LYTHRAGOMI/BOLTASLI, Cyprus — Each Saturday, Trifonas Papayiannis makes a pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Virgin of Kanakaria, in the village of his birth. In the empty church, stripped bare of its decorations and mosaics, the Greek teacher lights a candle and says a prayer.
Afterward, in a nearby teahouse decorated with fading posters of Turkey, he has coffee with Soyloy Mexmet, the head of the Turkish community that now inhabits the village Papayiannis’s family fled after the island’s division in 1974.
It’s an unlikely friendship, built warily over the chasms of language, religion and Cyprus’ painful past. But its very existence is evidence of lingering hopes for peace — and the potential perils still standing in the way of a permanent solution to the Cyprus problem.
“I want reunification,” said Papayannis, shaking his head. “This will always be my home. But I don’t know if these talks will work,” he added, referring to the current round of talks between Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias and Turkish Cypriot leader Mehmet Ali Talat.
After nearly 35 years of separation and a long list of failed peace initiatives, Cypriots are growing increasingly doubtful that an agreement acceptable to both sides is possible. And Sunday’s parliamentary elections on the Turkish side could deal a severe blow to the talks.
Polls indicate that the opposition Nationalist Union Party (UBP), which is skeptical of reunification, is likely to win a majority. Talat, president of the self-declared Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, will remain in his position no matter the outcome of the elections. But a loss for his Republican Turkish Party would undermine his legitimacy in negotiations.
“Turkish Cypriots are increasing skeptical and this does help to some extent the fortunes of the opposition parties that are more nationalist,” said Erol Kaymak, chair of the international relations department at the Eastern Mediterranean University in the Turkish north.
“Assuming the opposition wins, they could presumably sabotage Talat. He’s the chief negotiator, but he has that position through the support of parliament.”
In April 2004, Greek Cypriots rejected a U.N.-brokered deal known as the Annan Plan in a referendum, but were allowed to join the European Union a few weeks later. For four years, the peace process was essentially frozen.
But the election by Greek Cypriots in February 2008 of Christofias, a communist and long-standing friend of Talat, breathed new life into hopes for a settlement. Since then, Cyprus has been inching toward a reunification plan, with the two leaders meeting on a regular basis.
Another pair of unlikely friends, Papayiannis and Mexmet, say they believe Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities can live together again in peace. Papayiannis dreams of reclaiming his family home, which is currently inhabited by settlers from Turkey. And Mexmet hopes reunification will boost the north’s ailing economy and give him the benefits of European Union citizenship.
But as Talat and Christofias have discovered in their negotiations, good will is not always enough.
One of the toughest questions is what to do about properties, such as Papayannis’ family house, which were abandoned after 1974 or during the years of inter-communal violence that preceded the island’s division. And questions linger too about whether and under what terms settlers from Turkey, such as Mexmet, would be allowed to stay in a reunified Cyprus.
Since 2003, it has been possible to travel between Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish sides. Each week, according to U.N. statistics, about 80,000 people cross the U.N.-administered “green line,” half traveling in each direction. Most Turkish Cypriots go to shop or to find work on the Greek side, while Greeks Cypriots like Papayannis often travel to visit their old homes.
But friendships like the one between Papayannis and Mexmet — built slowly over the years — are rare, especially among younger Cypriots reared on a history of mistrust and hatred.
A recent study by the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels co-authored by Kaymak showed that young people on both sides are less likely to vote for a reunification plan than their parents.
“I’m disappointed in the nationalism of many of the Greeks I meet — even the people on the left, like me, who say they believe in us living together,” Mexmet said.
But Papayiannis and Mexmet are trying to show their children that friendships can be built across Cyprus’ divides, even if a political solution seems distant.
“We are friends,” said Mexmet, patting Papayannis on the back.
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