Cyprus Mail
CM Regular Columnist Cyprus Talks Opinion

Cypriot elites and political strangleholds

By Ozay Mehmet and Hermes Solomon

Last week, just ahead of the dawning of the day, a ground mist settled across the Mesaoria (Mesarya) Plain at the foot of the Pendadactylos (BesParmak) Mountains. Not surprisingly, it reflected the lights of conurbations stretching east/west across the valley and into the foothills. Fifteen years ago, reflections were sporadic. Today, they are a unified unbroken swathe.

What does this mean to an early riser viewing the mist from a high-rise in Nicosia – that the north is now forever lost to the ‘new occupier’?

The Cyprus Problem has always been about property, governance being a jealously guarded monopoly of self-serving elites – cliques of influence-peddlers controlling access to jobs and government contracts, collecting unearned income from wheeling and dealing.

At its roots, the Cyprob is a contest between Aghas (Turkish Cypriot version of Zamindars of the British Raj) and the Greek Orthodox church.

It is no accident that the church is the biggest landowner on the island. In Ottoman times, the archbishop was the sultan’s tax-collector, herding the Greek Cypriot peasantry into the fold, preaching the language of the Turkish oppressor while proclaiming loyal obedience to the ruling pasha. Dutifully, the Church delivered tax revenues on time to the Ottoman treasury, but never missed a chance to acquire land from both the dying and the living.

Nowadays, elites milk the system in both zones of the island; politics, like a well-oiled engine, operates on self-serving techniques of wealth acquisition.

The elite commonly use nationalist ideology to control the masses. Wealth acquisition comes from gate-keeping and rent-seeking activities, fixing deals and izins (licences), especially in such quasi-legal sectors as gambling and prostitution, or in the ever-expanding informal (shadow) sectors of health, education and tourism, rigging tenders and procurement in infrastructure and services. The working classes are, by and large, controlled by labour aristocracy, who use unionism as a stepping stone for political rewards. As incomes converge, institutional divergence is widening the gap between the zones.

In the more populous south, self-serving elitism grew out church-imposed conformism to dogma.

Greek Cypriot political space is a fossilised system, highly institutionalised ever since the Makarios U-turn in the early 1960s; conformism brings high rewards while dissent is punishable by banishment from the ‘congregation’.

International recognition effectively sheltered elitism atop a de facto pyramid of unconstitutionality.

From Glafcos Clerides (as provisional leader in 1974) onwards, one elite figure after another sat comfortably in the leader’s chair, wrapping his belly in the Greek flag fully sanctified by the church, parroting time-worn ideology (e.g. Long Struggle, venerating EOKA Heroes) camouflaged discretionary loans (the future NPLs) and fraudulent transactions. Banks doctored accounts, auditors and inland revenue inspectors looked the other way, and crooks got rich faster than Casino-owners in the north.

The Cyprob was put on the back-burner; refugees and their claim over property were left behind, while the Greek Cypriot political elite basked in the glory of “family photos” with world leaders in Brussels, Washington, Paris, London and Moscow, oblivious to the sinking fiscal ship back home.

Past president, George Vassiliou, and his successors fooled themselves into the belief that EU membership would wrest precious concessions out of an insolent Ankara. But they totally misread the real intention of Brussels, which used Greeks (including Greek Cypriots from 2004) as foot-soldiers in a long campaign to keep Turkey out of Europe. Now, with those gates crushing under the weight of a totally unexpected flood of the unwanted and unwashed, Europe is running to Ankara with cries of ‘Help! Help!’

President Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism is destined to die as the EU embraces Turkey to solve its refugee crisis and safeguard its own survival, including energy security via the Southern Corridor.

In the last half century, a Two-State reality has come into being in the north. It simply won’t disappear. Turkey is now increasingly running the show, having given up trying to reform the north’s elite-run system.

With a population (probably) of half a million, and with water imported from the mainland at the rate of 75 million tons a year, express highways, a growing/thriving tourist industry with new five-star hotels everywhere, modern, well equipped universities housing many more foreign students than the south, control of energy resources when extracted by Israel – piping it via an undersea pipeline to Karpaz (Karpasia) and then on to Turkey, thus excluding the equivocal south – the landscape is changing fast.

Following the introduction of irrigated farming, expect half a dozen good-size towns to appear across the now-already burgeoning Meserya (Mesaoria) in the next five years.

The north’s population by 2025 may well reach one million. Denktash’s dream of “Giden Turk, gelen Turk” (Turks exit, Turkish settlers fill their places) is coming true, as settlers and locals intermarry and integrate.

Nothing can stop this demographic transition, a result of market forces, unless Greek Cypriot leaders rush to cut a deal with the current Turkish Cypriot leadership. But if ‘the talks’ dally, Mustafa Akinci faces the real danger of becoming a second Talat at the hands of an ‘unsteady’ Anastassiades. Given failure, the UN will simply walk away and the north will win international recognition with the existing border signifying permanent Taksim (partition), eventually joining the EU under the umbrella of Turkey.

The peace dividend of settling the Cyprob is huge. A United Federal Cyprus would be a critical player in the new and emerging regional energy model, including Israel, Turkey and others. This is the best, and possibly the only feasible alternative business model to the defunct offshore banking model, ushering a new era of shared prosperity for Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

An EU/Greek/Turkish partnership is essential and will take place.

In the final analysis, it all boils down to this question: Will the self-serving elites in Cyprus continue with their political stranglehold, or will the electorate at last stand up and show moral courage for a new Cyprus?

Hermes Solomon is a regular columnist for the Cyprus and Sunday Mail. Ozay Mehmet is distinguished research professor of international affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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