by Raisa Bruner:
In the drowsy late afternoon heat, the dusty streets of North Nicosia, Cyprus are empty. But inside the crumbling houses, living rooms are crowded with women in headscarves and their children: families from Turkey, recent imports to the island country. Though they do not know it, many of these families are targets in a grand political game of finger-pointing and frustration that has left the status of the fragmented island in limbo.
At 22 years old, Mohammed Ali Bora is one of these immigrants. He manages a small grocery store in the center of North Nicosia. It is a neighborhood shop with trays of shiny tomatoes and peaches on display by the street. The slow sales typical of most businesses in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) don’t bother Mohammed; he is not the type of person to worry about finances, politics, or his future plans. He is happy here: The island has been his home for four years now, and he has become a good friend to many in the community of Nicosia, even giving away food if he knows someone is in need.
What Ali Bora does not realize is that his presence in the TRNC, as well as that of an untold number of other registered immigrants, temporary residents, and undocumented workers of Turkish origin, is driving a wedge into the complex political process of unifying the northern and southern halves of Cyprus. In doing so,their presence is even one of the factors blocking Turkey’s admission into the E.U.
For nearly all of its history, the island of Cyprus has fallen under the dominion of one gloried empire after another: Lusignan, Venetian, Ottoman, British. Remnants of each are tied into every aspect of modern Cypriot life across the island—frescoed churches and domed mosques dot the landscape; sunburned Brits fill the beaches. Genetic evidence even links all Cypriots most closely to Italians. Since 1974, however, Cyprus has been defined not by its common history, but instead by the division of Greek Cypriot from Turkish Cypriot. The island gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960; soon after, native Greek Cypriots attempted to unite with Greece. In protective response, Turkish forces invaded the North. They maintain a force of 30,000 troops to this day. A 180-kilometer-long militarized border slices across the center of Cyprus, demarcating a U.N.-patrolled buffer zone—and acting as the catalyst of a bitter population swap. Today, the south is Greek-affiliated, Greek Orthodox, and boasts E.U. membership. The north is referred to by many as Turkey’s proxy state, with a Muslim population and a puppet government called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognized only by Turkey. As Perihan Aziz, the director of the Turkish News Agency—Cyprus,exclaimed of the mother country: “She’s the boss!”
That relationship has been reflected in Turkish policy. Since the establishment of this “pseudo-state” in the 1970s, Turkey has been encouraging citizens of its impoverished rural region of Anatolia to emigrate to the island to make use of northern land abandoned by Greek Cypriots in the population swap. It was a good deal then, and remains one now: Ali Bora readily admits that Cyprus offers better public education, healthcare, and work opportunities than back in the rural parts of the mainland. The perks of this emigration policy are also substantial for Turkey itself, which knows that the more Turks it deposits in northern Cyprus, the more likely an eventually unified Cyprus will align itself with Turkish sympathies. And as Turkey flexes its geopolitical muscles in its new role as a regional leader, deepening the connection with the TRNC has taken on even greater strategic significance.
Before the conflict and ensuing division, the island was 18 percent Turkish Cypriot and 77 percent Greek Cypriot. People lived in mixed communities from north to south, in mountain towns and fishing villages. Today, while no government agency or new authority can say for certain how many people live in the TRNC, most agree that the population living in the northern half and considering themselves Turkish Cypriots has doubled. Some estimate that it has tripled.
These new Anatolian settlers make easy scapegoats for the Greek Cypriots; to them, the immigrants are “illegal settlers.” The murky population statistics have been a major sticking point in the endless rounds of U.N. negotiations over the possibility of a future joint government. But according to Alvaro de Soto, former U.N. negotiator during the 2004 peace talks and Special Adviser to the Secretary General, resistance to the immigrants stems from more than a local xenophobia. He deemed it a greater phenomenon of “enlargement fatigue,” a “long-lasting indigestion of multicultural Islam [in Western Europe]…It’s the aversion that dare not speak its name.” It’s what’s keeping Turkey out of the E.U., and keeping the Turkish settlers unwelcome in Cyprus.
That aversion shows itself in subtle ways on a local level. Two different societies now inhabit the sphere of the TRNC: native Turkish Cypriots, now in the minority, who disdain the religious and socially conservative values of the settlers; and the Turkish immigrants, whose Islam and even sometimes language are distinct. Entire neighborhoods in downtown North Nicosia are now populated by Anatolian settlers. Mustafa, a Turkish Cypriot who has lived in Nicosia all his life, believes that the newcomers outnumber native Turkish Cypriots by ten to one and have impacted the North’s ways of life substantially. “Even the cuisine is changing, the vegetables in the market are changing,” he said with a frown.
Meanwhile, the settlers are facing problems as well. Overcrowding in downtown Nicosia forces an average of a dozen people to share a single home, according to Ali Bora. Work permits can be challenging to acquire and involve stringent renewal requirements. Emrah Emre, a mainland Turk who attends university in the TRNC, explained the types of immigrants arriving in Cyprus: “Of course if you are a government and you are sending people here, you are sending unemployed people.” De Soto agreed: “You’re not getting doctors from Istanbul, you’re getting peasants from Anatolia.”
In political negotiations, ensuring a balance of power is critical for the two sides of Cyprus to agree on a workable unitary government for the island. Neither side is ready to give up its demographic edge. “We cannot accept a [deal] that would erase all the rights of the Turkish Cypriots and reduce them to a minority,” said Mehmet Dana, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the TRNC. To him, an acceptable agreement must give equal recognition to recent immigrants and longtime residents in the North, because “the notion of belonging somewhere is not only related to ethnicity or where you are born.” Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has made clear that Turkey’s support of the TRNC will not change any time soon. Without a political solution that satisfies Dana’s demands of equality, Turkey remains a stolid ally of the TRNC, even promising to freeze diplomatic relations with the E.U. if significant progress towards reunification has not been made by 2012—at which point the southern Republic of Cyprus will assume the E.U. presidency. The E.U. currently refuses to admit Turkey as a member nation unless it recognizes the sole legitimacy of the southern half’s government. At a standoff, both sides seem fixated on the age-old “Cyprus problem.”
Stuck in the middle of these power politics sits Ali Bora in his grocery shop. He smokes a cigarette lazily. On the fabled island of Aphrodite’s birth, the violent passion of change has been tempered by the slow crawl of political maneuvering. In October, a summit between Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon failed to produce substantive results; in January 2012, they will try again. But unless the settlers can be seen without their political trappings, all those who live in northern Cyprus will remain underserved in political purgatory, manipulated by both their captors and their champions.
Raisa Bruner ’13 is an Anthropology major in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Catherine Osborn ‘12 and Eli Markham ‘13 contributed reporting.