Edward W Batchelder

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The Persistence of Memory

Something from Cyprus as I may divine:
It is a business of some heat:
—Cassio, Othello

Photo of oil drums blockading a street in Greek Nicosia

For anyone familiar with the imposing, concrete uniformity of the Berlin Wall in its heyday, the Green Line that bisects Cyprus's capital city of Nicosia will come as a bit of a disappointment. Where the Wall grew into a structure that often seemed more solid than the city it divided, the U.N.-patrolled partition has remained a decidedly haphazard affair—an alternating series of abandoned, bricked-up buildings and narrow streets blockaded by oil drums and barbed wire. With the restrictions on border crossing eased a year ago, even some of the guard towers have been abandoned. The whole business looks more dingy than dangerous, like a wall that time forgot.

As has become clear from the results of the referenda held on April 24, 2004, however, getting rid of it may be harder than anyone anticipated. After years of negotiations that ran aground on the obdurate refusal of Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Dentash to give an inch, the Greek Cypriots have suddenly discovered that they may be just as unwilling to leave their safe harbor. In retrospect, the partition’s flimsiness suggests one of the reasons for its permanence: the Green Line wasn’t reinforced because it didn’t need to be. Where the Berlin Wall marked the beginning of separate histories for East and West Germany, the Green Line traced a pre-existing division, underscoring the linguistic, religious, and cultural fault lines that first caused the nation to buckle into ethnic fighting in 1963, and to rupture entirely in 1974. At nearly thirty years and counting, the east-west partition that cuts a jagged line through Cyprus shows a staying power that the Berlin Wall could only dream of.

While there are innumerable explanations for the rejection of the Annan Plan by Greek Cypriots—ranging from irredeemable faults in the plan itself to tactical errors by its supporters—the psychic persistence of the partition was best explained to me by the Turkish Cypriot poet Neshe Yashin, a woman whose difficult migrations back and forth across the line make her something like the poet laureate of the reunification struggle. In an offhand comment a month before the referenda, Yashin drew unexpectedly on contemporary game theory to frame the Cyprus problem. Cypriots, she explained, were facing what is known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

photo of old woman atdemonstration against unification

In its usual formulation, the Prisoner’s Dilemma goes as follows—Two suspected criminals are held in separate cells and offered the same deal by police: If either of them turns in his accomplice, he’ll be set free, while the accomplice will serve a long jail sentence. This relatively straightforward proposition, however, is complicated by two conditions. The first is that, if both turn in the other, then both will be sent to jail, albeit for only a moderate length of time. The second condition is that, if neither turns in the other, then both will be set free after only minimal jail time.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a classic example of what is known as a non-zero-sum game—a situation where you win not by competing against the other person, but by cooperating with him. Clearly, the best thing for both prisoners is if each trusts the other, but this requires a high degree of honor among thieves, since the correspondingly worst-case scenario is to trust the other and to be betrayed.

The point here is not to posit the Greek and Turkish Cypriots as co-conspirators in a crime, nor to portray Kofi Annan and Alvaro DeSoto as running a good cop-bad cop routine on the island’s inhabitants (though there may be some truth to both of these inferences). Rather, it’s to stress that for all its thousands of pages of complex legal provisions, the fifth version of the Annan Plan inevitably left many crucial issues open. What faced Cypriots on April 24, according to Yashin’s model, was the question of how much they could trust the other side to operate in good faith to resolve them.

As was clear from the negotiations leading up to the referenda, both Cypriot president Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash were playing by zero-sum rules, where a win by either side necessitates a loss by the other—witness the lists both sides kept of how many of their demands (versus the demands of the other) were met. In fact, one sometimes suspected both leaders of far more complex strategies—Papadopoulos’s stolid participation suggested that he actually wanted to win as little as possible, thereby giving him the greatest number of reasons to come out against the plan, while the wily Denktash’s primary goal seemed less to achieve any specific demands than simply to maximum the distrust level on the Greek Cypriot side, virtually insuring they would vote down the plan. Yet even here, both were operating according to a zero-sum scenario, assuming that nothing could be gained through cooperation.

What’s most telling in Yashin’s choice of the Prisoner’s Dilemma scenario, however, is not the ethical quandary of the choice between mutual trust and naked self-interest, but the very ground rules of the game—the Prisoner’s Dilemma, after all, imagines that the suspects are held in separate rooms, with no chance of dialogue as they face their decisions. For all that Cyprus’s population is smaller than that of a mid-sized American city, this is to a large extent an accurate metaphor for the situation—for thirty years, there has been little significant contact between the two sides. The power struggles and violence of the sixties, followed by the Greek nationalist coup and Turkish invasion in the seventies, sowed the seeds of mistrust, and three decades of division have given them plenty of time to bloom.

Of course, for Yashin even to use game theory to explicate the Cyprus problem suggests that there are new models of thinking abroad, and this is particularly true given her own biography, which would seem to be tailor made for zero-sum thinking. Born in the south in 1959 in the mixed Turkish-Greek village of Peristerona, her family was forced to flee to the armed enclave of north Nicosia in the ethnic fighting of 1963. As Yashin herself admits, she grew up hating and fearing Greeks, but what changed her mind was the invasion of 1974. What for many Turkish Cypriots was a rescue operation was for Yashin a revelation. “I saw,” she says, “the victimization of Greek Cypriots, and that the Turkish could be victimizers, too.” Raised on poetry (her father, Oskar Yashin, in considered the national poet of Turkish Cyprus), she went on to write the simple but moving “Which Half”:

They say that people should love their homeland
That’s what my father often says
My homeland has been divided in two
Which of the two halves should I love?

Without her knowledge, the poem was translated into Greek and then set to music by Greek Cypriot composer Mario Tokas. Yet the separation between the island’s two communities was so rigorous that she only became aware of the song in 1991—twelve years after it was composed.
Still refusing to accept the dichotomies offered her by the political situation, she made it a point to cross the border as often as possible, sometimes legally as part of delegations, sometimes illegally with smugglers. She corresponded with Greek Cypriot writers (often through third parties in foreign countries, since both North and South disapproved of correspondence between the two halves), and gave poetry readings with them. She flew through Istanbul and Athens to Nicosia to give readings in the schools, where she realized she was the only Turkish Cypriot the children had met. Eventually, in the mid-nineties, she moved south permanently, announcing it publicly as a form of protest. Throughout this period she had been fired from jobs, accused of being a traitor, and at one point even arrested (a campaign by Amnesty International freed her within eighteen hours).

Yashin’s story would merely be one of those stirring cases of heroic individualism if she hadn’t been part of a much larger movement. Although attempts at communication across the ethnic divide had been going on since at least the mid-sixties, they coalesced seriously in the early nineties with the participation of Dr. Louise Diamond of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Multi-track Diplomacy. Working at first independently, then funded by the Fulbright Commission, Diamond began conflict resolution training with groups on both sides of the partition. When political circumstances permitted, the groups met in neutral locations in Cyprus and other countries, but when this was impossible, Diamond would still meet with them individually, carrying on a sort of shuttle diplomacy. The primary focus was to establish a framework in which the competing histories of the two communities could be dealt with—and steps could be taken toward a common understanding that gave justice to the claims of both sides.

Eventually, thousands of Cypriots had passed through these groups, and gone on to form other groups like the Bi-Communal Choir, the women’s group Hands Across the Divide, and Youth Encounters for Peace, among others. With opening of the border last year, this trend flowered into a wide range of bi-communal events: art shows, poetry readings, high school trips to the Troodos Mountains, a bi-communal rap CD, and even one philately exchange. Before the anti-Annan sentiment overwhelmed it, the movement to establish bi-communal connections was on a steady incline.

In retrospect, the effect of these groups is hard to assess. Clearly, they failed to affect the majority of citizens in the South, but at the same time, many of the strong supporters of the Annan Plan—in the political parties of AKEL and DISY in the South and Mehmet Talat’s party in the North—had passed through them.

Perhaps their influence is best gauged negatively. The vote in the Republic of Cyprus, broken down by region and age, shows that voters in the south and west of the island were more likely to vote no than voters in Nicosia, and younger voters were more negative than older voters. In other words, the greater the chance you actually knew a real existing Turkish Cypriot, the greater the chance you would vote for the Plan. If one extends the metaphor of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, these bi-communal groups may have at least succeeded in chiseling a few small holes in the wall—the Mauer im Kopf, as the Germans put it—that continues to separate the two communities.

Any discussion between Greek and Turkish Cypriots eventually bumps up against the fact that they have developed two separate histories—at times parallel, at other times mirror images of each other. While the Green Line has successfully prevented these two versions of reality from colliding violently, it’s also made it difficult for them to merge. Yet even the Annan Plan didn’t picture tearing it down. Rather, it was based on the hope that, if the two communities were linked, even loosely, the resulting communication would gradually erode it. This was, in any case, a frequent argument by the plan’s supporters in the South, and whether or not you voted for or against the Annan Plan seemed to depend to a large extent on the degree of faith you had in its premise.

photo of ruins by Green Line in Nicosia, Cyprus

Ultimately, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is not about altruism versus self-interest, but enlightened versus short-sighted self-interest. That the cautious optimism of these few groups about the future wasn’t able to overcome the deeply rooted pessimism of many others about the past doesn’t speak ill of anyone; it merely suggests that the wall that divides the two communities metaphorically still remains thicker than the partition that separates them physically.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from GreekWorks.com)

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