By Serkan Birgel
What do Covid-19, natural gas and halloumi have in common in Cyprus?
In one word: politics. In one phrase: the ‘Cyprus Problem’. The connection might offer a possible respite from the disheartening news of the toll the pandemic exacts on the world, the curious tale of how and why these entities have been related.
At first sight, to place these otherwise wholly separate entities together may – in this case rightly – be seen as a problem of excessive or needless relational thinking. But that is exactly what politics can do, and has done, both in Cyprus and elsewhere. This comes amidst a flurry of debates that have ranged from the nature of contemporary globalisation, to the machinations of neoliberalism, from universal healthcare to the perils of populism and also a renewed recognition of the frailty of the human condition.
A hallmark of the decades-long, intermittent and seemingly intractable settlement talks on the island is that, amidst a situation described as a comfortable conflict, there is an inclination to wait until favourable developments occur that can either strengthen one’s bargaining position, or be used to sustain existing fault-lines and denigrate the opponent.
The discovery of offshore natural gas more than a decade ago now was quickly labelled as a ‘catalyst for peace’. Evidently, it has been anything but. Instead, the process to explore and exploit natural gas, together with the management of any potential wealth generated thereof, rapidly became part and parcel of the island’s established political jockeying.
Less sensationally – yet unsurprisingly – the registration of halloumi/hellim by the Greek Cypriots as a protected designation of origin (PDO) product with the European Commission generated another set of debates linked to issues of sovereignty, recognition and of how Turkish Cypriot producers could further export the product.
Now Covid-19 has entered the fray. The story begins with the closure by the Greek Cypriots of, peculiarly, only four out of seven crossing-points established since 2003. This had been in apprehension of the coronavirus possibly coming from the north, which the Greek Cypriot leader partly justified on the grounds there were ‘3000 Iranian students’ in the north, Iran then being one of the countries worst hit by the virus. Lo and behold, the first reports of the disease came from the south. But the irony was short-lived, with cases emerging in the north traced to a group of German tourists and Turkish Cypriots returning from the United Kingdom.
The closure of the crossing-points between the two sides became subsumed under the general lockdown conditions now in force across the entire island. The closures had initially inflamed certain civil society organisations, for which the mere mention of ‘borders’ is anathema. Protests were held, and demands were made for ‘scientific and joint efforts’. Just exactly what ‘science’ they may have referred to here, juxtaposed with the closure of crossings, lockdowns, social-distancing measures and severe flight restrictions, is unclear. For their part, both the European Union and Turkey have earmarked funds for the Turkish Cypriots to deal with the outbreak.
There is now also a re-emergence of the issue of the quite problematic label of the so-called ‘enclaved’ Greek Cypriots in the Karpaz/Karpasia peninsula where the outbreak has reached.
The general situation on the island mirrors the precarious balancing act governments across the world have had to perform amidst issues of epidemiology, the economy and political concerns. The situation in Cyprus has again generated a debate on cooperation between the two communities in the here and now, yet falls foul of an established paradox of the peace process: solve the Cyprus Problem first, then cooperation can take place.
More so, the type of cooperation envisioned by certain actors may involve – especially for now – only the domain of the public health services, and may not be the silver bullet towards an idealised peace that Cypriots may look for to overturn the established political fault-lines or red-lines. Natural gas as a ‘catalyst for peace’ has thus-far failed, whilst neither expanded mobile phone coverage or electricity inter-connectedness brought about the comprehensive changes some envisioned.
This is certainly not to belittle efforts at cooperation, which should be encouraged all-round. Still, the danger is that cooperation (in whatever form), may only occur in times of crises. Rather than inciting a new normal, the status quo will likely return once the crisis is over. Expectations to elicit wide-scale change from such times should perhaps then be tapered, just as the appeal to more external developments (such as the natural gas development processes in the East Med), should not be solely relied upon to catalyse or sustain a comprehensive solution.
Dr Serkan Birgel is a Turkish Cypriot who grew up in the UK and now works at the Turkish TV channel TRT World in Istanbul