A Bone of Contention


Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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On the divided island of Cyprus, many Turkish Cypriots had been expecting that the end of August would see some major improvements in their lot, with trade and aid promising to kick-start economic growth in their internationally unrecognised state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). But the first trickle of commerce across the Green Line separating them from their Greek Cypriot neighbours was marred by mutual recriminations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot authorities over terms and conditions.

On August 26, the first cargo in 30 years headed south -- a truckload of fish from the TRNC. Yet it was forced to return after the Greek Cypriot authorities claimed that the import contravened EU regulations, which stipulate that animal products are banned from entering the Greek Cypriot-dominated - and internationally recognised -- Republic of Cyprus. To this, Turkish Cypriot officials retorted that the fish originated off the Cypriot coast and could just as well have been caught by Greek Cypriot fishermen. Meanwhile, complaints from the Turkish Cypriot Public Vehicles Enterprise Union about the imposition of conditions and obstacles on drivers heading south have also fanned resentment north of the Green Line.

The argument runs much deeper than the dwelling and movement of fish and trucks, of course. To many Turkish Cypriots, such disputes are seen as the result of a major lack of good will among their southern neighbours, a feeling greatly reinforced back in April by the overwhelming rejection of the last UN plan for reunification by the Greek Cypriots.

For their part, the Greek Cypriots see the attempt to truck fish across the borders as intentionally provocative. Many south of the Green Line would see allowing such trade as a kind of recognition of the status quo - and Turkish control of the north of the island.

The minister of commerce of the Republic of Cyprus, George Lillikas, made this clear in the language as much as the substance of his statement on the trade issue on August 27.

"The restrictions imposed by the occupying regime as regards trade and the movement of goods from the free to the occupied areas as well as the existence of the dividing line are illegal," he said, reiterating the official line of the past 30 years.

The Turkish Cypriots meanwhile continue to wait for an end to international isolation. Greater engagement by the EU with them was to be their reward for approving the UN plan for reunification, with Brussels promising to contribute 259m euros in aid, whilst opening continental Europe to Turkish Cypriot exports. However, these promises have so far largely not been implemented. Legal obstacles have emerged at the implementation stage with the EU Commission and Council of Ministers reportedly disagreeing over the approval process for aid. While the Commission's legal authorities insist that a majority vote of EU members is all that is necessary before assistance can be delivered, Council experts counter that unanimous approval is needed. The latter case would effectively give the Greek Cypriots - now EU members -- a veto over EU aid.

At the same time, such hostility between Greek and Turkish Cypriots runs counter to developments elsewhere between traditional Aegean rivals and Cypriot Big Brothers Greece and Turkey. Rapprochement between these two has led to Greek support for Turkish accession to the EU, alongside a general lessening of tensions.

Yet when it comes to Cyprus, there is little evidence of Greece arm-twisting the Greek Cypriots to take a more reconciliatory attitude to the Turkish Cypriots. Athens' representatives in Brussels endorsed Greek Cypriot efforts to block the opening of direct commercial flights to the TRNC recently, with the argument being that such an initiative might have diffused the resolve of the Turkish Cypriots to unite with the south. Equally, Greece was unwilling, if not unable, to stop the Greek Cypriots from threatening to deploy their veto against aid flowing to the north of the island.

Meanwhile, the announcement by veteran Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktas that he will not run for re-election as president of the TRNC in April next year perhaps demonstrated again how far the Turkish Cypriots have moved from their traditional positions, even if this has not been reciprocated on the Greek Cypriot side.

Gridlock over Cyprus in the past was often attributed to Denktas' uncompromising stance, yet with his condemnation of the UN's reunification plan going against the overwhelming approval of the plan by Turkish Cypriots, he appeared out of touch with his own community. His retirement has also been an unavoidable consequence of dwindling support from Ankara for an uncompromising stance.

One question now is who will step into Denktas' shoes. Many analysts point to Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Talat, a figure who has proven to be more flexible in negotiations than the old veteran.

Meanwhile though, Greek Cypriot President Tassos Papadopolous continues to support a harder line, with little to indicate that he will be in a position to change this in future - particularly since he identified himself so strongly with those opposed to the UN reunification plan. As for the UN itself, it seems unlikely to make any new attempt to bring the sides together during the foreseeable future.

As a result, the prospects for economic development in the Turkish Cypriot north of the island remain uncertain. A danger here is that enthusiasm for reunification amongst the citizens of the TRNC may also begin to flag, with more nationalistic Turkish Cypriots able to come forward again, as perhaps demonstrated by the incidents at the end of August surrounding Greek Cypriot efforts to reopen an orthodox church in the TRNC town of Guzelyurt. There may be some time yet then, before fish caught in one part of the island may be served up without difficulty in another.

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