Stand-off on the Green Line: Frustration is mounting on both sides of Cyprus's frontier, writes Nicholas Bethell

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TODAY, as the Commonwealth heads of government assemble, the Queen will land at Larnaca airport and transfer to the Royal yacht in Limassol harbour. It is the first visit to Cyprus by an English monarch since Richard the Lionheart was there in 1191. Cypriots recall ruefully what happened on thatoccasion.

The people of the island, then under Byzantine rule, had treated Richard I's intended wife, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, disrespectfully. To teach them a lesson, he conquered Cyprus, married Berengaria in Limassol and sold the island to the Knights Templars. Then, when the Knights did not pay him, he gave Cyprus to the former King of Jerusalem.

There are many in Cyprus now, as I discovered there a few days ago, who claim that the British Crown is treating the people of the island in the same cavalier fashion today. After many visits there over several decades, I had never before encountered such anger and frustration, on both sides of the Green Line.

The Line is perhaps the most impenetrable frontier in the world. Foreigners can cross it with great difficulty, Cypriots hardly at all. The Greek city of Varosha, next to Famagusta, has been empty of people for 19 years, sealed off by the Turkish army. Last month I was possibly one of the first British people to see it since 1974. It looked like the world might look if ever there were an exchange of neutron bombs.

It is full of snakes and mosquitoes, and probably of ghosts. The brightest signs of life are the red bougainvillaea, which luxuriates like clumps of triffids, and the acacia, which grows across the streets and forced our jeep to zig-zag on what remains of the tarmac. Advertisements and commercial signs remain, in Greek and English, showing that this was once a tourist centre, but there is nothing in the houses, no furniture or even plumbing. The Greeks left in a hurry in August 1974 and the Turkish army took what they left behind.

On Saturday there will be a cocktail party five miles south of this unbelievable ghost town, in the officers' mess at the British base in Dhekelia, for leading Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot business people, hosted by the Queen.

It is not only the centuries-old enmity between Turks and Greeks, culminating in the 1974 war in which several hundred of the former and more than 5,000 of the latter were killed, that has put the island into this dark humour. It is also a feeling on the part of both communities that all Cyprus, like the city of Varosha, is being left to rot, to gather dust in the 'too difficult' drawer. The problem has been on the back burner for so long that it seems about to fall off the cooker.

Other occupied countries, it is being said, receive urgent attention from the United Nations, the United States and the European Community. But mainland Turkey, its leaders and its settlers, have been allowed not only to stay put for 19 years, but also to turn the north of the island into a Turkish province. The Turkish lira is the only money in circulation. There is no immigration control over people coming from the mainland. Turks are arriving in large numbers and the chances of the area being converted back into part of a Cyprus federal state are becoming increasingly remote.

This is why the Greek-Cypriot 'rejectionists' are now a driving force in President Glafcos Clerides' entourage in the Republic of Cyprus and why the extremists - anti-British and pro-Serb, revering the memory of the EOKA fighters who killed so many Turkish, British and Greek people in the Fifties and Sixties - are so well represented in the argument, as one sees from the strident tone of much of the Greek-language press.

We British guaranteed Cyprus's constitution and integrity in 1960, they say, yet we have done nothing to remove the 30,000 Turkish troops who have been in northern Cyprus illegally since 1974. Many complicated problems, they add, will be pressed this week by Britain and possibly resolved by the Commonwealth prime ministers, but Cyprus will not be one of them.

Meanwhile, we British continue to buy from Turkish occupiers oranges grown in orchards that belong to Greek-Cypriots. We pay money to Asil Nadir to stay in the Greek-Cypriot hotels he has taken over. And we allow Turkish citizens flying from northern Cyprus to enter Britain without visas.

They recall that Turkey has violated many United Nations resolutions on Cyprus and they ask the Western world why, if we have any sense of honour or consistency, we do not assemble our armies and drive the Turkish soldiers back to Anatolia with the same vigour we used to drive Saddam Hussein's men out of Kuwait.

I chaira committee known as Friends of Cyprus, which contains 19 MPs of all parties. We were once denounced by the Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash as 'a gang of notorious philhellenes'. Yet I found myself on this occasion being attacked by Greek 'patriots' as a hypocritical Englishman whose only concern is to preserve our British bases, with no concern for the obscenity of the miles of Turkish barbed wire and watch-towers that divide the island. We used to condemn the Berlin Wall. Why do we now tolerate the Green Line?

Turkish-Cypriots are unhappy, too. Opposition leaders Mustafa Akinci and Oskar Ozgur told me that 'Prime Minister' Dervish Eroglu is bringing many thousands of Turks from Anatolia on the mainland into Cyprus and issuing them with immediate citizenship, safe in the knowledge that they will then vote for him in the 28 November elections. They estimate that the number of settlers from Turkey is now 90,000. The whole demography of the island has been changed. Mr Denktash told me that even he is upset about it.

Meanwhile, the real Turkish-Cypriots, being better educated, are leaving for better lives in Australia, Canada and Britain. Their numbers are thus reduced from 120,000 in 1974 to about 100,000 now and they will soon be a minority in their own community.

The day after tomorrow Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, will give a lunch for President Clerides and Mr Denktash at the Ledra Palace Hotel in Nicosia, which stands astride the Green Line. After lunch the UN negotiator will take the two leaders away to discuss a settlement.

He will propose the return of Varosha to the Greek side and the reopening of Nicosia airport. He will suggest moving the Green Line a few miles north, giving the Greek-Cypriot side a little more of the territory. He will propose self-government for the two parts of Cyprus, with a weak central administration to deal with foreign policy and finance. Compensation would have to be found for the refugees from both sides who do not want to live on the 'wrong' side of the Line. Most Turkish settlers will be 'induced' to go back to Turkey.

The Greek side will be told that this is the best they can hope for, that if they reject it the north will inexorably be absorbed into Turkey. Mr Clerides will be asked to do what Yasser Arafat has just done - accept a compromise which he considers unjust - since there is no prospect of anything better.

Many Greek-Cypriots do not want him to do it. They want to die on their feet, they told me, rather than live on their knees. They would rather wait and pray for a miracle, for some thunderbolt to strike Turkey and persuade it to withdraw its troops. They will be looking askance this week at the Queen and her ministers, who have come to Cyprus with no clear idea of how the island's problems can be solved.

Lord Bethell is MEP for London North West.

(Photograph omitted)