In Cyprus, a new generation inherits a conflict

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PYLA, Cyprus — Tell a Greek Cypriot that your next destination is the Turkish city of Istanbul, once the seat of empires, and there’s a chance you will be gently chided. “You mean ‘Constantinople,’” the conversation partner might say, referring to the former Byzantine capital, which fell to Ottoman armies in 1453.

This allegiance to the past is tinged with defiance, a stubborn refusal to call a place by the name chosen by the inhabitants of a hostile country. But it is more recent civil strife and war, nearly half a century ago, that infuse the psyche of Cyprus, a Mediterranean island favored by vacationers for its sun and beaches.  

In a strange twist, divided Cyprus has taken on a role meant to unify, this month assuming the rotating presidency of the European Union, a six-month stint that gives it a self-promotional platform even as it scrambles for a multi-billion dollar bailout to support its troubled banks. In another quirk of split-screen Cyprus, it is seeking money from oil-rich Russia, an increasingly important friend, in addition to the EU, as it tries to avoid the austerity measures that would likely come with any European aid.

At the heart of these dueling directions lies the “Cyprus problem,” as it is blandly known.

Talk of a peace settlement between the island’s majority Greek Cypriot community and Turkish Cypriots that would end decades of political uncertainty is giving way to a sense that the problem is, unofficially, the default solution.

“People are simply not interested in any form of power-sharing,” said Yiannis Papadakis, a social anthropologist at the University of Cyprus. “There is a strong denial of this reality.”

Papadakis said the problem is so consuming that it has sapped will on both sides to debate migration, the environment, women’s rights and other important social issues. He questioned whether they can compromise and trust each other if they ever reach a political settlement.

Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004, split into an internationally recognized, Greek-speaking south and a Turkish-speaking north after a 1974 invasion by Turkey, a reaction to a coup attempt by supporters of union with Greece. Travel restrictions between the two sides have relaxed, but negotiations on security and territory foundered. Only Turkey, whose EU candidacy has stalled partly because of the impasse, recognizes the government in the north.

The result is an island that is not quite a nation, with an identity that is the sum of its shards. When George Andreou became the first Cypriot to climb Mount Everest and held up his nation’s flag at the summit in May, it was a reminder of division as well as a symbol of unity.

The flag, designed by a Turkish Cypriot and adopted in 1960 after independence from British rule, shows a map of the whole island and two olive branches, a symbol of peace between communities. But Turkish Cypriots use a flag that is a variation of the star and crescent emblem of Turkey, their patron.

In his rucksack, Andreou, 39, also carried the old flag of his hometown Famagusta, which he and his ethnic Greek family fled ahead of Turkish forces, less than one year after he was born. The climber has never returned to his house in Famagusta, where Turkish Cypriots now live, because he thinks it would help to legitimize Turkish forces based in the northern part of the island.

“It is like I never lived my childhood or I refused to remember,” Andreou wrote in an email. “I know from my parents that they had been very difficult years since we left everything behind, hoping we would go back soon. It never happened. Instead, we lived in houses without doors and windows, in tents, in the fields, anywhere just to stay safe and away from war.”

Days after Andreou, a banker, returned from the Himalayas, his wife gave birth to their first child, who may grow up to discover the same sour politics. The same goes for the 3-year-old daughter of Ahmet Sozen, a Turkish Cypriot research director at Cyprus 2015, a group that seeks to promote joint understanding.

Sozen said the uncertainty goes back to the 1950s, when his father, now 80 years old, was a police officer in a British administration fighting a Greek Cypriot guerrilla group that sought union with Greece.

While today’s stalemate is violence-free, Sozen maintains the ethnic Greek-Turkish divide has a corrosive impact on Cypriot psychology.

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