By Agnieszka Rakoczy
RECENT media reports that the government may have been intentionally blocking promised international financial grants to two Nicosia-based NGOs dedicated to promoting and strengthening relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are justified, according to Sunday Mail sources.
Three EFTA (European Free Trade Association) countries, staunch supporters over the years of practical measures to enhance intercommunal dialogue, have faced bureaucratic roadblocks and obfuscation for almost a year preventing them from fulfilling funding commitments vital to the sustainability of the activities of the NGOs in question. Some would-be beneficiaries suspect the roadblocks may even be politically motivated.
Reports that there are issues with the EEA/Norway grants have been confirmed to the Sunday Mail by both the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research (AHDR) and its offshoot the Home 4 Cooperation (H4C), as well as by the Centre for Visual Arts Research (CVAR). All are Nicosia based and active proponents of bicommunal activities.
“We have heard there are some difficulties and the negotiations about the grants have not been finalised yet,” Kyriakos Pachoulides, the AHDR co-director and H4C board member told the Sunday Mail.
“But the government of Cyprus hasn’t contacted us so we don’t know any details.”
CVAR founder and director Rita Severis puts it more bluntly: “They [government] say ‘you are not sustainable and you will never be sustainable so we would rather give money to other projects that will produce money’…
“Sustainable! We are a museum! There is no museum in the world nowadays that is sustainable. Effectively, this means they want us to shut down. I told this to them directly but haven’t received any reaction…”
Both AHDR/H4C and CVAR are leaders in their respective fields and in the forefront of fostering bicommunal relations on the island.
Established in 2003, the AHDR focuses on providing educators, historians and researchers from both sides of the divide opportunities to become better equipped to handle the complexities of Cypriot history teaching. Its brainchild H4C is a community centre, located in the Ledra Palace buffer zone, mid-way between the crossing checkpoints. It hosts an extensive variety of cultural, artistic and educational programmes which have proven to be popular on both sides of the divide.
“Since we opened we have reached a lot of people,” Evren Inancoglu, a member of the AHDR/H4C boards told the Sunday Mail.
“I think our H4C Thursday night concerts, our regular old Nicosia walking tours and a variety of cultural and language courses have made a real difference. Thanks to them, many people not only crossed to the other side but also became friends… Our aim is not to preach to the ones who are already converted but to reach those who don’t know the other… this is what we are focusing on…”
CVAR, established in 2014, in Ermou Street in the heart of the walled city, hosts the Costas & Rita Severis collection. This unique archive consists of more than 1,500 works of art by foreign artists who visited and travelled around Cyprus between the 18th and 20th centuries. The museum features Cypriot memorabilia and costumes along with a vast library of books on the history, art and culture of Cyprus. The centre organises all kinds of activities promoting bicommunal understanding including museum tours for schools.
“We are the only bicommunal museum on the island,” Severis says proudly. “All our art works are labelled not only in Greek but in Turkish. Our board is not only bicommunal — it is multicommunal. We have close cooperation with Turkish Cypriot NGOS…”
Severis points out how in less than three years CVAR organised more than 150 events reaching over 45,000 people. “The collection has had almost 7,000 visitors and we have run museum tours for about 6,000 kids,” she said.
Both AHDR/H4C and CVAR have benefited from EEA/Norway grants in the past. In the case of H4C, a grant of 750,000 euros was awarded to help restore the building in the Ledra Palace crossing that now houses the NGO. Subsequently, 650,000 euros was allocated to help develop and promote H4C’s impressive range of community-embracing activities. CVAR also was granted 630,000 euros to help meet the renovation costs of the old factory in Ermou where the museum now stands.
When the Sunday Mail asked Norway’s Foreign Ministry about Oslo’s support and commitment to the two NGOs, officials responded tactfully: “The position of the donors is that both projects are important institutions for bi-communal activity that actively promote normalisation between the two parts of the island. (…)
“The donors strongly encourage the development of bi-communal relations in our cooperation. We would like to point out, however, that only the RoC [government] is entitled to receive EEA & Norway Grants. Donors wish to ensure that the populations on either side of the dividing line benefit from this fund.”
CVAR’s Severis and H4C’s Pachoulides are a bit more forthcoming with details:
“We had several visits from the donors and they appreciated what we were doing,” recalls Severis. “They said we exceeded their expectations and were doing very well. They said they wanted to help us to sustain ourselves in the coming years.”
AHDR/H4C received similar reviews, according to Pachoulides. “The donors understand very well that projects like ours cannot be 100 per cent sustainable but when they learned that we were earning up to 70 per cent of our budget ourselves they were impressed. They said that similar organisations in their countries seldom earn more than 40 per cent.”
Last year, the donors approached both CVAR and AHDR/H4C and suggested they should submit proposals for new projects. However, the generous offer was not endorsed by a similar request or follow-up from the government, a sign that the projects in question might lack official favour, or so some believe.
The Sunday Mail asked the ministry of finance here if there was any truth in suggestions that the government is opposed to EEA/Norway money going to the two NGOs. The Directorate General of European Programmes, Coordination and Development, which is the ministry’s focal point responsible for managing the funds, responded:
“The government of the Republic of Cyprus is not opposing the granting of funds to the H4C and the CVAR projects. Both projects have received large amounts from funded programmes in the previous programming periods, not only from the EEA/Norway Grants but also from other donors, with the understanding that, on completion, they would become financially self-sustaining — although it is understandable that unforeseen circumstances might have affected the Projects’ viability.”
The statement did note concerns expressed by the government “about commercial activities that have been included in the request for funds, which are deemed to distort competition and consequently fall within state-aid rules constraints.”
Pachoulides shakes his head when asked what commercial activities AHDR/H4C runs that might prevent it from getting EEA grants.
“To be honest, this is the first time I have heard about it. I don’t have any clear idea what they mean. We run a café at H4C but we don’t ask for any funding for it.”
If the official attitude is as they claim, he finds it somewhat controversial. “On the one hand they are concerned about our sustainability but on the other hand if they question our café, what kind of sustainability do they have in mind?” Bewildered and mildly irritated, he wonders, “do they want us to plant a tree that grows euros?”
In the case of CVAR, the “commercial activities” referred to by the DGEPCD’s statement might have something to do with a restaurant that until recently operated next to the museum. However, Severis is adamant too that no funding has ever been directed towards it.
“The restaurant has been always supported by our private money. We were hoping that it would eventually start bringing profit and help the museum survive but unfortunately it didn’t work out. So we closed it. Now we only have a cafeteria and this also funded by the family. It has nothing to do with the grants.”
The seeming contradictory muffled clarifications of officialdom added to what many see as an unnecessarily drawn out process. This has led some civil society peace and unity activists to speculate about what lies behind what they deem to be an unnecessarily protracted and non-transparent process. Could it be, they wonder, that the government doesn’t want the EEA/Norway grant funding of the AHDR/H4C and CVAR because of the significant role both play in the bicommunal movement.
They cite other examples of recent inflexibility on the part of the authorities as evidence supporting their suspicions and claims. For instance, they point to a letter sent to all Greek Cypriot bicommunal technical committee members asking that they refrain from engaging in any form of cooperation after the collapse of talks in Crans-Montana.
Another directive causing concern is the demand by the foreign ministry that ambassadors not attend events in the north of Nicosia’s Bedestan, a Gothic church site renovated by UNDP using EU funds, that is often used for cultural and bicommunal events.
Severis subscribes to the belief that at bottom there is reason to suggest that the authorities have gone cool on all things bicommunal.
“The word that came to us is that it is about our bicommunality and yes, it is possible. What strengthens such a suspicion is that when we learned there might be problems with the grants, the diplomatic community stood by us and wrote to the government supporting our projects but the authorities didn’t care and ignored the show of support. So if this is the case, if they think that bicommunality has no future, if they don’t want CVAR and H4C to survive, why not tell us as soon as possible so we don’t spend any more time, money or effort…”
the ministry of finance’s DGEPCD takes a very different line than the critics, claiming the projects it supports embrace environmental, health care, cultural and asylum and refugee issues in both urban and rural areas. And it insists that “bicommunality is addressed in most of them, as the services are provided to both communities”.
Moreover, the DGEPCD says negotiations with the EFTA donor group are entering the final stage and an MoU is expected to be signed shortly.
Norway’s foreign ministry, though it declined to comment on details of the negotiation process, indicated that the talks are coming to conclusion, It did assure the Sunday Mail that “a range of other projects will have a bi-communal dimension”.
Since its entry into the European Union in 2004, the Republic of Cyprus, along with 14 other EU states, has been a recipient of EEA and Norwegian Financial Mechanism grants. These come from Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway. To date, Cyprus has received about 12 million euros from these funds which exist to reduce economic and social disparities within the EU and to strengthen bilateral relations.
Projects funded by Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway in Cyprus range from construction of a new shelter for the victims of domestic violence to strengthening the anti-money laundering body Mokas. A big chunk is also directed towards fostering bicommunal relations.
At present, the RoC government is negotiating a new agreement that would make Nicosia a beneficiary of another 11.5 million euros.
Whether AHDR/H4C and CVAR will be included remains to be seen.