Can Cyprus Buck the Partitionist Trend?

“Everyone in my community is clairvoyant,” a Belfast politician is quoted as saying in Divided Cities, a new book by Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009). “My community knows how evil and devious the other side is going to be even before the other side has thought about being evil and devious.”

Participants in every conflict believe their dispute is unique, especially in cities where divisions reflect old wars, different ethnicities and interests of outside powers. In fact, the Belfast politician could have hailed from any of the apparently disparate situations in Calame and Charleworth’s study — Nicosia, Jerusalem, Beirut, Mostar and Belfast — and inbred, irrational suspicion is just one of many patterns that communities in these cities share.

In the case of Nicosia, there’s plenty of reason to take a deeper look, and not just because of the lessons to be learned from the histories of the other conflicts. Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots are in talks that, over the next year, will decide whether the two divided sides of the Mediterranean island will reunite, or whether, after three decades of keeping the peace and failing to negotiate, they will simply continue the slide to full partition. As this book points out, partition is avoidable, but takes a tremendous effort of will. As for rooting out dividing walls completely, well, nobody seems to have managed to do that yet.

Dividing lines in cities are often surprisingly deep-rooted. In the Cypriot example, Nicosia has been basically divided into northern and southern sections along the same line since Roman times. At first it was the river that used to run through the settlement, which became, in Ottoman times, the division between the southern Christian and northern Muslim quarters. The river has long been diverted and its old route paved over, but, as Hermes and Paphos Streets, it was where the first barricades went up in the mid-1950s, and has hardened into the line we know today.

The authors also show how these divisions are not bolts out of the blue, like the Soviet drive into Europe after the Second World War that ended up in the division of Berlin. It is an “incremental, slow, predictable process” in which physical partition generally comes towards the end. For them a good example of such a build-up is “the tireless plotting of [Greek Cypriot] George Grivas and EOKA in Cyprus” against Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Clearly, the 1974 Turkish invasion played a role, but it came relatively late in the story.

Psychologically, there are patterns too. Since the dawn of time, settlements have put up walls around their houses, chiefly to defend an urban population’s accumulated wealth against outside barbarians. Today’s urban partitions are therefore the great grandchildren of city walls like the remarkable Venetian bastions surrounding old Nicosia — and are close cousins to gated communities, abandoned city cores, racial ghettos or invisible zoning lines for mortgage lending. Walled and partitioned cities are not all bad. They engender a sense of togetherness for the residents involved and helped Greek city states achieve their cultural heights. Some argue that partition may be an attempt to bring a community down to a more manageable size, and that good fences can make good neighbors, especially when other methods of managing cities have broken down.

Nevertheless, divisions breed the same problems as walled cities did long ago. They can also lead to a “siege mentality” and a “morbid insularity”. Medieval cities were ready to bankrupt themselves to get the latest fortifications (just as today’s Cypriots are ready to sacrifice economic advantage in order to avoid sharing a common space with the other.) These losses are difficult to quantify, partly because, in the short-term fever of conflict, the first thing everyone wants is security. Calame and Charlesworth believe, however, that “partition is not an effective long-term reply to discrimination and violence.” In Nicosia, “the Green Line has sealed an ethnic dispute in amber without providing an inroad to the root causes of conflict.” The authors show that in each city the loss of rent, urban blight, missed opportunities, duplication of urban services and psychological stress of unsolved tensions costs more than the short term fix for security fears. Popular sentiment often demands segregation, but it is contrary to a growing city’s economic interests. A lose-lose dialectic sets in, undermining the morale and professionalism of even the highest-minded urban planners and architects, let alone the partitionists who profit from the situation.

Many believe division is inevitable due to ethnicity, but the authors argue that this usually only comes into play when stirred up in defence of class privileges. In several cases, fences are put up to take economic advantage of a subgroup while denying it political or social rights. The earliest walled-off subdivision for workers, who were probably racially discriminated against, has been found in third-millennium BC Egypt. Venice formalized its prejudice against Jews with a first ghetto in 1515, even if it was done in the name of protecting them from hostility. In the Cypriot example, elements of such a situation can be seen in the 1963-74 period (when Turkish Cypriots were forced into ghettos or groups of villages and, as UN Secretary General U Thant put it, lived under a “veritable siege.”)

The greatest loss, Calame and Charlesworth say, is that “partitions also postpone or even preclude a negotiated settlement … because they create a climate of dampened violence” and then become “the emblem of threat as much as a bulwark against it.” As such, they are a self-fulfilling prophecy and a lazy substitute for equitable governance. The authors believe religious differences are just a symptom of underlying problems, not the cause. All five cities were “outwardly defined by conflict between rival religious communities” but “none reveals upon close inspection the skeleton of a theological or even ideological dispute.” The true suspects are usually economic strife or “sovereignty, political influence, territory, property, and opportunity.” The real origins of the dispute are lost to most local participants, and outside powers easily project their own interests into the conflict. In each case, politicians and militants learn to live off the culture of division — not to mention people who find unexpected meaning and self-esteem in the struggle — and it is the poorer or working classes who suffer most. The authors believe that dividing the political sphere into a rigid ethnic framework — a proclivity shared by Cyprus, Lebanon and Bosnia — is a major factor favouring and then reinforcing partition. And just removing physical elements of partition – as happened in Jerusalem in 1967, in Mostar in 1994 or in Nicosia in 2003 – has proved to do little to end divisions in politics, society or people’s minds.

Nicosia is not as grimly divided as other examples. The Nicosia Master Plan is admired, as are projects to fund walking paths and restore monuments in the old city. For years, both sides of the city have shared one joint sewage treatment plant, on the Turkish Cypriot side. (Indeed, the Greek Cypriot side, which needs much water, would do well to join up with the Turkish Cypriots to construct a water pipeline to the Turkish mainland.) Planners for future joint projects should to study the book’s section on “professional responses”. One section deals with nostalgic mistakes made in Mostar, where foreign funders preferred symbolic projects of reunification to ones that would actually have done good for people, or in Beirut, where one company controversially took over the whole ruined downtown. Still, Nicosia’s divisions remain. Over the many decades of partition, Cypriots’ old mutual tolerance and affinity have been badly damaged by outside manipulation, the confrontational insularity of education systems, and nationalist leaders. And as with all the other divided cities, both the Greek and Turkish Cypriot sectors are heading into what the authors call “regional cul-de-sacs.”

Even more compelling is the way the Divided Cities show that Nicosia, Jerusalem, Beirut, Mostar and Belfast are the unlucky vanguard of at least 13 other major cities identified by the authors as showing the symptoms of partition. Dividing walls may be short-sighted, but they are increasingly popular as the world becomes uneasy. Cincinnati, Kirkuk and Baghdad are already partway there. Singapore, Montreal, Kigali and even Washington D.C. are not far behind. The current reunification talks in Cyprus have the potential to show that, in at least one case, the trend to partition can be reversed. But do Cypriots really have the will to do so?

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