Beacon of hope glimmers in Cyprus stand-off

Anyone who is confident that 2016 will be the breakthrough year for the Cyprus dispute, one of the world’s oldest and seemingly most insoluble diplomatic problems, would benefit from an hour with Alexis Galanos.

Mr Galanos, 75, is the Greek Cypriot mayor-in-exile of Famagusta, a once thriving port city and tourist resort on the east coast that fell under Turkey’s control after its armed forces invaded Cyprus in 1974.

Launched after a Greek-inspired coup that aimed to unite Cyprus with Greece, the invasion resulted in the island’s division into a Turkish Cypriot north and a Greek Cypriot south. For four decades, most people in the two communities have lived so apart that they might as well be on different planets.

Mr Galanos opposed the last major peace initiative, the so-called Annan plan of 2004. Although he supports the latest, apparently promising effort to reunite Cyprus, he is under no illusions that it will be plain sailing. Alluding to the UN-monitored buffer zone, or Green Line, that separates the two communities, Mr Galanos says: “Most of the walls are not between us but inside us.”

His life story shows that any lasting settlement will require not just sophisticated answers to the various political and legal issues. It will need painful moral adjustments, and a coming to terms with loss, from Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots who each feel themselves victims of historical injustice.

Some 40,000 people, representing the entire Greek Cypriot population of Famagusta and its beach resort of Varosha, fled their homes in 1974 before the Turkish army’s advance. Mr Galanos, a Famagusta native, owned a flour mill there and a biscuit factory where he had installed German machinery to make English biscuits under licence.

Today this factory is in the hands of a settler from Turkey’s Anatolian heartland, as are many properties in Famagusta and the rest of northern Cyprus that were abandoned by local Greek Cypriots. For 35 years, Mr Galanos was too angry and upset to bother visiting Famagusta, even after border crossings on the Green Line were opened in 2003.

Similarly, it has always been an article of faith with the Famagusta refugees that any peace deal must guarantee the return of their property and the restoration of the city’s predominantly Greek Cypriot character.

In practice, this is no longer a realistic hope, says Mr Galanos. “A large number of the original inhabitants have died or emigrated. The number who would like to return is much smaller than the original number of refugees,” he says.

However, if much of Famagusta’s former atmosphere is gone for ever, a peace settlement might inspire foreign as well as Cypriot investors to spend money on sprucing up its medieval Old Town, modernising its port and building a new Varosha. This resort, once one of the Mediterranean’s most fashionable, has been sealed off under Turkish military occupation for almost 42 years and is today a grim, decaying ghost town that will cost billions of euros to renovate.

Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, have held 20 rounds of talks on reunification since last May. They have made progress on the political and judicial structures of a future bi-communal, bi-zonal Cypriot state, but they have left difficult matters such as territorial exchanges and security guarantees until the final stages of the talks.

Ominously or not, one formula that negotiators used in earlier peace attempts is being applied to this effort, too: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

Still, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, summed up the general sense of optimism when he wrote in a report last week to the UN Security Council: “I believe that an agreement is within reach . . . At a time characterised by extreme political volatility, and with a geopolitical situation where societies are ripped apart and in which violence is ever growing, the negotiations to solve this longstanding conflict offer a beacon of hope.”

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