Denktash will in no way accept anything that makes Cyprus a virtual adjunct of Athens. With Greece in the EU, Cyprus on its way, and Turkey left begging outside, that’s precisely how it seems to the Turkish side. Denktash said Sunday: “They are offering cake to the Greek Cypriots, and peanuts to us.”
Three, Greek Cypriot leader Tassos Papadopoulos took office only two weeks ago. Voters chucked out the longtime incumbent, Glafcos Clerides, because Clerides was seen to have made too many concessions to Denktash. Papadopoulos does not exactly have his roots in the peace movement. He reportedly belonged to the EOKA militia which carried out terror attacks in the 1950s to bring an end to British rule; and which then massacred Turkish Cypriots in a campaign of ethnic slaughter.
Four, the artificial Friday deadline is causing some confusing last-minute scrambling. Britain, which has sovereign territory in the Greek Cypriot south that it uses for military bases, suddenly offered at the weekend to give half of it back. Those bases have been part of British military planning in the Middle East since Britain took over Cyprus in 1878. With a war on Iraq just weeks away, what could such an offer possibly mean?
Five, the deal would have to be ratified, in referendums, by the long-suffering populace on both sides of the divide. And both would have to do so in great haste, to meet the European Union’s urgent requirements. It is likely that they would. In the north, the EU has spent European taxpayers’ millions promoting itself; leaked emails from an EU official revealed Brussels was conducting no small amount of meddling, in an apparent effort to undermine the Denktash refuseniks.
The south is already European, for all intents and purposes. It is awash in Russian mafiosi, Ukrainian hookers, German tourists and drug-addled British ravers. Unlike the unspoiled north, its coastline has become an ugly jungle of concrete development. Joining the EU is a foregone conclusion. But the key currency controls that helped fuel the post-partition boom, and made it an offshore financial haven, would be swept away under EU regulations. In the past few years, wild speculation on the stock market pushed many locals toward ruin. Another upheaval could spell catastrophe.
And finally there is the memory of blood, the remembrance of a slaughter that was — as much as anything — a product of the kind of outside meddling Annan is promoting. A deal can be forced down people’s throats, but not their hearts. History, as G.M. Young said, is less about what happened than about how people felt while it was happening. Some 200,000 people were displaced by the partition. Thousands were killed or disappeared. (It is little more than a footnote now, but the U.S. ambassador was also shot dead.) For nearly 30 years, some people in Nicosia have gone to bed every night by looking at the lights on in their former homes, now “occupied” by the “enemy.”
That is why the stone flag gets painted afresh, and why the old ladies sit outside the border crossing. They have longer memories than Kofi Annan and the Brussels bureaucrats. And, when it comes to Friday, a lot more time.