By Costas Apostolides
Over the past two weeks the government has disappointed all those who appreciate that the Green Line Regulations, and the check points that enable crossings and trade across the green line, facilitate the peace process by enabling the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities to interact, socialise and develop trade relations on this divided island.
The government’s actions do not encourage the peace process and give the impression that it is not wholeheartedly supporting such efforts.
A number of actions by the government have disappointed Greek and Turkish Cypriots, at a time when the Turkish Cypriot administration is now controlled by political parties that have long sought a political settlement and have reversed some of the hard line measures of the previous regime (i.e. removed taxes on humanitarian assistance to the enclaved Greek Cypriots and Maronites). At the same time, the UN secretary general has not supported the accusation that Turkey is responsible for the failure of the Crans-Montana UN sponsored talks last year, and there is as yet no new initiative by the UN (assumed to occur in July). So, the Cyprus negotiations are in limbo.
Problems have arisen because of the following actions by the Cyprus government:
- The foreign ministry informed foreign ambassadors in Cyprus that they should not attend the ceremony of the bicommunal heritage technical committee to mark the recently completed renovation of a section the old city walls of Famagusta. This was ignored by all foreign embassies, and the wonderful ceremony took place. Not a good start for the new foreign minister.
- On Thursday the customs department, which comes under the finance minister, announced it was taking measures to stop Greek Cypriots crossing the Green Line and buying cheaper petrol in the north. They also fined some drivers and threatened to seize their cars. This was interpreted as an effort to stop Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot cooperation.
- Faced with severe criticism the customs department later issued a statement clarifying that the measures applied only to traders who were trying to benefit from the lower prices by buying fuel in quantities to sell for profit. The government spokesman then criticised the customs department – as if it were not a part of the government – and confirmed that the measures only related to commercial trade and not to personal-use purchases undertaken north of the Green Line, and that the government did not intend to disrupt movement across the Green Line.
- As if all this was not damaging enough to the government, the displaced Greek Cypriot major of Famagusta, Alexis Galanos, a member of the ruling Disy party, spoke out against the opening of the new, long-delayed, but almost complete, Famagusta checkpoint at Dherynia on the coast. This only further confused the public since Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci had repeatedly committed themselves to the opening of the checkpoint.
- The question everyone then asked about this politically damaging set of events is, who runs the country? And where is the leadership on an issue that is supposed to be the government’s priority? That is strengthening relations between the two communities in Cyprus aided by confidence building measures.
- Given that the government had failed to clarify the situation, Disy leader Averoff Neophytou stepped in and stated that all of the above are the government’s responsibility, and the customs department should not have introduced the new measures without prior approval. His intervention clarified the matter, but the damage to the credibility of the government had been done.
- The Greek Cypriot positioning on the Cyprus issue has been damaged over the last two years by a number of blunders that have damaged the image of the leadership in general. Given that – until recently – Cyprus was supposedly close to a solution, the leadership blundered by stopping Serbian school children and Israeli tourists from crossing the Green Line. It blundered when it allowed, by abstaining from voting, the House of Representatives’ vote for a holiday commemorating the 1950 referendum for union with Greece. It blundered by failing most confidence building measures including telephone connections across the Green Line, by creating difficulties for the highly respected bicommunal committee for cultural heritage, and even stopping the state theatre performances of ancient Greek plays at the magnificent Salamis ancient theatre in northern Cyprus.
- The events of the last week only reinforce the belief that there is no consistency in the Cyprus government’s policy towards improving relations between the two communities, and what is called peace building and peacemaking.
Costas Apostolides is a founder member of Pax Cypria Cyprus institute for Peace