By Michalis S Michael
As the hype over a settlement in Cyprus intensifies – often accompanied by the creeping realisation of the insurmountable difficulties that stubbornly stand in its way – we might like to draw parallels with a not-too-dissimilar period: that of the 1980s.
During this period, the fluid nature of Cypriot society and the stagnant disposition of the inter-communal talks erected two opposite realities to the Cyprus problem. While collapse of the High Level Meeting in 1986 and the Davos process in 1988 added to the litany of failed attempts to settle the Cyprus problem, they also intensified the social cost for both Cypriot communities. Protracted negotiations exhausted public faith in a settlement, and people began to disengage from the political process, seeking alternative ways to resolve their existential insecurities. This is best illustrated by reference to the precedence that tourism was accorded over traditional Cypriot norms.
Tourism’s encroachment on the fishing village of Ayia Napa reached such an extent that one day a yia-yia (grandmother), after venturing to the nearby shops, could not find her way back home! Her village had changed so rapidly that she had completely lost her way.
Even more absurd, authorities built a “new” village and resettled the “traditional” villagers there, to keep them out of tourism’s way! The case of Ayia Napa encapsulated the paradoxical changes Cypriot society was undergoing during the 1980s, where self-conscious anxiety over the peace process descended into incendiary forms of consumerism and self-indulgence.
Relocation, modernisation, and urbanisation, interfaced with the protracted stalemate over the island’s reunification, redefined Cypriot society during this period.
Unbeknown to the Cypriots, the 1980s would have a profound psychological effect on their attitudes towards the peace process. Protracted negotiations, gridlocked in perpetual impasse, collapsing under their own weight, had accumulated a reservoir of expectations, disillusionment, and despair.
By the 1980s, the inter-communal talks, in addition to becoming a perpetual fixture in the island’s cultural vista, had acquired a fatalist quality that permeated all facets of Cypriot life.
For different reasons, both communities deferred the handling of the Cyprus problem to the custody of their political elites, suspending anticipation and judgment.
The complex and fluid nature of Cypriot society in its post-1974 incarnation requires us to be conscious of Cyprus’s population and its transient physical context. The political, social-economic, and psychological segregation of Greek and Turkish Cypriots, compounded by geographical and ethno-demographic partition, inevitably renders the pertinent question as to whether we should be referring to Cypriot society in its singular, plural, or divided milieu?
Inevitably, protracted conflicts affect the economy and society of the afflicted communities. The search for common inter-communal space, constrained by the physical divide, offered few opportunities for interaction during this period. Such common space was often to be found at the periphery of Cypriot society, such as in the nebulous mixed village of Pyla or within the Greek and Turkish Cypriot diaspora. Not withstanding their separateness, a peculiar trait began to emerge during this period: a growing sense of commonality in absentia. The circumstances created by 1974 offered a psychological buffer for inter-communal reflection. By the late 1980s, there was a generation of Cypriots who never encountered members from the other community. And although isolation, from each other, lends itself to vilification of the unknown, it also concealed a curiosity for one another. Without overestimating its political significance, this ambiguous sense of Cypriotism—or what Doob terms “Cypriot patriotism”—rested on both communities’ innate parochial need to differentiate themselves as Cypriots.
Despite a policy of rapprochement, the 1980s were unable to shift the ingrained divide separating the two communities.
Idealised presumptions of the “other” resulted in a flawed assessment of each other’s interests, history and positions, creating a false understanding and excessive expectations from each “other”. Compounded by the absence of outcomes and reciprocity, rapprochement was adversely vilified by nationalists and discarded by the state.
The tension between separateness and togetherness often underlines the exasperation of the inter-communal talks.
Attempts towards a political settlement in Cyprus need to be supplemented by a new logic and a new language of rapprochement. One that is prudent and conscious of the pitfalls that might befall it should it fail.
The writer is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University, Australia