NICOSIA, Cyprus -- When Cyprus banking system imploded last month, dooming the country to economic contraction and years of depression, Turkish Cypriots who dominate the northern part of the island had a distinctly more upbeat reaction than the Greek Cypriots who dominate the south.
Where Greek Cypriots saw only despair as many as 10,000 businesses are expected to close, driving unemployment beyond anywhere else in Europe Turkish Cypriots saw a moment of opportunity that might lead to economic cooperation and eventually a political breakthrough.
Cyprus has been ruled by two different governments since the Turkish army invaded the island in 1974. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, comprising mostly Muslim Turkish Cypriots and settlers from mainland Turkey, is recognized only by Turkey, while the Republic of Cyprus, where the Greek Orthodox Church has long played an outsize role in politics, is a member of the European Union. A fence and buffer zone patrolled by U.N. peacekeeping forces still separate the two. Nicosias once-famed hotel, the Ledra Palace, lies in the buffer zone; it now houses U.N. troops.
Cypriots and foreigners, other than Turks from Turkey, can walk across the green line dividing the two communities in Nicosia after showing identity papers or passports. A visitor flying into Ercan, the bustling Turkish Cypriot airport north of Nicosia, can taxi to a hotel in the south provided the driver is 39 years old or older; that is, born before the invasion, and can prove he was born on the island.
Unemployment is low in north Cyprus, thanks to Turkish government subsidies of the public sector, but per capita income is less than half that of the Republic of Cyprus. And after decades of living in near-pariah status -- the south has blocked from its ports and airports, from international recognition and from EU trade -- the mood is one of: nowhere to go but up.
Still, with air links only to Turkey and no acceptance anywhere else, it is an open prison, said Gunay Cerkez, president of the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce. We cannot continue on this path forever. Either we identify and adopt a federal system or we should accept separate states, he told McClatchy.
Whether this is the right moment is the question.
No one knows if Greek Cypriots, who number 860,000 by a CIA estimate, are ready to abandon their romantic quest for a permanent link with Greece in favor of an island identity with an autonomous Turkish sector that would have about 200,000 residents.
Theres no question that Turkish Cypriots are ready for a deal. Lying just 70 miles from mainland Turkey mainland Greece is 700 miles away Turkish Cyprus has a scenic coast with towering crusader castles, a modest tourist sector, and trades in Turkish liras, rather than the euro, whose adoption by the Greek Cypriots in 2008 opened the way to their economic collapse.
Mehmet Ali Talat, a former president of Northern Cyprus, calls the souths economic collapse unexpected and unwanted and said its likely to be bad news for the Turkish Cypriot economy. But he also sees it as a development that we have to utilize, not just to unify the island but to give Turkish Cypriots international legal status.
Every glimmer of hope is tempered by a harsh reality. Nicos Anastadiades, a Greek Cypriot politician who took over the presidency on the eve of the bank collapse, has signaled that he is determined to make every effort to reach a compromise with Turkish Cypriots. But it could be months before he can take any such initiative assuming the country does not just slip into a bottomless hole . . . that will end up sucking the air out of this government, said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified because he wasnt authorized to speak on the record.