Deal or No Deal: Why Cyprus Remains Divided

30/07/2013 13:30 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 10:12 BST

Recently, Cyprus has appeared all over the news as the small island which holds the fate of the Eurozone. Stories of people's personal savings being raided by governments have been broadcast onto television screens across the globe. However, the issue which has affected the daily lives of the inhabitants of Cyprus for far longer has disappeared entirely from the global media's radar.

For more than 50 years, the island has been unsettled: with periods of violence in the past, there is a now a kind of 'frozen conflict'. The two main communities on the island live apart and a wall separates Greek Cypriots in the south from Turkish Cypriots in the north. Nicosia remains the only divided capital in the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since 2003, people have been able to cross through checkpoints to reach the other side, but strict restrictions apply. Shoppers stray across the divide, but it is rare to see a bi-communal group of people sitting in a café together.

There are rumours that forbidden romances are blossoming across the divide, but tragically these modern-day Romeo and Juliets barely ever marry. A large percentage of the youthful generation has never had any form of social relationship with someone from the other community.

A whole generation had little interest in communicating with people from the other side of the divide while growing up. Sadly, this means that mistrust between the two communities continues to grow as new generations replace the old. Some people in both communities work hard to build good relations, but they still remain a minority. The two communities are deeply divided about their past and there is much bitterness rooted in each community's social memory which has hardly been addressed.

All efforts to reach a settlement have collapsed to date. Clandestine negotiations in 2004 proved unsuccessful and later attempts led nowhere. As a result, public trust in the peace process has plummeted.

Why has so little progress been made in such a long time?

As with the banking crisis, the inhabitants, who are the most affected, feel that they are not consulted. Sadly, only 9-12% of people in both communities believe that their voices are heard by the policy makers who decide the fate of the island. 60-70% of people in both communities want a settlement to be reached, but only 15-20% think that this is likely. (UNDP-ACT, Cyprus 2015)

People have become frustrated and pessimistic about the future: there have been countless unsuccessful short-term projects and a range of high and low profile initiatives which were unable to address practical issues affecting the lives of ordinary people. Now, efforts to reach a settlement are mostly met with widespread apathy.

Why is this the case?

When negotiations are kept behind closed doors, the public has very little access to information about what goes on. Often, they are not given the time to adapt to circumstances and concessions. Nor they are offered a chance to express their voice. Often, although it is the people who ultimately make the peace, they are not made a part of the process. The result can be disheartening: after a long and difficult series of negotiations, the public may not support or adequately understand the agreement reached.

Inordinate stress is placed on senior political figures when asked to thrash out their countries' problems in a crucible of a negotiating room. A lot of this pressure could be relieved if this myth, that peace can only be negotiated, is dispelled. Peace is not made in these rooms, but on the streets by the people interacting every day. Although negotiations are crucial in reaching a political settlement, in reality, the fate of the island cannot rest solely on the overburdened shoulders of negotiators. The public need to be participants and not just spectators, so that they have a real stake in developing the peace process and making it work.

Hush-hush negotiations also provide the perfect environment for 'spoilers'- inaccurate rumours and conspiracy theories about the deals being made which sets the public against the peace process. By being transparent and setting up systematic consultation mechanisms at every stage of the process, this secretive atmosphere can be dispelled and people can begin to support the negotiators.

There is a wide belief that Civil Society involvement complicates peace processes which may be a valid argument in some cases. In the right environment however these can actually help the process by using their canvassing platforms to build public support for a settlement. They can also help politicians to develop a greater understanding of the public's wishes, which may be much more robust and supportive of concessions than politicians believe. This could help shift the focus of negotiations away from abstract power-sharing deals towards real, substantive measures which actually affect people's day-to-day lives.

Both communities will continue to share the island whatever the future brings, whether or not a settlement is reached. One way or another, they need to find a way of co-existence. Too many people are affected by the issue for the focus to be solely on reaching or rejecting one deal. Ordinary people must be brought into the equation early on if the people on the island are to find a way out of the current deadlock.

It is only by giving the islanders a voice in the process, that the inhabitants can help transform a settlement from a peace on paper into a peace in practice.

Yeshim Harris and Charles Trew

Engi Conflict Management

Engi is a social enterprise that focuses on the effective management of conflict, nationally and internationally.

Twitter: @engi_conflict

Facebook: Participatory Peacemaking Project Cyprus