Greeks and Turks Move Toward a Cyprus Solution

Cyprus

U.N. personnel in Cyprus patrol the buffer zone that divides the Greek side from the Turkish-controlled areas of the capital Nicosia. Alex Mita/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Mita/AFP/Getty Images

For nearly 25 years, Cyprus has been divided — Greeks in the south and Turks in the north. But leaders on both sides have agreed to open a crossing, which reporter Mike Theodulou says is a step toward reuniting the island.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The hopeful say it could happen this week. The skeptical say I've heard it before. The last divided capital city in Europe could become a piece of history. In Cyprus, Ledra Street, once the center of its capital city's shopping district, has become a painful reminder of the country's many failed attempts at reunification. Now, for nearly 25 years Cyprus has been divided, Greeks in the south, Turks in the north.

After Turkey invaded the north in '74, scooped up about 37 percent of the island in a move they saw as protecting the Turkish community there. The leaders of Greek and Turkish Cyprus have agreed to open this pedestrian crossing on Ledra Street, the first step in restarting talks on uniting the island. Mike Theodoulou lives just a short distance from Ledra Street. He is a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and he joins us now from Cyprus. Hi, Mike.

Mr. MIKE THEODOULOU (Reporter, Christian Science Monitor): Morning.

STEWART: Morning. So, you can see Ledra Street from your apartment. Can you describe for us what it looks like? What the barrier looks like?

Mr. THEODOULOU: Well, the barrier, for the last couple of years, has just been a Perspex fence on either side, about six feet tall. But until then, and for about 30 years, it was a concrete wall on either side. The concrete was demolished on either side a couple of years ago when there were talks about reopening the crossing point of Ledra Street.

That didn't happen, but the two leaders have agreed that this will now happen. Those Perspex barriers will be taken down very soon. What you see as you walk down Ledra Street from, say, the Greek Cypriot south, it's a road of about 500 yards, very busy with flourishing shops, boutiques, international coffee outlets, burger outlets, and restaurants, people well-heeled.

Then you get to these barricades. On the south side, there's a Greek Cypriot armed sentry, Turkish Cypriot armed sentry in the north, and in between is a strip about 50 yards long of no-mans land. It's been sealed off, more or less, since 1963, and it is patrolled by UN British soldiers that have been here for four decades.

This buffer zone runs the whole length of the island, divides the island in two, but it is here in the heart of Nicosia that it runs through Nicosia, it runs through Ledra Street, and you can't - you simply can't cross. If you go up on high buildings you can see this strip of buffer zone, it's an eerie, bizarre bit of no-mans land, a bizarre time warp.

There are buildings that have dilapidated, haven't been lived in since '74, apart by stray cats and rats. It's overgrown. The buildings are crumbling. This week, municipal workers from both sides have been shoring up those buildings so that when they take down the barricades from the two sides in a few days time, it will be safe for pedestrians to walk through.

STEWART: At this point, just as a point of comparison for our listeners, is this crossing sort of akin to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which is now a pedestrian mall?

Mr. THEODOULOU: No, it's not. This crossing, it's symbolically very important. There are already two crossing points in Nicosia. This will add - this will make it three in Nicosia, and all together six on the island. But the island is still divided, and it won't be like when the Berlin Wall fell in Germany that Germany became reunited.

There will still be these six - only six places you can cross on the island, and even when you do cross at the Ledra Street crossing point when it's open, you'll have to show identity cards and so forth to get to and fro. But it is a big symbolic step because at the moment, and for 30 years, you can walk down this very busy shopping street and suddenly you come to a dead end.

It's highly symbolic of the division of the island. That symbolism then will go, and that should really help with reconciliation. It sets out a goodwill message from the two leaders to show that progress can indeed be made in reunification talks which are due to begin in earnest in a few months time. They will be very difficult on the main issues that separate the two sides, even with the goodwill that there is on the island at the moment.

STEWART: Let's talk about - can you explain to us why there is goodwill on the island? There have been many attempts to reunite Cyprus, the most recent in '04, when the UN stepped in, but is it about these current leaders, is it their point of view that's making this possible? Or is there something else going on?

Mr. THEODOULOU: No, it's mainly that. It's about the current leaders. For the first time in the very long Cyprus problem, the first time in 40 years, there are conciliatory leaders who really seem committed to a solution on both sides of the divide. For about 30 years, the Turkish Cypriots had a hard-line leader who believed that the problem was solved in 1974 when Turkey invaded and split the island.

He said Turkish troops shouldn't go. There should be two states. The international community has always called for one state, for the two sides to reunite under a federal system. Then the Turkish Cypriots, in an almost reformist democratic revolution, they voted out their hard-line leader, President Denktas, this is about four, five years ago, and they brought in a moderate who is really committed to bringing the Turkish Cypriots out of their isolation.

The Turkish Cypriots declared their own state in 1983, but it was never internationally recognized. In fact, it's only recognized by Turkey, and there have been trade embargos against them, so the standard of living in northern Cyprus and the Turkish Cypriot off the island is half what it is in the south, and you can see that when you cross the divide. The shops are a lot shabbier, there's a lot less money around, not as many smart cars, and so forth.

And the Turkish Cypriots, they elected a new moderate leader who wanted to bring the Turkish Cypriots - he wanted to get a solution and bring the Turkish Cypriots into the EU when the Greek Cypriots joined in 2004. However, the Greek Cypriots, just about a year before that peace plan in 2003, themselves elected a fairly intransigent leader, and he led the Greek Cypriots in voting down that UN peace plan that was put to the two sides in twin referenda in 2004.

He said this plan isn't any good. It's designed to suit Turkey. It's not designed to meet Greek Cypriot rights. And he just said to the Greek Cypriots look, we're due to go into Europe in a few weeks' time. Why don't we wait to vote no for now and we'll try and get a better solution when we get into the European Union? because the Greek Cypriots knew they were guaranteed membership, whatever happened to that peace plan, but that the island would enter, effectively divided, represented only by the Greek Cypriots.

However, that leader didn't manage to get any better deal, in fact, didn't do much for four years, and he was voted out of power in February by the Greek Cypriots who have chosen this new leader. He heads a nominally communist party, and he came to power saying that he would try his best to get reunification talks restarted, and get a solution as fast as possible. So, the two sides now have leaders that do want to make headway with the talks.

STEWART: Mike, in our last minute, I do have a selfish question. Obviously, the United States, they'd really like to see this split resolved. What's in it for us?

Mr. THEODOULOU: I think the main thing is that Cyprus is strategically located in the southeast Mediterranean. While Cyprus is divided with 35,000 Turkish troops occupying the northern part of the island, Turkey simply can't get into the European Union. The divided island is one of the main obstacles to that.

The United States, as well as Britain and a few European pals, very keen to see Turkey brought more into the Western fold, to see it in the European Union because they see Turkey as a secular Muslim democracy bordering on countries in the Middle East such as Iran, Syria and Iraq. They see it as a stabilizing place, a good NATO ally, and they believe that a Cypress solution could help stability and increase NATO's strength in southeastern Europe.

STEWART: Mike Theodoulou is a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. Hey, Mike, thanks for the thorough explanation.

Mr. THEODOULOU: My pleasure.

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