Fresh off the heels of the PeacePlayers Basketball Summer Camp, with a few more weeks of hot Cyprus summer weather, I found myself laying back on one of Cyprus’ many beautiful beaches. With just two more weeks before the school year begins and my life returns to a tornado of children and basketballs, all I want to do is sip on an ice cold orange juice and stare into the glistening blue sea. That’s when I hear the soft buzz of headline news coming from a television sitting in the corner of the nearby beach cafe.
“Members of the ‘Indignant’ protest group finally reached the Presidential Palace last night having traveled 300 kilometers in blazing temperatures to honor the 13 people killed in the July 11 blast,” says a local newscaster in a British accent. “The protesters demand that those responsible be brought to justice.”
While many tourists know Cyprus only as the quintessential resort island, where young men in press white slacks hand you a drinks with little umbrellas, this summer hasn’t exactly felt like a Pina Colada. For many of Cyprus’ 800,000 year round residents, the past months have been a tumultuous ride full of tragedy and rising political tensions.
Political tensions are nothing new in this part of the world, or anywhere else these days, but as Greece started its downward spiral towards bankruptcy last year, anxiety levels seemed to jump a notch. While Greece’s tailspin has not carried over into Cyprus’ economy yet, there are those that are worried. Even before the Greece catastrophe, Cyprus was headed in the same direction, with unemployment and public debt rising and municipalities around the island millions in the red.
Meanwhile on the northern side of Cyprus, Turkish-Cypriot demonstrations began in February, protesting against the new economic clampdowns by the Turkish Government. These protests, which have grown as large as 10,000 people, are calling for the removal of Turkey’s influence from Cyprus. The Turkish Government gives $400 million each year to support the Turkish-Cypriot economy, which is solely dependent on Turkey for all its trade. But Turkish-Cypriots are upset with the way Turkey then uses that money to effectively run north Cyprus as a puppet state, influencing politics, and taking control of government and private businesses at will.
“They take our money, and tell us to get lost,” said Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in response to these protests. “Who do you [Turkish Cypriots] think you are?”
Then in July, the leaders of both communities met in Geneva with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss the progress of the peace talks. And there is extra pressure this time as the United Nations wants both sides to resolve the outstanding issues in the next 12 months, before Cyprus assumes the EU’s rotating presidency in 2012. But while the clock is ticking, both sides seem to be standing still. And while the leaders continue operating on their own agendas, and public’s views are becoming ever more polarized.
At the same time the leaders were engaged in “negotiations,” the Greek-Cypriot government was signing a contract with Noble Energy, a Houston-based energy company, to explore natural gas reserves off the southeastern coast of Cyprus. Since Israel recently found massive amounts of offshore natural gas, Cyprus is hoping it can jump on the bandwagon. But Turkey, who has not agreed to the economic sea borders signed by Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, has termed the offshore gas exploration activities as “unlawful and in violation of international law.” The Turkish foreign ministry continued that Cyprus’ actions “would negatively affect the settlement of the Cyprus question and lead to new conflicts among the countries in the region.” The response from the Republic of Cyprus: we are following international law and nothing will stop our drilling.
If these political problems were a gas leak, then the spark came on the morning of July 11 when a fire ignited 100 containers holding confiscated Iranian explosives in southern Cyprus. The blast killed 12, injured 70, and knocked out the island’s biggest power plant. As a result, Cyprus has been experiencing massive black-outs on a daily basis, and is now also heading towards a severe water shortage as desalinization plants, which use tremendous amounts of energy, have been turned off. Many people, already frustrated by the worsening economy, blame the government for negligence, as reports come out that they were aware of the dangers of storing these weapons for years but did nothing about it. Shortly after the tragedy, the Presidential Cabinet resigned. Now, massive protests on the south rage through the streets as thousands bang on the doors of the presidential palace demanding President Christofias’ personal resignation.
Political tensions are nothing new for Cyprus. Since people first inhabited the island over 10,000 years ago, there has always been conflict as foreign armies continued to conquer and re-conquer Cyprus’ many precious assets. But today, with violence, war and disaster ravaging many parts of the region, Cyprus goes by relatively unnoticed. Nevertheless, there are those who work tirelessly towards a better and more peaceful future. Huge strides have been made, and I am proud to play my part with PeacePlayers. October 21 will be the next political milestone, when, if all sides have not come to some kind agreement, the UN will take over negotiations. As the clock ticks towards zero, lets hope that cooler heads prevail. With so much to gain from a peace agreement, perhaps we are closer than we think.