GRADUATE STUDENT FIELD NOTE: COFFEE AND CONFLICT IN CYPRUS
by Catriona Standfield, PhD Candidate, Political Science
I learned about conflict intractability from a demitasse of coffee in Cyprus in 2012. Cyprus, an island off the western coast of Turkey with an ethnically Greek majority, is a divided country. The Greek Cypriot area – the Republic of Cyprus – is confined to the south. The north, which Turkey invaded as a response to inter-communal violence in 1974, has declared itself the ‘Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.’ When you cross the UN-controlled buffer zone between the two at one of the checkpoints in downtown Nicosia, it is necessary for an outsider like me to shift my language to avoid giving offence. Accordingly, I learned quickly that to ask for a cup of Turkish coffee in the Greek south was a faux-pas. Ditto for ‘Turkish’ Delight and for many of the other common foods and beverages on the island.
My visit to Cyprus was my first to a country technically in conflict. In Cyprus, however, the conflict is ‘frozen’ and has remained that way with little of either regression or progress since the late 1970s. While Cypriots do not ordinarily have to fear for their lives, I learned that the conflict is nevertheless pervasive. It weighs heavily on how Cypriots on both sides see themselves and each other. How one orders coffee in Nicosia is just a small part of it.
There are very high levels of mistrust between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The violent conflict and years of effective segregation have led to widely differing interpretations of history and a tendency to blame the other side for all of one’s misfortunes. It has also led to a cultural and linguistic chasm: where once both communities spoke a common dialect of Cypriot Greek as well as their own tongues, they are now unable to speak to each other unless they communicate in English. The huge transfer of conservative Muslims from Turkey into fairly secular Turkish Cypriot communities has also wrought dramatic demographic and cultural change.
Depending on where they live, most young Cypriots have probably never met someone from the other side. All they might know is what they have been told by their parents and at school, which is often divisive and dehumanizing. An acquaintance told me that his three-year-old son learned at his southern kin-dergarten that ‘Cyprus is Greek.’ Opinion polls indicate that many people are fearful of what would happen if the two communities had to live and work together once more. The status quo of separation is not ideal, but for many people it offers a stability that is prized after the turmoil of conflict.
The UN has been trying for years to get both sides to agree to reunify the country. I was in Cyprus as an intern for the UN’s chief mediator and my remit was to research measures for promoting the inclusion of Cypriot women in the peace process. Before visiting Cyprus I had spent 6 months on research and had come up with some recommendations. Talking to people in Cyprus gave me a new perspective on the problem and led me to believe that the talks in their current form (which are still dragging on) are unlikely to ever be suited to the kind of inclusive dialogue needed in Cyprus. The Security Council decided years ago that the solution to the conflict would be a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Any UN-sponsored talks, therefore, have a foregone conclusion that Cypriots did not choose. Moreover, rather than using the peace process as an opportunity to transform gender and ethnic relations, the considerable interplay between gender inequality and the conflict is ignored, and reconciliation between Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots is not seen as a necessary condition for a settlement.
There is a fitting metaphor for the prospects for peace in Cyprus that can be found in the buffer zone. The old Nicosia International Airport became a part of the zone during the war and has largely fallen into disrepair, apart from some UN helicopters. Weeds grow through the cracks in the tarmac. On the old runway sits a rusted-out Cyprus Airways passenger plane. It was once scheduled for takeoff but remained grounded because of the Turkish invasion. It has quietly moldered away ever since, its paint fading and flaking off in the sun.
The peace talks will continue to molder until the UN decides to give up or radically changes tack. I’m not sure how likely either of those outcomes is. It is most likely that Cyprus will remain one of the quietest and most intractable conflicts in the world. The best we can hope for at this stage is that we will learn lessons from it and improve the future practice of conflict resolution.