Notes on a divided island

May 8, 1998

Developments in Northern Ireland have largely obscured a recent diplomatic setback for the Republic of Cyprus. Last month, Richard Holbrooke, the United States presidential emissary to Cyprus and the architect of the Bosnian Peace Accord, arrived on the island. His concern was the refusal of Northern Cyprus to resume peace talks while negotiations between the European Union and the Greek Cypriot Republic of Cyprus continue.

A few days later, he expressed exasperation with the Cyprus problem and threatened to withdraw his efforts to negotiate a settlement if both sides remained intransigent. Public condemnation of Holbrooke was swift and unanimous.

This reaction is understandable. The Turkish invasion 24 years ago is the latest tragedy in a history of dominant powers attacking, plundering, conquering and colonising an island whose geographic location is not conducive to security, but its bitter legacy is insecurity and voluble self-justification.

Throughout this troubled history Greek Cypriots have kept their culture and traditions alive, and increasingly education has played a major role. Greek Cypriot society has fought for survival not only against foreign oppression but often against the difficulty of making a living in a land which, despite its natural beauty, is hard and unforgiving. Education provided an escape route less drastic than emigration. The church, a powerful social force, encouraged study in Greece which reinforced nationalism and orthodoxy, and the offspring of the militant leftwing were subsidised to study in the eastern bloc before its disintegration, while study in Britain and the US has always been popular. But, irrespective of the destination, Cypriot parents have long struggled to provide education opportunities for their children.

As a result, the Republic of Cyprus has one of the highest numbers of graduates per head of population anywhere in the world, but to many in this small and divided island education is just another commodity. The same indomitable spirit which rebuilt a shattered society after 1974 now encourages its children to greater and sustained achievement by the acquisition of formal qualifications often to further the interests of the family. The fact is that the Cyprus problem and the latent insecurity it engenders permeates everything, and that includes education, which has become a way of upholding the status quo and thereby, ironically, standing in the way of objective and dispassionate debate. This is not to underestimate the efforts of educators and intellectuals within the society who strive to challenge perceptions in both communities which sustain and perpetuate conflict, but those who hold this view are a minority, and their efforts are often viewed with suspicion by everyone else.

At the apex is the University of Cyprus which finally opened in Nicosia in 1992. Its establishment had been long discussed and then delayed by the competing claims of Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

The university is still in an uneasily divided city. The insecurity to which it is subject, and the level of potential political involvement became very clear when the Greek prime minister was awarded an honorary degree. To mark the occasion the Greek flag was flown, but was removed after the ceremony. In the weeks that followed there was pressure from all parts of society, including students and academics, to return the flag as a potent symbol of the Hellenic national consciousness. Sentiments such as these fuel Turkish fear that Greek Cypriot accession to the EU will lead to a closer and more structured union with Greece. This issue was only resolved when the attorney general ordered that, as a state institution, the university should fly only the Cypriot flag except on special occasions.

Besides the university, Cyprus has a number of private tertiary institutions which were established to meet the growing demand for education before, and increasingly after, the 1974 invasion. These institutions, which teach in English and recruit internationally, have had an uneasy relationship with the government which has denied accredited status to the majority of their courses an action viewed by many as a move by the government to protect the university. But whatever the reason the ambitions of the private colleges have been frustrated and circumscribed. They wish to expand, prosper and have their status recognised; they do not wish to change the status quo. This is not to denigrate the intention behind seminars and conferences which are frequently organised to discuss issues such as peace keeping and conflict resolutions. But these occasions, which often provide a platform for usually sympathetic, foreign observers, are not incisive or inflammatory and given that the ideological underpinning of the society that the colleges serve remains nationalistic, it is hard to see that events could be otherwise.

The anniversary of the Turkish Cypriot declaration of the north as an independent state is energetically observed on both sides of the divide by school children and students who were not even born in 1974. The events of August 1996 when demonstrations resulted in the brutal and televised death of two Greek Cypriots has given a new intensity to these anniversaries. It is events such as these that exert influence over the young, and it must also be remembered that before even beginning their university education male students have already undergone 26 months of compulsory military training with the national guard. Furthermore because the division of the island is rigorously enforced by the Turkish administration, there are no opportunities for bicommunal cultural experiences and exchanges.

Apart from the EU accession debates, another issue has gripped the north west town of Polis. It was assumed that a recently revived ancient bishopric would be sited there, but the church has decided otherwise. The issues are convoluted, but attention has focused on land next to the church which is leased to a garage owner. The church has stressed its goodwill towards this individual by "being ready to compensate the pump owner even to paying for the education, up to a doctorate if necessary, for his son". This offer was rejected, but the fact that it was put forward as compensation shows how education is still regarded in many parts of an island where there is considerable dedication to the pursuit of qualifications. Cyprus is a small divided island and the republic is determined to uphold its cultural heritage, but for the next generation reconciliation and tolerance should be allowed to play their part, and education should be part of the process.

Kate Hughes lectures at Kent Institute of Art and Design at Canterbury.

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