Anyone who has been reading this blog for over a year may remember my slightly surreal visit to Cyprus in the winter of 2006.

During that visit (which was part of a semester-long European studies intensive program), I went to the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Cyprus (i.e. Greek Cyprus), where a young firebrand spokesperson informed my study enclave that any reunification agreement must foresee the deportation of all Turkish settlers who arrived after the 1974 partition of the island following a military incursion by Turkey and coup plot by Greece. I actually laughed out loud at this (as I am wont to do in such situations) –because forcing tens of thousands of people back to Turkey after three decades would not only be impossible and cruel, but also illegal– and the ministry spokesperson was not pleased. His views were pretty radical, and I don’t think representative of most Greek Cypriots.

The Annan Plan for the reunification of Cyprus –which envisaged one state composed of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation with a weak central government– was expected to be just narrowly approved by Greek Cypriots at referendum (before Cyprus was admitted to the EU in 2004) but a zealous anti-reunification campaign by the ruling party in the Republic of Cyprus saw that the Annan Plan was soundly defeated at the ballot box. About three quarters of Turkish Cypriots voted in favour of reunification. So, amid an atmosphere of disappointment and annoyance from the Turkish half of Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia, to the EU capital of Brussels, to the UN Headquarters in New York, Cyprus joined the EU divided –nationalist politics, minefields, and frozen conflict included.

During our week in Cyprus, my enclave visited the UN Development Progamme’s offices in the demilitarised Green Zone (a swath of scrubby terrain between the Republic of Cyprus and non-recognized “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” filled with ghost villages and land-mines, and occupied by UN peacekeepers and wild sheep) and spoke to generally disheartened UN employees about their work. One UNDP employee who had worked in “hot zones” from the Balkans to Central Africa and participated in the political transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy in South Africa, told me, quite frankly, that he had never had a more difficult or dispiriting assignment as Cyprus, where he lamented that neither side showed even a baseline commitment to progress, at least not at the political level. He did, however, say that ordinary Greek and Turkish Cypriots were willing to work together to restore and preserve historcal sites, identify the bodies of victims of the conflict exhumed from mass graves, and participate in summer “peace camps” for Greek and Turkish Cypriot youth who are too young to remember ever having lived together. Another UNDP employee was of the opinion that the UN should only conduct cultural and grassroots peace-building programs in Cyprus, and the peacekeeping mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP) should pack up and leave the Cypriots on both sides to face each other over the Green Line.

As we drove away from the Green Zone, I looked out the window of my enclave’s chartered bus at the fences, barbed wire, propaganda posters, and checkpoints, and started to think the UNDP employees were right. Later that same evening, the first of several Greek Cypriot cab drivers lectured me about how I was likely to be sexually assaulted if I left the Greek side of the Island, because “Turks are just like that.”

When my enclave did visit the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC), we didn’t get a chance to hear similar comments from Turkish Cypriot cab drivers because we were shuttled from destination to destination in a bus owned by the TRNC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which treated us, rather creepily in my opinion, like very important people, which, of course, we were not.

At the second stop on our whirlwind trip north of the Green Line, my enclave was brought to Near East University, the TRNC’s jewel of higher education. There, we toured a state-of-the-art TV production studio, kindergarten, library, and fitness complex. At the library stop, we were informed that NEU has trouble procuring official EU documents from Brussels for its European Union reference section because of the division of the island. Why this is was either never fully explained (it probably has to do with the fact that the body of European Union law, the acquis communautaire, is suspended in the TRNC), or I have since forgotten. I do, however, remember the librarian saying, rather wistfully, “So few people understand, we are also Europeans.”

For the rest of the day, a film crew followed my enclave as we ooohed and aaahed at the bright, shiny new buildings of NEU, and mmmed as we gobbled Turkish food at the six course banquet we were surprised with. The entire time, I had the uncomfortable feeling my classmates and I were the unconsenting stars of some kind of propaganda film.

Nevertheless, I did leave the TRNC with the distinct feeling that Turkish Cypriots, or at least students and academics, felt like they were in a kind of limbo, socially, politically, and legally. Not Turkish really. Not Cypriot. Kind of European. Kind of Not. They had voted to change this, but to no avail, and thus the bizarre status quo remained in effect.

When my flight from the Republic of Cyprus to Austria took off from Larnaca Airport, and sunshine flooded the cabin of the plane, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been an odd week in a slightly sinister paradise. On an island known for its Mediterranean beauty and honeymoon resorts, I had felt stifled and watched.

Even in our hotel in the beach town of Limassol, my classmates and I had been under strict orders to not speak about our visit to the TRNC in public, and to only give away as many details about our reasons for being in Cyprus as absolutely necessary. When we visited the TRNC, we told our Greek Cypriot bus driver we were going sightseeing in Nicosia, and switched drivers once we passed through the UN-administered checkpoint between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot halves of the capital. This is the EU in 2006? I kept asking myself. It was a sobering experience for someone fiercely pro-European, a first-hand look at the shortcomings of that kind of idealism.

I’m not sure what, if anything, would have happened if I or anyone else in the program had skipped through the lobby of the Ajax Hotel singing, “I went to the TRNC! I went to the TRNC! I went to the TRNC! And was fed and filmed and not molested!” but we were all sufficiently freaked out to not even consider it.

Cyprus isn’t North Korea –by even the wildest stretch of the imagination– I don’t want to give the wrong impression, but it is a place where, if you so much as scratch the veneer of baklava and sandy beaches, you will see that something is unmistakably not right.

Why am I bringing all this up again? Well, as of yesterday, Cyprus is part of the Eurozone –meaning it now uses the European Union’s common currency, the increasingly strong and stable Euro, instead of the old Cypriot Pound.

The Guardian weighs in on this latest development:

Arrival of euro boosts Cyprus peace hopes

Helena Smith in Nicosia
Wednesday January 2, 2008
The Guardian

In its relatively short life, the euro has been called many things. Peacemaker has not been one of them. Now that may change as Europe’s increasingly strong common currency reaches this fractured corner of the Levant.

The island’s arrival in the eurozone yesterday, less than four years after it joined the EU, is being heralded as more than just a milestone amid predictions that it will pull off what countless mediators have failed to achieve so far, and help to reunify Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

“It’s a golden opportunity for both communities to overcome one of their major disparities,” said Ali Erel, who heads the European Union Association in the island’s Turkish-run north. “The transition will push us to cooperate more and that, ultimately, could lead to economic reintegration,” he told the Guardian.

Although EU laws and regulations are not applied in the breakaway enclave, where enthusiasm for Europe has also waned considerably, the euro is being used increasingly by the rump territory as it tries to shake off its pariah status.

Northern Cyprus’s booming property market is linked almost exclusively to the currency, while billboards exhort tourists not to cross into the internationally recognized Greek-run south with more than €135 (£99) worth of goods.

Three times closer to Baghdad than to Brussels, Cyprus signs up to the euro with Malta, exactly nine years after the currency’s birth. The home of the EU’s only partitioned capital has been the bane of peacemakers since the Turkish army invaded, seizing its northern third, in response to an Athens-inspired coup in 1974.

The new euro coins have been designed with care: the 1, 2 and 5 cent coins will, for example, depict the moufflon, the wild sheep endemic to the island for whom dividing “green lines” mean little.

With political will, the Green Line could one day mean just as little for Cyprus’s human inhabitants. I personally hope that the Euro serves, if nothing else, as a reminder that Cyprus is (regardless of the wisdom or lack thereof of its admission), part of the EU, and that the current division of the island flies in the face of everything the European Union was created to be, and remains a continuing stain of Cyprus’s reputation within that union and beyond.

It’s time to move on to real peace, not just the absence of conflict.