By Constantina Mirtzani, Analyst KEDISA
The Cyprus dispute began as an ethnic conflict after inter-communal violence spread out between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The so-called Cyprus dispute has been a challenge for the international community for several years since the first intercommunal fighting started in 1963. Many international actors, including UN representatives, the US, the UK and the EU have failed to mediate a solution that would settle the differences between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots living on the island. Since 1975, there have been at least fifteen official diplomatic interventions attempting to settle the Cyprus conflict , although none have been successful.
Despite the numerous peacebuilding efforts on the official level the differences of the two groups have not been bridged and the northern part remains under de-facto partition. However, if so many diplomatic efforts have been attempted, why is the Cyprus issue ‘’frozen’’? To answer this question, one needs to look at the people of Cyprus and the political efforts involving them.
After examining the different diplomatic efforts, many academics have drawn the conclusion that the politicians have kept the citizens out of the peace process. The societies’ disengagement from the negotiation process contributes to the repeated failure of the joint talks . Negotiators in Cyprus have repeatedly operated on the assumption that signing an agreement is synonymous with solving a conflict, failing to directly involve the citizens. Political elites have often justified this exclusive negotiating style with the fact that a closed-door approach allows for ‘’greater flexibility and openness to compromise’’ .
Nevertheless, forty years of a closed-door approach yielding such poor results should be enough evidence that the time has come to rethink the approach. This disengagement of the citizens has led to apathy and disinterest in the current negotiations. When the citizens are not part of the peacebuilding and the politicians keep promoting nationalism then the perceptions of fear and suspicion of the other will be maintained. In that case, even if an agreement is reached it will be extremely hard to be implemented. In Cyprus, civil society is a new and emerging concept which only recently entered the public discourse. In contrast to the pessimistic situation on the political level, in recent years there has been significant progress in bringing the citizens from the two communities together through the actions of various intercommunal projects and peace organizations.
This emergence of a cohesive civil society in Cyprus that could potentially address the democratic deficit is only a recent phenomenon and has traditionally had a low impact on the formal peace process . The existence of numerous peace organizations despite their low impact, such as the Cyprus Dialogue Forum and the Unite Cyprus Now, demonstrates the need to include local actors and make them the architects of peace . In fact, participatory approaches remain one of the only untried methods for unlocking the Cyprus stalemate.
Consequently, more could be done to increase the impact of civil society and empower the citizens of Cyprus. More specifically, there needs to be an emphasis on reconciliation activities. This is especially needed in Cyprus because the two ethnic groups have been partitioned for decades and have lost trust. When a traumatic experience, like the events that shaped the Cyprus dispute, is shared by an entire society it is defined as ‘’collective trauma’’ . Acknowledgement of justice issues of the past and reconciliation would encourage both communities to combine their collective memories and create a shared collective . The problem with the Cyprus conflict is that although each community is telling its narrative, the other community does not have the will to listen.
An example of an activity that can lead to reconciliation is digital storytelling. This is a method of telling personal stories using low-cost digital media tools. They are typically stories of personal relevance – transcendence, transformation and change – of people or events that have made a difference in their lives .There is a sense of empowerment arising from active listening to others and being genuinely heard by others. Furthermore, there needs to be an emphasis on the youth. Understanding young people’s mindsets and the lens through which they view the peace talks is a necessary prelude to setting in place the kind of initiatives for understanding and transforming traditional positions. This objective could be achieved through the education sector with the inclusion of bi-communal activities. This becomes of vital importance as in Cyprus, schools have traditionally been used for nationalistic and ethnocentric propaganda, thus preparing young people for a segregated life by promoting negative narratives.
To conclude, grassroots efforts can bring the two communities together and work for reconciliation aiming to re-frame the conflict and the existing perceptions that were constructed due to competing nationalisms. Because of the numerous challenges, this can be achieved through support for reconciliation activities, an emphasis on reconciliation activities that are targeted in the youth and the address of crucial justice issues by the political system. The prospects for a negotiated resolution today look incredibly bleak, which proves the need for civil society and grassroots initiatives to create the preconditions for peace.
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