First the pandemic, now the price crisis have been increasingly pushing the Greek and Turkish communities of Cyprus to cross the de facto boundaries that divide them and to interact, despite the persistence of prejudices and mutual distrust. A reportage from the island
August evening in Nicosia, humid and hot. It is almost 8 and already dark. You can either love or hate the Cypriot summer – its long, exhaustingly bright days of suffocating heat melt into scarlet sunsets, early and fleeting.
At the end of Democratias avenue, a long line of cars has formed towards the check point of Ayios Dhometios, one of the entrances to the Turkish part of the island through the area of Metehan. Andreas is waiting patiently behind the wheel. He is not in a rush, after all. Joined by two friends, he is passing to the other side to attend a drag racing. In exchange for a low fee, they can enjoy a fair share of adrenaline watching automobiles competing at a breathtaking speed.
Approaching the control point, grim-faced police officers look carefully at the passengers inside the car while checking their documents. Brief questions over the purpose of the visit are not uncommon. Straight ahead, a sign in Turkish reading hosgeldiniz (‘welcome’) marks the point where cosmopolitan ‘Nicosia’ starts looking more like ‘Lefkosa’.
“Why do I have to show a passport to cross my own country? Isn’t this absurd? It is like recognising the existence of another state inside your state. I will never accept that”, says Andreas as he reaches to get his ID and car insurance.
Muttering in Turkish, the police officer hands him a stamped paper that Andreas will then have to present again on his way back.
A few kilometres down the road, the dynamics of the urban landscape speak of a different cultural zone. Mediterranean aesthetics merge with orientalist elements in the busy streets of traditional neighbourhoods reminding of a typical Turkish town.
The open-air venue where the races are taking place is crowded with people. They park their car and find a place at the top deck. Greek and Turkish phrases are heard all over the place through the loud music. The show is impressive. The three friends take videos and photos that will not be posted on the social media. Everyone present knows that.
The cars compete in pairs, regardless of drivers’ ethnicity. This is perhaps the only occasion where one can see Greek Cypriots cheering for a Turkish Cypriot driver and vice versa. Young men shouting the name of a ‘Stelyo’ on the first round put the same zeal into encouraging a ‘Kemal’ on the second round. No ethnicity, no politics; only fast cars.
Andreas and his friends do not believe in reconciliation. As far as they are concerned, Greeks and Turks cannot be friends. What brings them to the northern part is the opportunity to have fun without spending a fortune.
Family budget over politics
In the last months, the impact of the energy crisis on the local economy has been strongly felt. Rising prices in goods, rent, and fuels have lured more Greek-Cypriots to benefit from the falling rate of the Turkish lira on the other side.
“In Nicosia, I need at least 120 Euros to gas up my car, but here it takes me a maximum of 80 Euros”, says Yiannos, a taxi driver who crosses the checkpoints several times per month, depending on customers’ needs. “A pack of cigarettes is one third of the average price in our part. All basic things like milk, bread, even clothes, cost much less”.
Some residents go one step further. Eleni, a tour operator based in Paphos, explains how the current economic situation has also favoured a type of gambling based on the fluctuating exchange rates of the Turkish lira.
“I know people who buy liras when the rate is low and exchange them for Euros when the price goes up. It is risky, but, depending on the amount of money exchanged, one can even earn an extra income every month”, says Eleni.
Passing to the Northern part seeking cheaper goods and services is not a new trend. This phenomenon existed long before the energy crisis and actually increased during the pandemic. According to the Observatory of retail prices of 95 octane petrol, motor oil, and heating oil of the Cyprus Consumers' Association, fuel purchases from Northern Cyprus for the year 2019 had reached the exorbitant amount of 162 million Euros. This translates into a 18.51% increase in the purchase of 95 octane gasoline compared to 2018.
Recent figures provided by the local Statistics Agency show how this tendency mirrors on the Greek-Cypriot economy. In June 2022 only, in the areas adjacent to check points, there was a 35-40% reduction in the sales of petroleum products compared to June 2021.
Local politicians and business-people appeal to people’s sense of patriotism to mitigate the phenomenon. In Cyprus, economy and morality go hand in hand. Every consumer’s choice is weighed and judged by others in terms of ethos, patriotism, and religion. However, amid skyrocketing prices, many prioritise daily survival over idealism. Mario, father of two, is among them.
“Some say that we are betraying our values by coming here. I don’t know about the others, but all I am trying to do is save money for my children. Isn’t family an important value, after all?”
Mario’ family is originally from Kerynia/Girne, a picturesque city on a harbor, now (in)famous for its luxurious casino-hotels that attract tourists from all over the world and certainly from Turkey, the country of a once thriving casino scene, where gambling has been prohibited as a highly immoral practice.
Eyebrows were raised in Asya’s family too when she decided to pursue a job in the southern part of the island. She is one of the many Turkish Cypriots who cross the border each day to work for significantly higher salaries than they would get in their city.
Is this peace-building?
Reconciliation in Cyprus has a long and bitter story. Throughout the years, the EU has provided strong support to civil society organisations and academia from both sides aspiring to promote peace on the island. In this context, there have been significant efforts in bringing the two communities together. Even the opening of crossings across the UN buffer zone in 2003 was to a great extent a development rooted in organised actions of joint pressure groups that lobbied for the need to have bi-communal activities and dialogue.
In recent years, civil society activists have created and sustained peace-building projects such as the Home for Cooperation , opened in 2011, or the The Base by CyprusInno , established in 2020. Located in the UN Buffer Zone of Nicosia, these initiatives bring the two communities together – the former through arts, research, and education; the latter via entrepreneurship, one of the most promising fields that could even reverse the effect of brain-drain on the island. What is unique about the ‘Base’ is that it was launched as the world's first Social Impact Generator and first space of its kind in a demilitarised zone.
Despite the international appraisal for their work, people involved in these projects share that prejudice and distrust still exists at home. However, could the work of peace-builders on the island be paradoxically assisted by the current economy? The financial pressure caused by two major humanitarian crises in a short period of time has boosted mobility among the two communities, even if the main drive behind this phenomenon has been pragmatic rather than idealistic.
Could informal activities that are usually swept under the carpet eventually have a reconciling effect on the two communities? The drag race was neither a peace-building, nor a typically ‘bi-communal’ activity. It succeeded, however, in bringing together people who, under other circumstances, would probably not join a purposeful activity launched by a civil society organisation or an international peacekeeping body. The value added is that the people involved were united in celebration.
In other words, in parallel with organised efforts to establish dialogue in big plenary rooms, festivals, and workshops, there is a type of ‘underground reconciliation’ on the island that often goes unnoticed, or even looked down upon, because it takes place at gas stations, casinos, car races, and other ‘inappropriate’ places. This type of reconciliation may be rooted in the need for daily survival, yet it could eventually lead to long-term prosperity for the entire island.
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