maandag 10 april 2017

Cyprus: the state of affairs (2)

When in Nicosia, I like to take a walk through Agios Kassianos, a picturesque neighbourhood on both sides of the Green Line, in the east of the historic centre. After the Turkish invasion (1974) it was largely abandoned. Many houses fell into disrepair. After the turn of the century things gradually changed, although the population is still only about a quarter of that before 1974. The Archaeological Service restored a traditional mansion in Axiotheastreet, where the University of Cyprus established its Cultural Centre. When recently in Cyprus, I visited a rebetica concert in the framework of the annual cultural festival, in its characteristic courtyard. The building alone is worth a visit. Private houses too were restored, even though they are sometimes literally bordering on the Green Line. In Axiotheastreet, for example, which near the Cultural Centre is closed off by a barricade of old oil barrels, corrugated iron and barbed wire. Behind it we see the sad decline of buildings that have been left abandoned for forty-two years. It sometimes gives me a rather uncomfortable feeling during my wanderings.


Agios Kassianos, which was called Kafesli in the past, is named after its church, built in the nineteenth century. Close by we find the church of Chrysaliniotissa, the oldest and most important Orthodox place of worship in the city. The main street is Ermou, before the Turkish invasion the Kalverstraat of Nicosia [the Kalverstraat is the main shopping street of Amsterdam - KK]. Now it has the tranquility of a back street. Soon, you'll hit the Green Line, which cuts through Ermou and behind which the minarets the Selimiye Mosque in the occupied part of the city are visible. Formerly a Gothic church known as Agia Sophia built by the Lusignans (1192-1489). As the birds fly two hundred meters, but reachable on foot through the checkpoint on Ledrastreet in about three quarters of an hour.

Centre of Visual Arts and Research

In the Ermou quite a few buildings have been restored. For example the Centre of Visual Arts and Research, containing a museum and research library. It opened its doors to the public in 2014 and is housed in a former Ottoman inn, which was converted into a flour mill in 1953. When the mill closed the building fell into disrepair until it was restored by the Kostas and Rita Severis Foundation, which aims, according to Dr. Rita Severis, the general manager, 'to promote the peaceful coexistence of peoples through the study of the multicultural heritage of Cyprus.' The board of the foundation therefore has both Greek and Turkish Cypriots as members. The focus of the museum is on the 18th to 20th centuries. It possesses more than a thousand paintings, prints and drawings from local and international artists. The collection also contains a large number of items from the personal lives of important historical figures such as the uniform of the first British governor, Sir Garnet Wolseley, and the completely reconstructed office of former president Glafcos Clerides (1919-2013), which is rented regularly to companies or organisations as a meeting room. Of great importance too is the library, which contains a few thousand books and a collection of documents available for scientific research. 'Our centre is primarily a bi-communal project,' Dr. Severis emphasises. A major project is SHARE (Sharing History, Art, Research and Education), which includes educational activities aimed at young people in the whole of Cyprus.The Centre also organises such events as concerts, film screenings and lectures. However, if its ideal, finding a solution to the division of Cyprus, will be achieved in the foreseeable future, is still questionable.


I put this question to Dr. Georgios Kazamias, professor of history at the University of Cyprus. According to him, there still are quite a few obstacles on the way to a solution, which would include the creation of a federated Cyprus with two states. First there is Turkey. Nothing happens in northern Cyprus beyond the control of Ankara and it seems at the moment that a solution is not very urgent to Turkey, as a Turkish EU membership has drifted far out of sight. Perhaps the desire to share in the promising gas reserves under continental shelf of Cyprus could have a positive effect, but given the low energy prices he has serious doubts about this. According to him, an irrational factor like the strong Turkish nationalism is a major obstacle, but there are also practical problems. For instance the question in what way the displaced people will be financially compensated, and more importantly: who will pay for it? The government hopes for donations from friendly countries, but whether these will materialise is still uncertain.

Chamber of Commerce

President of the Chamber of Commerce, Phidias K. Pilides, believes that a solution will be beneficial for the economy in the long run, although initially there will be costs. There will be possibilities for joint ventures with the Turkish Cypriots, who in particular will benefit, because their economy is still not very well developed. Shipping will benefit by the opening of Turkish ports to ships sailing under the Cypriot flag. At the moment they are still banned from entering these. The Turkish market will be opened to Cypriot companies and construction will likely attract a lot of work because of much reconstruction work waiting, especially in the UN buffer zone and in Famagusta, where the tourist district of Varosha, abandoned since 1974 and sealed off from the outside world, must be rebuilt. He also sees new opportunities for tourism, especially maritime, which will further develop. Finally, the exploitation of gas deposits under the continental shelf will be easier. The Chamber of Commerce therefore hopes that both parties will eventually come to a solution.

Treaty of Guarantee

An adviser to the president, who asked to remain anonymous because he speaks in his own name, however, does not sound optimistic. It's often mentioned in the media that the time to reach an agreement is more favourable than ever, but that idea is primarily based on the fact that President Anastasiades and the leader of the Turkish Cypriots, Mustafa Akinci, are personally getting on well together. There still remain some formidable obstacles to an agreement. For example the Turkish Cypriot demand for the presidency to rotate every few years between the president (elected by the Greek Cypriots, 80% of the population) and vice president (elected by the Turkish Cypriots, 18% of population). This is not in line with democracy. Also, it does not appear that the Turkish Cypriots and especially the Turks, will accept the Greek Cypriot demand for the abolition of the Treaty of Guarantee. This treaty implies that Turkey, Britain and Greece guarantee the independence and constitutional order in Cyprus. With this agreement in hand, the Turks justified their invasion in 1974. Thirdly, both sides are still far from an agreement on the territories of the two states. The Greek Cypriots claim in any case the return of Morfou and surroundings and Famagusta.

On the last night of my stay I return Agios Kassianos. In the Ermou I discover a restaurant with a garden overlooking the Green Line. The garden is romantically lit, but in the buffer zone it is pitch dark. Two cats are quarreling. Their shrieks echoing against the houses on the other side of the demarcation line. Once the argument is over, a peaceful silence returns. I wonder when this charming part of Nicosia will again be a prosperous, reunified residential area. The latest rounds of negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, in September and November, and the beginning of January, the last of which took place at the Swiss town of Mont Pelerin, have not yet resulted in agreement.

Photo's: Kees Klok

Originally published in Dutch in Griekenland Magazine, spring 2017.


vrijdag 7 april 2017

Cyprus: the state of affairs (1)

The Green Line, the UN buffer zone that splits Nicosia, the only segregated city in Europe, in two is quite a bit older than the Berlin Wall, which fell after twenty eight years. The Green Line already celebrated its forty-second birthday. It seems as if in the meantime another, temporary, barrier has emerged. On the edge of the historic centre, which lies within the ramparts built by the Venetians, work is going on to reconstruct the Platia Elefteria, the square which gives access to the famous Ledrastreet, leading to a checkpoint through which you are able to go the northern part of the city where the Turkish Cypriots rule. For years, it was virtually impossible for Cypriots to cross the Green Line, but that did change in 2003. Today, there are quite a few Turkish Cypriots working in the free area, as the part of Cyprus not conquered after the Turkish invasion in 1974, is called by the Greek Cypriots. The North calls itself "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus", a country that has been recognised only by Turkey, which has deployed an army of nearly forty thousand men in the area. It is in fact the only territory of an EU member state which is occupied by another country.

Shock therapy

The huge building site proves that the reconstruction of the square is tackled on a grande scale. Something you would not expect in a country that has been hit hard by the euro crisis. For a long time Cyprus balanced on the brink of bankruptcy. For too long, according to Dr. Andreas Charalambous, the man responsible for maintaining financial stability at the Ministry of Finance. According to him, the government in office at the time the crisis broke out waited too long to ask for emergency aid, due to a number of reasons. The most important of them an imbalance in the real estate market, and particularly the high proportion of Greek sovereign debt in which Cypriot banks were involved. By waiting too long to ask for aid, the financial situation worsened unnecessarily, which eventually led to a "shock therapy". Savers and depositors lost a large part of their assets above a limit of one hundred thousand euros to save the country from bankruptcy. Cyprus also had to subject itself to the regime of a "troika" of the IMF and the EU, in return for financial aid, which meant cuts on spending and a consequent rise in unemployment.

Bustling activity

With the images of the havoc the crisis causes in Greece on my mind, the bustling activity in Nicosia is surprising. Yes, there are empty shops and during my stay I have also seen one elderly woman begging, but you do not see streets with almost nothing but empty commercial properties and the poverty and deterioration noticeable in some areas of Athens is absent. Dr. Charalambous explains that the aid programme has now come to an end, that Cyprus is able to borrow from the financial markets again and that the country is trying to attract new investors. In the last quarter of 2015, some economic growth already returned. The government, he remarks, strictly implemented the measures demanded by the troika. It was also important that there was hardly any violent opposition or social unrest, like in Greece. Work is underway to strengthen the position of banks and prudent handling of public finances remains necessary because, although there is economic growth again, the country is not yet out of the crisis. His opinion is shared by the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Phidias K. Pilides and its Secretary General, Marios Tsiakkis. They emphasise the importance of innovation in medicine, technology and education. In some sectors, such as construction and retail, the recovery is relatively slow. Shipping and tourism, however, are powerful engines for the economy. Tourism is experiencing an unprecedented growth, with 20% more visitors this year. The sector seems to benefit from the unrest in neighbouring countries, such as Egypt and Turkey.


Although the clouds over the economy seem to be drifting off, it will still be a while before we'll see the bright blue sky again, so typical for Cyprus. Future economic growth also depends on developments in the eurozone and the situation in the region. There is uncertainty about the Brexit. According to Mr. Pilides Cyprus is among the top four countries that will feel the impact of a British withdrawal from the EU, though the consequences are not yet predictable. A devaluation of the British pound, as a result of the Brexit can negatively effect tourism and will be bad for the exports. By contrast, the imports from the UK will become cheaper. Dr. Charalambous believes that the effects of a Brexit will largely depend on how Europe will cope with it and if it can maintain confidence in the euro. For Cyprus it is of prime importance to focus on keeping the budget balanced for the time being, which forces the government to set priorities.

Illicit trafficking

"We are trying to do more with less," says Dr. Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou, director of the Department of Antiquities. As a result of the crisis the department, essential in preserving the Cypriot cultural heritage, also had to deal with significant cutbacks in expenditure. However that was no reason to sit by and do nothing. The department undertakes numerous activities, despite an inevitable reduction in the number of staff. "Every Mediterranean country has sun, sea and beaches, but it distinguishes itself as unique by its culture," she argues. Digitalising the archives has priority. This is especially important to intensify the fight against illicit trafficking of archaeological finds. Not only a lot of steeling and looting went on during the Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation of the North, but it also takes place in neighbouring countries, due to war and violence. In fighting illicit trafficking Cyprus cooperates with many countries in and outside the EU.

Cooperation and preservation

Another important activity of the department is to facilitate access to museums and sites for people with disabilities. Information materials are also made available in braille and in large print for the visually impaired. The information on monuments and archaeological sites is available in braille too. In Kourion and Paphos golf cars were purchased for visitors who have difficulties in walking. Guides are specially trained to show people with disabilities around. Furthermore, the department is working on new exhibitions, like in the near future at Amathus on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the French Archaeological School. Publications appear in more languages than Greek and English, and with EU support management plans are drawn up for areas which are on the World Heritage List of UNESCO, as Chirokitia. The department aims to promote understanding of its work among the general public, so it will no longer be seen as a 'hostile' organisation that keeps an awkward finger in the pie in housing construction and infrastructural projects. Through a Technical Committee for cooperation in the preservation of the cultural heritage, it works together with the Turkish Cypriots to secure as much as possible the conservation of antiques in the occupied territory, though this is yet limited to unmovable property and monuments. Of course, the department is also involved in preserving recent finds, including Roman mosaics, almost certainly part of a bathhouse, one found during sewer work in Larnaka the other in Akaki.

That heritage conservation is not only of scientific interest, but also of economic, for example because it attracts tourists, goes without saying. Cyprus appears well on way to recovery from the consequences of the crisis. However, one difficulty still remains: the question how to solve the problem of the tragic division of the island.

Published in Dutch in Griekenland Magazine, winter 2016.

Photo's: Kees Klok