A turbulent path to peace in Cyprus
By Iosif Kovras, 13 January 2010
The peace process in Cyprus has entered into the most critical phase with the direct
negotiations between the leaders of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities,
namely Dimitris Christofias and Mehmet Ali Talat. Still, a number of incidents that recently
took place in the Republic of Cyprus have attracted the lion’s share of public attention. The
desecration of the grave of former President of the Republic, Tassos Papadopoulos, just one
night before the first anniversary of his death (10 December), shocked the public opinion in
both communities. That was followed by the lowering of the Greek flag –the Cypriot flag
remained untouched – at Papadopoulos’ grave on the 8th of January 2010, while the flags at
the grave of the second President of the Republic, Spyros Kyprianou were also lowered and
burnt two days afterwards. Furthermore, the next day, Andis Hadjicostis, the director of
‘Sigma’ – the biggest media group in Cyprus -- was murdered in cold blood in central Nicosia.
Unlike the experience of other post-conflict societies where low-scale violent incidents
sporadically occur even after a peace settlement (e.g. Northern Ireland; the activity of ETA in
Spain etc), in Cyprus the post-1974 period was characterized by the lack of any substantial
inter-communal (political) violence. In fact, even after the opening of the checkpoints in
2003, since when thousands of visitors have crossed the line, there was hardly any
provocative or violent episode, disproving the fears of the political elites in both
communities. Therefore, the recent incidents have taken by surprise both the political elites
and the society at large, at a particularly critical juncture for the outcome of the
The negotiation between the two leaders is taking place under high pressure. The numerous
unsuccessful efforts to resolve the Cyprus problem over the last 30 years have cultivated a
cynical audience with pessimistic attitude over the outcome. Equally, pragmatic concerns
put extra pressure to the negotiating table, primarily because of the elections that are
scheduled for April 2010 in the Turkish-Cypriot community, where the opinion polls reveal
that Talat retains only marginal possibilities of being re-elected. Consequently, the latest
incidents only intensify the contradictory signs for the outcome of the negotiations.
It remains unknown whether these incidents are politically driven or whether there is any
thread linking these events. In fact, the most prominent analysts attribute these atrocious
acts to new trends of crime in Cyprus and downplay the possibility of political incentives.
However, it is a common pattern in societies emerging from conflict the translation of
violent acts in political terms. Several explanations have been published in the papers,
ranging from conspiracy theories involving foreign intelligence services to provocative acts
by the ’Other’ side.
Our study (with Neophytos Loizides) forthcoming in Nations and Nationalism illustrates that
societies have the capability to ‘learn’ from previous painful experiences even when learning
might be seen as partial or incomplete. More precisely, the painful experience of fratricidal
violence within the Greek-Cypriot community (1955-1974), became the central lesson of the
transition to democracy: intra-communal violence was identified as the primary root-cause
of the de-facto division of the island since 1974. Therefore, according to this reading any
potential act of political violence (verbal of physical) is being exorcized as something that
inhibits the primary objective of the Greek-Cypriot community, namely the reunification of
the island. It is not a mere coincidence that the recent incidents have been unanimously
condemned by all political parties even though there have been no declared political
motivations behind these acts, confirming this developed sensitivity of the Greek-Cypriot
society over political violence.
Another interesting aspect of our analysis focuses on the great symbolic capital of the dead
body in post conflict-settings. Symbols such as the remains of missing persons, can take on
powerful meanings in societies with disappeared persons. In some conflicts, the dead body
can become a symbol for encouraging reconciliation and truth recovery, as has been the
case in Cyprus in recent years, while in other situations it can mobilize radicalism.
The retrieval of bodies of missing persons buried in mass graves in Cyprus remains one of
the most sensitive aspects of the conflict. The Committee for Missing Persons has become
one of the most successful bi-communal projects in Cyprus since it resumed its activities in
2004. It has identified and returned several bodies to their families, increasing levels of trust
between the two sides in the conflict. A new bi-communal group has also emerged,
providing a forum for victims and relatives from both sides to share their experiences.
In some situations, dead bodies can be extremely powerful symbols in terms of mobilising
radicalisation. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the televised exhumations and
reburials of World War Two genocide victims was a critical factor in the revitalisation of
Serbian nationalism. The extent to which recent events in Cyprus will stir up new passions or
simply alienate the public from the peace process remains to be seen.
The recent wave of violent incidents – although possibly not related to political violence --
could compromise progress in the negotiations, especially as leaders have agreed to
intensify negotiations over the next few weeks.
Iosif Kovras is a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast. His article co-authored with
Neophytos Loizides is forthcoming in Nations and Nationalism. An early version of the
article can be downloaded in http://works.bepress.com/iosif_kovras/